Another Soarway Success for the Festival

As punters nurse sore heads and a few companies count their profits, the Edinburgh Festival comes to a close, and surprise surprise it’s been a huge success. How do we know? Because it never is anything but a huge success!

Phil Miller writes in the Herald: “The world’s biggest arts festival continues to get bigger. Edinburgh‘s Festival Fringe, which came to a close yesterday, has reported another record tickets haul, with more than 2.8m …the increase, signalling ongoing trend of expansion and setting the festival on course for 3m tickets in 2019, represents a rise of 5% on last years figure at the same time, and is reflected in successful ticket figures of the major venues throughout the city.”

“Yesterday afternoon, with hundreds of performances still to take place, the Fringe estimated that 2,838,839 tickets had been issued. Last year, the figure at the same time was 2,696,884, and marks a rise in 1m in seven years.”

Over at the Scotsman Brian Ferguson writes: “The Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s official audience has grown by almost a million in under a decade after organisers announced another record-breaking year. Organisers of the event, which recorded its best-ever box office returns for the sixth year in a row, with 2,838,839 tickets issued.”

So it’s getting bigger, as it always does, and the plan is for it to get bigger (and bigger).

What will be done about any of the impact of the Festival on the wider city as part of the wider phenomenon of Over Tourism we raised at the beginning of the festival?

Absolutely nothing.

We know this because even the mildest criticisms of the festival are met with incredulity, hyper-defensiveness or outright hostility.

City growth and ‘cultural growth’ are hard-wired into Edinburgh strategy, they’re not some kind of natural phenomenon or inevitable consequence of Edinburgh’s loveliness.

The people that have the power and the money have no accountability and no incentive to change anything.

The highly ameliorative changes that have been suggested – the tourist tax (or Transient Visitor Levy as the jargon goes) – will do little to change that trajectory.

Writing in the Guardian, Severin Carrell quotes the famously philanthropic Etonians Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood backing the idea of a tourist tax:

“Influential promoters such as the Underbelly said they could support a so-called bed tax being considered by Edinburgh council as long as its proceeds directly funded the city’s arts and tourism industries.”

“Underbelly and other fringe organisations said there must be full transparency about where and how a bed tax was used, and assurances it was not to offset government cuts.”

My understanding of the tourist tax is that it would be used to offset the impact of the festival – not that it would be funnelled back into companies like Underbelly. For them to be calling for ‘transparency’ beggars belief.

The primary issue is about how over-tourism distorts the housing market and shapes the planning strategy of the entire city, so that it is designed with the interests of visitors not residents. This has been witnessed for a long time but is probably becoming a source of more anger as the crisis of affordable housing hits home.

But there are other issues.

Festival Futures

I laid out Ten Ways to Save Edinburgh from the Edinburgh Festival here. It was considered by some to be incredibly over the top and dubbed as ‘clickbait’, like I was some enrage nutter shouting from the cheap seats.

Yes issues such as why the festival is timed to coincide with the English school holidays not the Scottish ones were explored way back in 2015 by Tommy Sheppard MP.  Sheppard then argued:

“My contention would be that the biggest growth in ticket sales is in the local market. If a higher proportion of our expanding numbers are locals we should be more mindful of things like school holiday dates. We need to understand what’s going to have a major effect on the ability of locals to see shows.”

“Mr Sheppard, one of the most influential figures on the Fringe for the last two decades, was speaking at the annual meeting of the Fringe Society, from which he has just stepped down as a director. Mr Sheppard said there was a danger of the Fringe becoming a “cultural playground” from which “poor people” were excluded unless action was taken over the high cost of taking part in the festival. He has also called for an overhaul of the public funding of the various summer festivals in Edinburgh – just months after an official report warned they faced losing their “premier division status” if levels of backing cannot be maintained. He suggested the Fringe create an accommodation agency to tackle the soaring costs of staying in the city in August, rather than leave it to the “chaos” of the open market.”

On the accusation of cultural elitism, the complaint was supported by the warnings of none other than Shona McCarthy chief executive of the Fringe Society, who said the Fringe needed to “constantly” question whether it lived up to its long-standing mantra of being a completely open access event.

McCarthy described Edinburgh in August as “the world’s biggest, collective manifestation of how art is political” and “a deep, creative delve into the burning issues of our time”. But she said poor representation of actors, writers, directors, producers and critics from working-class backgrounds was creating a “distorted reflection of the world we live in”.

Whatever your view of the issues at stake: cultural , political, civic, the idea that you can measure success just by cramming more and more people into a finite city space endlessly seems worthy of a Fringe First or a Best One Liner of the festival.



Image credit: photo by Jakob from Pexels



Comments (8)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    Infinite growth expected in a finite space, the parallel to infinite growth on a finite planet.
    Sounds like someone is infected with neo-liberalism.
    Edinburgh, like most cities, is going to be an unhealthy place when the collapse comes. At least then the festival will be free.

  2. Darby O'Gill says:

    Thank goodness its finally over and I can leave the house again. As a lifelong citizen of Edinburgh I managed to avoid going to any events, doing reviews or even visiting the City Centre for the first time in my life. What was once a source of great pride has become an engorged carnival that can only self-destruct if it continues to increase exponentially.

  3. Roland Stiven says:

    This point….’The primary issue is about how over-tourism distorts the housing market and shapes the planning strategy of the entire city, so that it is designed with the interests of visitors not residents. ‘ can be equally applied to The Highlands, the islands and Argyll and it is pervasive and insidious. Even the poor infrastructure – roads, ferries, parking, train times, public toilets is seen primarily as a problem for tourists not for the people who live there day in day out trying to make a living. The mindset frames all policy discussions. I’ve always assumed it was because the policy makers were metropolitan but if it applies to the city too perhaps it’s something else?

  4. Mathew says:

    Off topic but a report has just come out that says customers of UK supermarkets wil have to pay more after crops failed due to the hot and dry summer – £7 per household per month. It’s the first time I’ve seen a direct link from a climate change event to price rises in the UK and is proof that climate change will hit the poor hardest.
    And in Puerto Rico the death toll from Hurricane Maria has been revised upwards just a bit from 64 to 2,975!

    1. Roland Stiven says:

      But food prices have always fluctuated relative to the success or otherwise of the growing season since time immemorial!

      1. Mathew says:

        Climate change means a lot less success and a lot more otherwise.
        (i’m trying to be more Timothy Morton/Zen/gentle about this but that’s the best i can do)

    2. Jim Bennett says:

      Well, that’ll put the price of the advocado toast for festoval goers up then”

  5. mince'n'tatties says:

    As a multi generational family we attended the Inverleith Park based ‘Foodies Festival’. And yes, it was far more Carnival than Festival, in the sense that there was zero community feel.
    But how could there be, surrounded as you are by Fettes College and its 12ft sharpened spikes and Georgian Homes, bawlin ‘out their wealth? Hey, you must throw in the sum total of nothing in the areas terms of interest.
    For all that, the happy faces and I will use the word ‘joy’ around the event was uplifting. Smiles and laughter. Food can and does liberate.
    Children playing more than three feet away from normally anxious parents and booze treated as no more than light social liberation, a nice vibe.
    The positives of total strangers gathering together and distilling the best of human nature into one day was my takeaway [pun intended] thought .
    You’ll gather I think it was fun; it was and then some; the stick in the craw, no surprise was the VIP section.
    Why the deliberate VIP’ing in the middle of the hoi polloi?
    Spoiled nothing for the happy majority. My daughter told me to laugh it off.
    Clearly I haven’t.
    Oh and the cost was neither here nor there.
    It’s a social irritant at so many so called social events.

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