Why it’s Time to Cancel the Edinburgh Festival

By Ashley Graczyk, an independent City of Edinburgh Councillor for Sighthill-Gorgie.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Scotland, across Europe and the world, I believe we should now cancel all Edinburgh Festival events scheduled for 2020, including the Fringe and International Festival. The Scottish Government has already advised that all mass gatherings over 500 people should be cancelled. We cannot, in all conscience, plan for a petri dish of performances with thousands of people in close contact on an hourly basis in four and a half months’ time.

Euro 2020 will be postponed or cancelled altogether. As we know, the Edinburgh Festivals, with their 4 million plus visitors, are in third place globally after the World Cup and Olympic Games in terms of visitor numbers. It is totally irresponsible to continue to plan for a mass influx of millions of people from all over the globe in the current conditions.

This is the time of year when performers and visitors start planning their trip and spending money on what for many is a substantial financial outlay. As well as being the only feasible decision to protect the health of our citizens, it is the most responsible way to prepare visitors for the inevitable disappointment of cancelled trips.

Assuming we avoid a mass outbreak akin to Italy, scientific estimates put the virus peak in June with significant numbers of cases through the summer and autumn. That’s IF containment measures are effective and IF we are successful in ‘flattening the curve’ and delaying the spread of the disease. Any introduction of additional risk factors during this period – such as the influx of millions of potentially contagious visitors – is simply unthinkable, and would inevitably lead to a second wave of cases. We cannot add any additional burden to our NHS which must focus on saving lives.

Beyond the immediate health danger, the cancellation of the festivals will offer the city itself some breathing space, and an opportunity to reflect. It is abundantly clear that Edinburgh is now suffering the multiple consequences of overtourism. Many locals feel that the city they love is being unsustainably exploited for commercial gain. Consequences include environmental damage, public service overload, especially transport services, and the hollowing out of communities, in particular in the Old Town, which local residents feel is becoming unliveable.

We must consider alternative options. These may include the dramatic remodelling of an international event that is in effect the victim of its own success. The Olympic Games and World Cup happen once every 4 years. We could certainly consider this level of frequency for the Festival. At most, we should plan for a biennial event. However frequent, we also have to do a much better job of mitigating the significant environmental impact, since we find ourselves in a climate emergency.

In these worrying and stressful times, it is clear just how unimportant economic growth models are when the safety and wellbeing of our families and communities are threatened. This crisis has already caused us to reconsider our immediate daily priorities. I sincerely hope that a further benefit will be the realignment of our city-wide priorities to ensure we have a city that is once again safe, sustainable and worthy of the fantastic citizens it serves.

Comments (29)

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  1. Bill says:

    What a good idea. Based on sound evidence. Edinburgh without the Festival may well become a place worth visiting. Over the past few years the event has grown beyond a safe sustainable level. To have it every other year would improve the general quality of the Fringe and other activities. Hope that it comes about.

  2. Bruce McQuillan says:

    Its incredible that the organisers of the festival display such incredible indifference to the people of Edinburgh and their safety risking the efficacy of the entire country’s collective effort to contain this virus and save lives.

    We need a hall of shame to permanently remind us of the business owners and organisations that have continually put money ahead of people’s lives: the IOC, Coylumbridge Hotel, the Festival Fringe, Budgeons, Jhoots Chemists et al should be personally barred from any government bailouts and the money should be spent on the staff.

  3. Mairianna Clyde says:

    Well said Ashley. I’m amazed that some people think we can return to normal in a matter of weeks. This is a war and it won’t be over for at least two years and the fall out even longer. It is a time to rethink our priorities and how we have been living our lives and distributing our resources.

  4. Grouser says:

    It never crossed my mind that the Edinburgh Festival would go ahead. I just assumed it was cancelled. The same with the Olympics. These irresponsible people should forcibly isolated for the protection of the rest of us.

  5. Ann Rayner says:

    I agree too, Ashley, both for the sake of not spreading the virus but also because it has really got unsupportable and bad for the citizens of Edinburgh, who are denied access to our city’s public spaces for commercial gain which does not benefit the residents at all.
    Perhaps every two years might work but I think it has to be scaled down as well, made less commercialised and with more local, Scottish events. I know it was originally designed to be International and remember with great pleasure the world wide theatre, opera and ballet companies as well as amazing orchestras, but we also need to get more Scottish events in the Fringe which is currently dominated by ‘metropolitan’ stand up comedians trying to be spotted by London promotors. I think they could do that somewhere else for the benefit of everyone. We need also to rethink the ‘Winter Festivals’ as they have many of the same problems.
    I would like to see a slogan for the Festival and Fringe, a bit like the one used by the Museum of Scotland when it opened ‘The world to Scotland and Scotland to the world’. So we could have the benefit of international artists coming to Edinburgh but also show the world our culture, music, art and drama rather than things which are neither.
    We could do worse than bring back performances of ‘The Thrie Estates’ and perhaps more events concerned with our history, possibly more of the kind of dramatisations done by Historic Scotland at the actual sites connected with the historical events. I would even suggest having the Tattoo at a different time of year to cut down on the numbers of visitors here all at the one time.

  6. Mary McCabe says:

    I agree that this year’s Festival should be cancelled – I don’t see how they can possibly hope to stage it.
    However we definitely shouldn’t drop it forever, or even scale it back. It’s massively important for Scotland as a whole – it puts Scotland on the map in a permanent way.
    When I was young Scotland depended on heavy industry in the central belt and fishing and farming in the north. Tourism was restricted to a few hikers who didn’t mind the weather. The main sign of individual success was emigration. The outside world had never heard of Scotland or thought it was a fringe area within England.
    They closed down the heavy industry and decommissioned the fishing boats. Oil was discovered but those governing us from outside siphoned all the profits outside the country.
    Unless we gain political independence the same looks like happening with the profits from the highly promising Renewables industry.
    And as long as we stay within the constitution and established protocol there is absolutely no roadmap to political independence.
    However even without political independence the indyref drew the attention of the world to Scotland and drew the tourists to our border. They don’t come for the weather; they come in spite of it. They come for the beautiful landscape. They come for cultural events such as the Edinburgh Festival. OK – it would be better if there was something Scottish about it; if there had even once been a Director who had an interest in Scotland.
    But the Fringe has some homegrown stuff. And between them they put Scotland on the map.
    We really really need our International tourists. And our immigrants. We need to have something special to attract the world. What we have now was hard fought for and is easily lost. Don’t risk a return to plummeting population and mass emigration.

    1. Bill says:

      In an independent Scotland we could take the sort of decisions that would support our culture and develop the type of society we would like. Which need not include people who would only see the Festival and the Fringe as a source of revenue which does not benefit Scotland or Edinburgh.

      Cancel this year’s now – make it a biennial event and increase the Scottish input. Use the National Theatre of Scotland much more – and the SNO – and Scottish Opera etc.

  7. Liz Summerfield says:

    I see from media reports that the big promoters – Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly et al are advertising ticket sales already. NONE of these companies are locally based, so their profits do nothing for the local economy. They have all been instrumental in turning what used to be an exciting, innovative arts extravaganza into a money-making machine for commercial interests, charging a fortune for tickets and ripping off performers and arts companies who barely cover their inflated expenses for the sake of the kudos of getting a good review. I’ve worked in the arts all my life, but it breaks my heart to see what the fringe has become, and I would be delighted if the big promoters’ activities were curtailed.

    1. Bill says:

      With you Liz

  8. John McLeod says:

    Completely agree that it the Festival needs to be suspended for a year. However, I think that turning it into a biannual event would lose the momentum and international profile that has been built up over the years. Surely it is within the powers of Edinburgh Council to restrict the number of events and visotors that attend each year. Don’t events and apartment rentals need to be licenced? There are also other creative solutions. I live in Dundee. There are several nice theatres and exhibition spaces within easy walking distance of the railway station. Also many hotels (that don’t charge Edinburgh prices) and a wide range of restaurants. If Scotrail could be persuaded to run a reasonably priced shuttle service every hour during the Festival period, Dundee could easily be a supplementary Festival site.

    1. Bill says:

      John the track record of Edinburgh Council in the area of control is abysmal. They have sold off the public spaces for a mess of potage. Witness the destruction of the gardens round the Scott monument for the Christmas market and the fences round the Ross bandstand as examples. Never mind the AirBnB and the fact that few people now live in the centre, and the building of the monstrosity at Waterloo Place – ‘the Golden Turd’. Looking back, all of the poorest architecture was Council or government controlled.

      The council are not to be trusted and the idea of a biennial or triennial festival could well be the solution to the problems

      1. John McLeod says:

        Everyone (apart from, apparently, Edinburgh council) understands and appreciates the problems being experienced by people who live and work in Edinburgh. Almost everyone in Scotland visits Edinburgh at least once a year. We can see what is happening. Its like other wonderful cities such as Amsterdam and Bercelona – just too many tourists. At the same time, the various Edinburgh Festivals represent a huge cultural and economic asset for Scotland, in so many ways. Surely it does not make any sense to just give that away. In my previous post, I suggested taking the pressure off Edinburgh by locating part of the festival in Dundee. No doubt there are other solutions. Maybe this is something for the Scpttish Parliament as a whole to look at, if Edinburgh Council are not capable of dealing with it. We are hugely fortunate in Scotland in having two world cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow. The decisions made by leaders in these cities have implications for us all.

  9. florian albert says:

    It is very difficult to mount an argument against Ashley Graczyk’s proposal. However, the festival is only part of a wider problem which has been discussed in a number of articles in Bella Caledonia. This wider problem is Edinburgh’s over-reliance of the tourist industry. Everybody living in the city in recent decades is aware of this.
    When the present crisis ends, the problem may – in part – solve itself. There may well be a reluctance to visit cities where large crowds of tourists – and their viruses – mingle. The immediate result would be a severe hit to the city’s economy; not a welcome prospect.
    One of the reasons for the recent growth in tourism is to fill the gap left by the contraction of the financial services sector post 2008. If tourism also contracts, what will fill the void ?

    1. Marga says:

      Seems the “heavy guns” and international backers have settled in to feed off a reputation for local excellence long stifled by global bloodsuckers. Why not give each second year a real local flavour, with room to innovate which would soon feed back into the main events? Heavy pruning of existing contracts of course essential too.

  10. David says:

    Maybe it is just another version of the who foots the bill game of chicken that has to be played in the financially driven Tory la la land that we live in. Perhaps we have to wait until July for the PM to advise people not to go to the festival and then wait another week for him to issue instructions for it to be cancelled.

  11. Jo says:

    It is madness. It should be cancelled already. Same with the Olympic Games.

    I read yesterday that the management of TRNSMT insist their festival is going ahead in Glasgow in July! How are they in a position to make such statements?

    1. Dave says:

      Complety agree.
      The Premiership should also be cancelled depriving Liverpool of the title BUT Leeds should be promoted
      All settled

  12. Jj says:

    Don’t duel standard over 500 gatherings banned so should everything, no matter how long it’s been going on

  13. Ralph MacGillivray says:

    It’s four months away. Edinburgh has already lost this year’s Science Festival, Trad Fest and Film Festival. I’m not optimistic about the Jazz Festival going ahead either.
    I agree it’s unlikely the EIFF or Fringe will proceed in it’s usual manner but are you also proposing to cancel the Military Tattoo on the same grounds? As a Councillor you will be aware of the annual £2 million cost to the Council of suspending parking and diverting traffic to fill the Old Town with coaches for three weeks. I do hope you are supporting an end to this practice too and not just taking a potshot at those events you dislike. What of the Book Festival? Is that up for cancellation?
    There’s much in your article that does not relate to the Coronavirus Epidemic and I don’t feel it’s appropriate to use this as a smokescreen for pursuing your own agenda?

    1. Hi Ralph, I dont think you’ve really got your head around what’s going on or the scale of the crisis we face.

      1. Ralph MacGillivray says:

        I know enough about it to not need patronised by you thank you very much. It’s an ill considered article from someone who has had the Festivals in her sights for some time now

    2. Bruce McQuillan says:

      I think when the WHO is suggesting a worst case scenario of between 70,000,000 and 280,000,000 dead: more than have died in all the wars in human history combined, it is unlikely that in 20 years historians will be dwelling on the merits of shutting down the fringe or indeed the book festival.

      1. Ralph MacGillivray says:

        I totally agree but then I didn’t write the article

  14. Hanky Panky says:

    It will be cancelled but nobody wants the blame. Eventually Big Bad Boris will make the call.

  15. Pamela says:

    It should be cancelled this year as there are so many elderly people attended as well to be fair it’s not the right thing to do right now it’s a shame but we have to be so careful.

    1. Ralph MacGillivray says:

      To clarify things I believe there will come a point when the decision to cancel or not will become imperative. I don’t believe that point has yet been reached. W ehave already seen the loss of the Science Festival, the Film Festival and Trad Fest. At the moment there has been no announcement from the Jazz Festival but I am not optimistic.
      I feel however it is important that we separate the case for cancelling the Festivals on the grounds of safety from arguments relating to other agendas which the author of this piece clearly has. I am not a wholehearted defender of the Fringe, I think the relentless greed of Edinburgh University is certainly a factor in some of the problems we face. The University is a registered charity which is meant to be part of our community. It seems to enjoy an unopposed ride into causing many of the issues that face our community. This I feel needs to be investigated. It is unbelievable that the University makes statements about not profiting from the Festival and they go unchallenged.
      The Military Tatto is another event which needs to be looked at. The Council spends £2 million every year suspending parking and diverting traffic to allow an influx of coaches to the heart of the city. No other event would be allowed to do this and it surely flies in the face of all the other policies relating to traffic in the city centre. It is high time this was stopped. The practice of bussing people in to the Tattoo and bussing them out again is hardly of benefit to local businesses. These high rise coaches end to end in some of the busiest parts of the city at Festival time need to end
      But we do need to consider the benefits of our Festivals too. Trad Fest aims to celebrate Scottish culture and give s a platform to many Scottish performers. The Jazz Festival gives work to over 500 Scottish musicians every year and now runs community music academies in the St Brides Centre as well as the recent Jazz and Blues Weekends which featured Scottish talent. I have just received an EMail from the Queens Hall regarding their precarious financial position. The cancellation of the Festivals will further impact on them and this in turn could jeopardise the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who call the Queens Hall their home. Leith Theatre benefits hugely from the financial shot in the arm of being a Festival venue and is a vital community asset all the year round.
      So yes if the Festivals must be cancelled on the grounds of our health and safety so be it. Let’s not use this sad time as an excuse to promote other agendas and let’s be fully aware of the benefits the Festivals do bring to our communities throughout the year and be supportive of the many who do genuinely contribute to our community by their participation

      1. Thanks Ralph. You are right that people should separate their issues with the festival with their arguments about appropriate responses to coronavirus. However the slowness of the festival organisers mirrors the slowness of them to respond to criticism over years and the inability to conceive of a city massively over-reliant on tourists is also a art of this equation.

        I find it inconceivable that these events will go ahead in August. If I am wrong then I’ll be delighted because we will have made a miraculous and sudden recovery from this pandemic.

  16. Dick nixon says:

    It seems like a case of the organisers wanting to put their tradition ahead of public health.
    The Olympics, Euro 2020 and various other international events have been cancelled, and yet the tattoo organisers think that everything will be back to normal by August. It won’t.
    This years event should be cancelled. The organisers should show a bit of intelligence and cancel it of their own accord before they are forced to do so.

  17. James Larkin says:

    Yet another councillor shamelessly using the COVID-19 situation to bolster their own ill-thought-out agenda.
    Ashley sounds like a typical tunnel vision socialist playing the blame game.
    Her comments are neither team-spirited nor even useful in a time when everyone needs to pull together to limit the damage to the local people and economy.

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