It’s difficult to see the way forward from the eye of the storm. But as the coronavirus lockdown continues, some community leaders are beginning to articulate the areas in which The Great Pause might be used to imagine how we can rebuild a better society afterwards.
One person with their eye on this long game is Fergus Linehan, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, who recently told the Scotsman’s esteemed theatre critic Joyce McMillan:
“Over the last 30 years or so… the arts (have been) framed as part of a wider economic regeneration agenda that’s all about tourism and never-ending growth. But now… we’re recognising that old approach is no longer sustainable either environmentally, or in terms of the real value of the arts, which are so much more than just a branding exercise.”
Linehan went on to say that the cancellation of the Edinburgh Festival this year offered an opportunity to reimagine the city’s August celebration in a positive fashion, one that might address many of the criticisms thrown at it in recent years. The Scottish capital is regularly listed alongside Venice and Barcelona as epicentres of overtourism in Europe. The halt to global travel the Coronavirus crisis has brought offers a chance for everyone, from tourists to governments, airlines to local authorities, to re-examine their engagement with the industry.
Staged in 1947, the inaugural Edinburgh Festival was billed as providing a post-war “platform for the flowering of the human spirit,” a healing, international programme of high-cultural music and theatre. Despite the best intentions, many working-class community theatre groups of the time saw this festival as a vehicle for the establishment. Eight of them – many with expressly socialist origins – travelled to the city to stage a series of "fringe" theatre events, with the intention of helping the working classes to be seen and heard.
The two festivals have since flourished in increasingly easy symbiosis: the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival as a curated programme of high-end international dance, theatre, opera and music events; the Fringe as a grassroots slew of open-invitation work incorporating everything from experimental theatre to big-name comedy to eager student and amateur dramatics companies.
The Fringe Society itself isn’t a corporate entity that decides who can perform in Edinburgh in August. It’s a membership organisation that facilitates open access to all who have a show and a venue to perform it in, from high-end professional theatres to blacked-out church halls and hotel conference rooms.
In recent years, however, the Fringe in particular has become a slave to its own success. It should be an egalitarian platform that transforms the centre of a scenic city into a giant urban arts quarter for three weeks. But over time, it’s become obsessed with growth, with the numbers inevitably forming the centrepiece of all closing weekend reporting. Those numbers paint a stark picture of how quickly things have changed. In 2010, 1.95 million tickets were sold for 2,453 shows. By last year, it was 3 million tickets for 3,800 shows.
The extent to which locals now disapprove of the Edinburgh Festival can be overstated. Some 56% of attendees come from Scotland, and in 2018, 72% of residents said the festival made the city a better place to live (down from 78% two years previous, but still a healthy majority). Yet the cultural wealth of an August in Edinburgh now comes with all the problems over overtourism, not least the negative environmental impact of all the short-haul city breaks the festival inspires.
Another recent downside of Edinburgh’s popularity with tourists, however, has already begun to change beyond anything that seemed possible even a few months ago. Last year’s UK Housing Review revealed there were 10,000 Airbnb properties in Edinburgh – one for every 48 city residents, a higher concentration than London, Paris or New York. Some 29 out of every 100 properties in the city’s desirable New Town area were active short-term rentals. Since Coronavirus hit, that number has plummeted. New long-term lets, by contrast, have risen by 62%, with 65 such properties being used to house homeless families.
Suddenly, residents and prospective renters who make their homes in the city are no longer being sidelined in favour of visitors. Instead, a chance to rebuild equitably has arrived. It’s a story that is now mirrored in every major tourist city in the world.
While elements of the Edinburgh festivals may irk locals, and in many cases have a real impact on quality of life, there’s broadly a lot of good feeling towards its more enjoyable aspects. The desire to sort out the negatives of overtourism is not so far matched by a desire to see the festivals cease to exist.
Already, some independent producers have spoken of perhaps visiting Edinburgh for a micro-Fringe this August, if public health advice permits, or to stage a digital programme. Otherwise, eyes will turn towards what may be possible in 2021, for the 73rd Edinburgh Festival in 74 years. The festival has a history of uniting nations through art and performance, it has broad public goodwill behind it, and it has a deadline. It’s well-placed to become the laboratory in which the international arts festival of the future is developed.
David Pollock is a freelance culture writer based in Edinburgh.