The cancellation of the Edinburgh festivals has given the city a chance to rethink them

Street performers on the Royal Mile, in 2006. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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.


The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.