Edinburgh is, in more ways than one, a city of two halves. Not just divided into the old town and the new, but also divided in opinion – between those who welcome the tourists (and the revenue they bring) and those who most definitely do not. 

In order to plan a pathway forwards for tourism in the city, it is essential to reconcile the needs of businesses which rely on tourism with the more general needs of the population as a whole. We need to ask ourselves how the city can continue to welcome people in without compromising its full-time inhabitants, or the environment in and around the city. 

Edinburgh Princes Street - Photo by Vijit Bagh from Pexels
Princes Street, Edinburgh, Scotland – Photo by Vijit Bagh

Forging truly sustainable tourism first and foremost involves asking ourselves one very simple question: how many visitors are too many visitors? 

Answering this question can leave us with profound questions. As progressive, forward-thinking, welcoming and friendly people, we may sometimes be inclined to say – the more the merrier. There are definite upsides to the influx of visitors from around the world who descend on the city during the summer months, and, of course, especially during the Festival and Fringe. 

Edinburgh in summer has a lively, metropolitan feel – which fosters immense creativity and makes the city a fun and vibrant place to be. And, of course, there is work and income generated from events, and by bringing in the crowds. 

Scottish Water - Photo by Danila Giancipoli from Pexels
Scottish Water – Photo by Danila Giancipoli

But crowds bring with them their challenges too. Intensive tourism during the summer and, to a lesser but still significant extent, at Hogmanay, leave locals feeling overwhelmed at times. And of course, places strain on local resources and infrastructure. Even the most considerate of visitors have a footprint, and while, on their own, they pose no threat – can become a problem when there are too many of them at once. 

One solution, of course, lies in spreading out the tourist influx more evenly over the course of the year. Not only would this avoid putting such a lot of strain on resources and local people. It would also boost resilience for local businesses and enterprises which rely on the tourist trade. Spreading out events and heavily marketing the shoulder seasons, for example, could be key considerations for a sustainability strategy. 

Another key strategy might be to try to decentralize tourism in the area, and ‘share the wealth’ with surrounding towns and cities. Improving public transportation infrastructure should be a priority. We need to make sure that there are plenty of eco-friendly electric buses to ferry visitors in and out of the city – not just from park and ride locations but from satellite towns too. By making it easier for visitors to stay elsewhere in Scotland, and visit the capital, we can remove the strain of tourism and bring regeneration and tourism revenue to other nearby regions. 

Sunrise over the Forth Bridges, South Queensferry., Edinburgh, Scotland - Estaban by
Sunrise over the Forth Bridges, South Queensferry, Edinburgh, Scotland – by Estaban

Edinburgh commands the lion’s share of international visitors, along with a couple of other well known Scottish locations. But by focussing on marketing events and attractions outside the capital, and by extolling the virtues of getting ‘off the beaten track’ we can continue to welcome tourists without it taking such a high toll. 

Of course, many people will still visit the city itself. So the next question we need to ask ourselves is how we can ensure that this is overwhelmingly a good thing for locals and local businesses? 

First of all, this means ensuring that natural resources are protected. The Edinburgh Drinking Water Project has been developed to cater to water needs. But improvements must continue to be made to protect water cycles and keep Scotland’s water flowing – including protection of wetlands and other precious ecosystems. 

Edinburgh’s sustainable tourism future also depends upon an overhaul of the Scottish food system as a whole. We must look to agriculture – and urban farming – to provide local, sustainable food to local people, and to all those who visit the city. Food hubs within the city could and should serve as conduits between farmers and producers and city dwellers and visitors often disconnected from food production. Food deserts in more deprived areas of the city must become a thing of the past. 

We must ‘see to our own’ and reduce inequalities before we can truly say that the city is a sustainable tourism destination. Creating resilient communities whose basic needs are met is essential to reduce injustice and poverty and make sure everyone in Edinburgh can welcome visitors. 

Of course, the drive towards 100% renewable energy should also continue. Scotland has come a long way in this regard, but there is still a lot more to do – with the decarbonisation not only of homes but on businesses and industry too. Tourism cannot be truly sustainable in the capital until the city is able to meet, and is meeting, all needs with green energy. 

Incentives and internal business ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment) strategies for Edinburgh businesses must focus on increasing efficiencies, sustainable procurement, and holistic thinking that takes the environment, society and broader economic concerns into account. With triple bottom line accounting and a circular economic model that ensures waste – of all kinds – is a thing of the past.

Edinburgh, Scotland, Sunset by David McEachan from Pexels
Sunset shot over the city of Edinburgh, Scotland by David McEachan

Finally, it is important for the future of sustainable tourism in Edinburgh that the revenue from tourism ends up in the hands of locals, and not in the hands of large companies that do not invest that revenue back into the city and its communities. Tourism that increases wealth disparities cannot continue long term. It is important that this lockdown is seen as a circuit-breaker of sorts – a way for us to analyse what has been working, and what has not, and to make changes where necessary. 

There is great potential to integrate sustainable tourism into a holistic sustainable plan for a green recovery. But all strategies and practices must centre on care of the environment, care for the community, and fair share. 

Have your say on sustainable tourism in Scotland’s capital post-lockdown, leave a comment below or get in contact and tell your story.


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