Tourism and the Paradox of Plenty

By Sean Bradley, book editor, publisher and trustee of Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust.
‘Tourism’ may soon replace ‘work’ as the curse of the drinking classes in Edinburgh, but it is still possible – if you time your session carefully – to enjoy the democratic pleasures of a public house situated just round the corner from where the predatory Hound of Greyfriars plies his trade. I’m talking about the former Forresthill Bar of course which was rebranded to its informal name of Sandy Bell’s some years ago, no doubt to draw more – unwelcome, regulars say – attention to it.The drinkers on Friday afternoon were mostly regulars with the additional complement of Uni staff and students – the customary clientele of Bells over the years, the porters from the old Royal Infirmary having departed long ago. One of the academics present was an economist friend I hadn’t seen in a long while and I took the opportunity to pick his brains on the economics of tourism.

He had a few ideas on the subject and what struck me most was his use of a term new to me: ‘the resource curse’, also known as ‘the politics of plenty’, a term that is applied to mineral rich nations and regions. Not all economists agree on it but the resource curse ‘refers to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources (such as fossil fuels and certain minerals), tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources’. Some of the factors that are thought to bring this about can be usefully applied to tourism-rich destinations where there is a wholesale ‘extraction’ of a wide variety of ‘resources’ – landscape, the natural environment, heritage and history (the bloodier the better), sport and leisure, arts and culture; and can help us see the industry in a new light

A primary factor in the resource curse scenario is the crowding out of alternative industries, including those based on innovation in science and technology, industries which have a much better growth record; there are less incentives to diversify, and land and property prices work against a more durable mixed economy. Another factor is ownership. Like natural resources, those within the tourism sector – hotel chains, large visitor attractions – are often not owned locally which means that profits leak out of the host community. A third factor relates to civil strife where inequalities and commercial pressures on residential communities spill over into social discontent and unrest. Food for thought, and a prompt if we needed one to further research the downside, as well as the benefits, of mass tourism.

This pub talk came at the end of another week of sound bites about how overtourism is killing community life in the city, and in the Old Town in particular. Even Pete Irvine long-time promoter of the city for his own commercial gain thinks things have gone too far. Strange how someone who has peddled his own versions of Hogmanay and Burns Night is now offended by inauthenticity in visitor attractions – it also has to be noted that his press statements on the subject of overtourism coincided with the launch of the 25th edition of his book which promotes the best of Scotland for travellers.

The last word from the economist: ‘Tourism and the hospitality sector can be low wage, low productivity, low productivity growth, low growth – which can cause all sorts of vicious self-reinforcing circles. Is Edinburgh becoming a Rickshaw Economy?’

We’ve probably heard enough from politicians, celebrities, heritage bodies and others in public life, either about how their experience of their home city has been compromised by the ever-increasing visitor numbers, or how all we need to do to sort the problem is to manage it better. The time has come for citizens to speak up and make demands for real change before it’s too late.

So consider this article as not just another moan about the tourists thronging our city’s streets; think of it instead as a call for a radical rethink of the city’s economy led by its citizens – the first step in constructing an alternative to the politics of plenty.

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