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by Chris Marshall
08 April 2024
Tourism is changing Edinburgh for those who live here

Edinburgh's Victoria Street is one of the city's most Instagrammed spots | Alamy

Tourism is changing Edinburgh for those who live here

This is not another column about JK Rowling although full disclosure, it does contain some Harry Potter references. Before she became a lightning rod in the trans debate and a high-profile defender of free speech, Rowling was an author of some renown, famous for the aforementioned boy wizard who enchanted a generation of young readers. 

Now fully-fledged muggles, those Potter fans have arrived in Edinburgh en masse to see for themselves the city which apparently inspired the books. It’s now impossible to walk down Victoria Street – probably the capital’s most Instagrammed location – without hearing some cape-wearing tour guide shout, “Ten points to Hufflepuff!” or “Gaun yersel’ Griffindor!”. The number of establishments with spurious claims to be a place where Rowling wrote “some” of the first book appears to grow on a weekly basis. 

Earlier this year amid the hysterical debate about London having “no-go zones” one jokey response on Twitter posited that the only places to truly avoid were Camden Market and ‘Platform 9 ¾’ at King’s Cross, another stop on the Potter pilgrimage. Unlike the English capital, however, Edinburgh is too small for one to body swerve the hordes and avoiding Victoria Street – still one of Scotland’s prettiest – would just be silly. 

I may be wrong, but I don’t think Rowling has ever said that Victoria Street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley or that Hogwarts was modelled on Fettes or George Heriot’s School. But that hasn’t stopped those who identified a good business opportunity from marketing them as such. These stunts are not a purely modern phenomenon – long before Harry Potter, stories like that of Greyfriars Bobby were drawing in tourists and leading to complaints about Disneyfication. 

But while this type of tourism isn’t new, it’s now on a scale which threatens to alter the nature of the city for those who live here. Like many of the world’s problems, much of this is being driven by social media. Instagram, in particular, is full of videos of Victoria Street, the Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle. They present an idealised version of a city that doesn’t exist or at least shouldn’t exist, a hollowed-out place fit only for the temporary visitor not the permanent resident. 

The changing nature of tourism and what drives it was further underscored by a recent decision on the part of VisitScotland to close all of its information centres by 2026 as it moves to a “digital first” strategy. The national agency said there would be no compulsory redundancies as a result, but there was criticism of the move from the UK Government and hospitality groups. 

Expect to see lots more influencer content and social media campaigns leveraging the popularity of Potter, Outlander and recent Netflix series One Day in the coming months and years. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor is people visiting because of Scotland’s portrayal in books or film, but there is a danger that tourism becomes too heavily concentrated in these Instagram and TikTok hotspots or that marketing drives miss older travellers or the less digitally inclined. The biggest danger of all, however, is to those who live here and continue to call this place home. 

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Read the most recent article written by Chris Marshall - Picking up the Pieces: Time is against John Swinney as he attempts to reunite the SNP.

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