The arts have had a tough time of late. Funding in England has been cut drastically, companies have been obliged to reduce staffing and programming, some have even been forced out of business and, in the case of English National Opera, away from their home city. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe attempted to reopen too soon after the pandemic, and the financial consequences were close to disastrous to the extent that it will take years to recover.

While governments focus on cost, especially in the context of the arts, it is all too easy for us to follow their example and forget the massive contribution that events such as the Edinburgh Festivals make, not only to society but also the financial health of the city. Therefore, a recent impact report makes welcome reading and should encourage those holding the financial purse strings to support a tradition that goes back to the national rebuilding period in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The 2022 impact study was commissioned from leading international specialists BOP Consulting by Edinburgh’s Festivals and is based on responses from over 22,000 people, making it one of the most statistically significant impact studies in the cultural world.

The study is also a reminder of the cultural delights that Edinburgh has to offer, since the 11 festivals involved were Edinburgh Science Festival, Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, Edinburgh International Film Festival, Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, Edinburgh Art Festival, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scottish International Storytelling Festival and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay.

It is worth remembering that while the worst ravages of the coronavirus pandemic had reduced by 2022, it still had a significant deleterious effect on enthusiasm from both prospective performers and visitors. Attendance numbers were 30% down on 2015 when the last survey was carried out, and it was generally recognised that the festivals grew on an annual basis pre-pandemic.

Some of the news highlights are predictable but others almost take the breath away. Even in what was a relatively quiet year, approximately 700,000 people attended the various festivals including 167,000 Edinburgh residents. To put these numbers into perspective, the number of visits to specific events was on a par with the FIFA World Cup (presumably the men’s version). The financial contribution to Edinburgh was estimated to be £407 million, almost 50% higher than in 2015. Despite the cost-of-living crisis, the average daily spend was £87.

Whether it is good or bad, the proportion of visitors staying in the country from outside Scotland had increased from 25% to 31%, and they spent £137 million with an average stay of 4½ days in Edinburgh and another 1¼ elsewhere in Scotland.

More widely, 5,850 full-time equivalent jobs were created with spending on:

  • accommodation: £85 million,
  • food and drink: £42 million and
  • shopping: £31 million

That would have kept a lot of restaurants, bars and hotels in business at a time when the hospitality industry was desperately attempting to stay afloat.

The figure that those behind the scenes at the festivals should be brandishing before government ministers is the statistic that for every £1 invested from the public purse, £33 was generated. It is hard to think of any other (legal) business that can generate revenues 33 times their costs.

While some in the city might find the influx of tourists every August a bit of a pain, according to those behind the survey, “Edinburgh Festivals are Loved by locals” [the bold print is theirs!]. To an extent, this is borne out by the news that 50% of the total audience is Scottish, while the festivals contribute almost half a billion pounds to the Edinburgh economy and £620 million to Scotland.

As companies and holidaymakers finalise their plans for trips to the Scottish capital in the next few weeks, it will be fascinating to see the extent to which Edinburgh 2023 shows a greater return to normality and quite possibly exceeds every one of the statistics from last year’s survey.