Edinburgh festivals’ recovery could take a decade, says director

A senior figure in the Edinburgh festivals has said it could take the rest of the decade before the events fully recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nick Barley, the director of the Edinburgh international book festival, said the August festivals faced a long haul before regaining their status as the world’s largest arts event.

He said the main festival directors, including those of the international festival, the fringe and the visual art festival, were planning an “exuberant” season next year, when the international festival celebrates the 75th anniversary of its foundation in 1947, but it was far from clear how large it would be.

“I don’t think 2022 is the destination,” Barley said. “The destination is 2025 or even 2030, that’s how long it’s going to take for us to properly recover from the pandemic.”

He said that after the Sars epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003 it took five or six years before life fully returned to normal. “The scars of these kinds of pandemics go deep. I don’t think we should expect it to be all over in a year’s time. As festival strategists, we’ve got to look beyond 22. [Ese] is a staging post in a recovery which will take some years.”

After last year’s events were cancelled at the height of the pandemic, this year’s festivals have put on live events at a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels after facing significant planning problems with Scotland’s strict social distancing regulations, and very low audiences.

The festivals focused heavily on hybrid events, streaming live performances online or producing some only in digital form. Audience sizes have been heavily reduced; the book festival has quit its historic venue in Charlotte Square gardens for Edinburgh art college, and festivals have used new outdoor venues.

Before the pandemic struck, the August festivals combined were the world’s third largest ticketed event, just behind the Olympics and football World Cup in scale, selling millions of tickets each year.

The book festival said on Tuesday it had sold 56,000 in-person and online tickets, with an in-person audience of 25,000 – roughly a fifth of its pre-pandemic footfall.

The international festival, which chiefly presents classical music, dance and opera, said it sold 51,200 tickets to live events, two-thirds down on 2019, con 350,000 viewers from 50 countries watching events online.

The fringe, which sold 4m tickets in 2019, refused to release its audience figures for this year’s event. La semana pasada, as it launched a £7.5m funding appeal, it said it had produced a fifth of its normal number of shows and sold 12,500 online tickets.

Shona McCarthy, the fringe’s chief executive, said it was traditional for the event to release its ticketing and productions statistics. “But this year I’d like to stop defining success by scale," ella dijo. "Para mí, that’s never been what makes the fringe special. Success should be defined by the quality of experience we’ve all had – and what we’re hearing from performers and audiences alike is that this year’s fringe has been hugely successful indeed.”

Barley said this year’s event was intended to “keep the flame burning” and allow the festivals to test new venues, formats and online productions.

“It’s tempting to say it was amazing, we’re jubilant, and we are, but behind that there’s a lot of sadness about how difficult it has been," él dijo. “It has been a real challenge to do a festival at all this year. My main pride is in achieving a festival which keeps the torch burning. We can see the future.”

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