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A Jewel In The Crown: Gordon Dewar & The Future of Edinburgh Tourism

Gordon Dewar moves people. Not emotionally (although, no doubt, he can do that too) but physically from one place to another. It’s something he has been doing throughout his entire career, which has included spells working with the London Underground, Scotland’s bus division, ScotRail and Bahrain Airport.

He has been in his current role as chief executive of Edinburgh Airport since 2012. During that time, getting people from A to B has been his bread and butter, so he is ideally suited to take stock of how we may reinvigorate our cities at this important moment.
Transport is a vital component in our business and cultural life, greasing the wheels of Scotland’s economy and its links to the wider world. But how does someone in the business of moving huge volumes of people from one place to another adapt when travel is suddenly restricted? “I don’t think the fundamentals have changed. I mean, as soon as we see relaxations on travel restrictions, we see an enormous bounce back. So, in August 2021, we had a day with 15,000 passengers, which is about one third of where we were back in 2019. And that’s despite the fact we still have expensive testing, a limited number of routes on offer and all the rest of it.” People still need to travel for economic and cultural reasons, and, as restrictions are lifted, that pent-up demand will increase. “As soon as we’re allowed to, I think we will get back to where we were.

Edinburgh is, fundamentally, a top-performing destination for tourism. It’s got everything. It has so many things going for it – history, architecture; it’s a gateway to one of the best wild landscapes in Europe. It has golf and whisky and all the rest of, it and then we have the best arts festival in the world… So, all these things haven’t changed, we just need to get rid of the things that are putting people off again, which is the cost and hassle factor of being able to come here and enjoy it."

Even with the restrictions, several massive new attractions – such as the visitor centre at Johnnie Walker Princes Street – continue to be built with an eye on the future. St James Quarter gives Edinburgh the prestigious, high-end retail destination to rival other tourist hotspots. “You might argue that the jewel in the crown is St James Quarter. It’s just a transformation of the quality and the class of the retail and leisure offering in the city centre. So, I think all of these things are just waiting for the opportunity to welcome everyone back, and I have absolutely no doubt they will be back."

Dewar is steadfast in his belief that Edinburgh’s reinvigoration will be built through rediscovering the bustling, busy, exciting pace of life that gives the city its heartbeat. “Fundamentally, people come to cities to do things. You may go to the country for leisurely pursuits – it’s the very space and absence of people that they go to the country for – but people come to cities to enjoy social interaction, whether it’s for shopping, sightseeing, concerts or going to see an art gallery,” he explains.

Giving people a reason to interact with the city again will make Gordon Dewar’s job easier in the long run as the list of attractions keeps increasing. And that ‘jewel’, St James Quarter, will add to that list of reasons to go out and explore the city, as more phases come on stream. 
He visited during the construction and has made several trips since its opening. “I love the combination of the leisure side, the cinemas, the restaurants and all the rest of it. It’s another whole notch above the rest. And I think it’s a massive complement to what the city has to offer.”
With music, theatre and live performances coming back on stream, the timeliness of St James Quarter’s offering goes beyond retail and leisure for festival organisers, community groups and artists. “I think one of the most exciting, far-sighted things that they have done was designing all the performance space into the development. We are the festival city with the biggest arts festival in the world by a long, long way – second only to the Olympics in ticket sales… Even ahead of the World Cup in a normal year… And the fact, therefore, that they have actually built performance spaces into the fabric of the entire quarter, I think is really visionary. It will be a massive asset for them, and I think it’s a massive asset for the city”.

Dewar also sits on the board of the Scottish Tourism Alliance and understands more than most the deeply rooted and essential role that tourism now plays in the country’s economic wellbeing – from the couple running a small B&B to the international hotel chains, such as the W Edinburgh, which are offering something at the higher end of the market. Tourism offers long-term secure job and career opportunities. The only thing needed now is a resurgence of travel. That’s the plan for Gordon Dewar and the people running Edinburgh International Airport. 
In 2019, 14.9 million people travelled through the facility. The goal for the future is to top that figure. “I guess, no job is done until we pass that 15 million mark. Essentially, that could be two or three years, depending on the economy and where you are – things change. So that’s a minimum horizon for me."

With sustainability more of an issue than ever, he firmly believes that new innovations, such as smarter fuel technology, may make net zero carbon aviation a possibility within ten to 15 years. It’s through transformations such as these that travel is constantly evolving. “What hasn’t changed, however, is people’s innate need to travel and interact with others. So, we’ll all be keeping our eyes on the horizon line to see what the future holds for the city and the movement of people over the coming few years.