Edinburgh is widely regarded as one of the most haunted cities in the UK, thanks to its gruesome history. This eerie reputation has been leveraged by the tourism industry to attract visitors to the city, with various ghost tours, ghost buses, and other spooky experiences on offer. However, in recent years, the rise of film and television production, Harry Potter and Outlander to name two, has also played a significant role in shaping the destination narrative of Edinburgh. As a result, one may wonder if the allure of visiting locations used in movies and TV shows has overtaken the fascination with the supernatural, leading to a shift in tourist interest away from the city’s haunted sites.
During my pre-master in Leisure & Tourism, we got the assignment to analyse the narrative of a destination of choice. Since I planned to go to Scotland that summer, and after seeing the dark images of the capital city, we had found the perfect destination to analyse. In this essay, we have explored the relationship between ghost tourism and film tourism in Edinburgh, and considered whether the latter is gradually replacing the former as the city’s main attraction.
My own experience with a ghost tour in Edinburgh
After conducting this research, I became extremely excited to visit Edinburgh and experience on one of the ghost tours for myself. I left my family no choice, assuring them it wasn’t going to be very scary, we were doing a ghost tour.
Our first stop was the Greyfriars Kirkyard, a location that has inspired many dark stories. Our tour guide stood before a mausoleum and shared the horrific tale of the man resting inside. She also revealed that she used to knock on the mausoleum door to scare tourist participating in her tour, but stopped doing so after a while, and continued the tour as if she didn’t give us the biggest cliffhanger ever.
My father and I were intrigued and walked to the front of the group to ask why she stopped. She told us after knocking a bit too many times, the man’s ghost had haunted her for weeks and caused restless nights and physical abuse. She had since decided to stop knocking on the door altogether.
Next, we made our way to the vaults, where the atmosphere turned darker and scarier. My sister was clinging onto my arm tightly as we walked through the eerie space, designed to give visitors a thrilling experience. However, what stayed with me most from that night was the personal story shared by our tour guide. Whether or not it was real, she had only shared it with us because we had asked. It added an extra layer of intrigue and depth to the ghost tour, making it an unforgettable experience for our family.
Back to the research
To gather insights, we conducted interviews with local ghost tour operators and tourists who visited the city in the past three years. Since the focus has been on the ghost tour operators, this research mainly shows their point of view and thus might not give a reliable full view.
One of the first fascinating findings we found was that despite Edinburgh’s reputation as a haunted city, many tourists visiting the city do not believe in the ghost stories. In fact, some of the tour guides leading ghost tours were the ones who firmly believed in the existence of ghosts. One tour guide even revealed that their ghost tours originated over 20 years ago as part of paranormal research, which is still ongoing today. Not all ghost tour guides believe in ghosts, some of them find humor in the tales they tell.
The rise of film tourism
Aside from the city’s ghost stories, another popular narrative has emerged in recent years, much to the chagrin of some locals. JK Rowling is said to have found inspiration for Harry Potter in Edinburgh, which has led to the emergence of Harry Potter experiences and tours. One of the interviewed tourists said that one of the main reasons she wanted to visit the city was because of it being an inspiration to the Harry Potter franchise.
The impact of film tourism is not limited to Harry Potter experiences, however. According to Schiavone and Reijnders (2020), film tourism accounted for £840 million of the £21 billion spent by overseas tourists in the UK in 2013. Additionally, one-fifth of Scotland’s tourists reportedly visit the country because they saw it in a film or on TV.
The downside to the increase in film tourism
While the proliferation of film tourism can be seen as positive for attracting new tourists to the city, it is not without its downsides. For example, the sheer volume of tourists can lead to over-tourism, destruction of local environments, and a loss of authenticity. Locals have expressed concern about the damage caused by the large number of tourists visiting the Harry Potter filming locations, with some even noting that there is now a permanent patch of dirt near one of the graveyards where it is no longer possible for grass to grow due to the heavy foot traffic.
Besides the physical damage, the locals of Edinburgh hold a strong sense of protectiveness over their city, particularly its history, which is of great importance to the community. The city’s residents take pride in their rich and often dark past, as it is what makes Edinburgh such a fascinating and unique destination. Seeing tourists coming to the city just for Harry Potter, something which is according to them not ‘typically Scottish’, disappoints them.
Co-creation between tourists and locals
Moreover, our research found that there is often little co-creation or interaction between residents and tourists when it comes to film tourism. While film tourism often seems to be about taking selfies, or so-called ’embodied fan practises’ and posting photos on social media, ghost tours can foster ongoing interaction and exchange of stories and experiences. One of the tour guides says he often got messages from tourists that joined him on his tour in the past, that sent him photos with what they believe captured paranormal activity.
Overall, our research highlights the complex relationship between film tourism and destination narratives in Edinburgh. While the city’s ghost stories and Harry Potter connections continue to attract tourists, it is important to consider the impact of such tourism on the city and its residents. Through ongoing dialogue and co-creation between tourists and locals, we can strive for a more sustainable and authentic tourism experience in Edinburgh.
Schiavone, R., & Reijnders, S. (2020). Fusing fact and fiction: Placemaking through film tours in Edinburgh. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 1367549420951568.