How Scottish tourism can learn from the secrets of New York City's success – Professor Joe Goldblatt

Day after day, thousands of upscale tourists in their early twenties make their official pilgrimage to the corner of Bedford and Grove streets in New York city’s Greenwich Village to pay homage to an apartment building facade that was first embraced by now ageing baby boomers over 25 years ago.

They raise their camera phones, crane their necks forward and seem to expect Rachel, Monica, Ross, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe to lean out the window and wave to them.

I have never seen such a phenomenon of local pilgrimage by devotees other than in Lourdes, France, or Mecca in Saudi Arabia. As I watch them silently assemble each day, I began to wonder how this type of tourism could be further cultivated in Scotland.

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New York City has suffered a major loss of both domestic and international tourists as a result of the global pandemic. People from neighbouring New Jersey appear to be returning slowly as visitors as their confidence increases and they often go to a restaurant or a Broadway theatre. However, these daytrippers do not contribute as much to the economy as international tourists whose spending is many times more because of the longer duration of their visit that includes overnight accommodation.

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Therefore, whilst New York awaits the return of their international fans to pre-pandemic levels, they are turning to local visitors to entice them to visit local attractions.

One of their most successful strategies has been the development of Hudson Park and Little Island that is located adjacent to the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan. Miles of bike lanes, beautiful landscaping and modern architectural accents have transformed this once-neglected area into another type of mecca, without religious overtones, for local visitors.

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One of the keys to the success of New York City as a tourism destination is the range of attractions that appeal to different ages, cultures and income levels. Within a few blocks of our home, we have discovered the relatively new Museum of Ice Cream that offers all the ice cream you can consume, a few interactive play areas and a tall curving slide for adults and children.

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People in New York long ago accepted the downsides of mass tourism in the city (Picture: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Your momentary sugar rush will only cost you £50 per person. I marvelled at the long queues stretching on both sides of the Museum’s hot-pink entry doors and was told that admission is only by pre-booking because it is so popular.

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A few blocks away, one may visit the famed Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street that is directly across the street from the Gay Liberation Monument sculpted by the internationally celebrated sculptor George Segal. This site is also a bastion of pride for folk within the LGBTQ+ community worldwide because the gay liberation movement has its deep roots within this small block.

One lesson that Edinburgh, Glasgow and other destinations in Scotland may learn from our younger cousin New York is the importance of creating a tourism culture that is focused upon driving visitors from specific market segments.

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Within a few blocks in New York City, you will regularly see Generation Z, Millennials, Baby Boomers, families, seniors, LGBTQ+ and other groups visiting local attractions.

Tourists flock to see New York City locations used in the TV sitcom Friends (Picture: Warner Bros. Television)
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I believe this harmonious mix of tourists is similar to the phenomenon that occurs each August in Edinburgh when multiple festivals welcome visitors who have varied cultural interests, from literature, drama, music, visual art and television to politics, peace and spirituality.

I wonder why we cannot develop a stronger strategy, similar to New York City, to promote Scotland as a place of pilgrimage for ancestrally connected Scots as well as those like me who simply love our bonnie, fascinating land and her people?

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Whenever we mention to New Yorkers that we are from Scotland they often immediately gasp and announce: “We always wanted to see where they film Outlander!” Filming locations like Doune Castle have seen tourism footfall increase by as much as 200 per cent.

However, some believe the yin and yang of tourism impacts experienced by local residents require this business to focus more on managing than marketing in the future. The “mothballing” of Edinburgh’s marketing agency in recent years is one example of how civic leaders are under pressure to focus upon quality-of-life issues alongside the need to drive economic revenue.

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Perhaps this is where New York City must be viewed with a cautionary gaze. It appears that long ago New York residents conceded that in order to support their economic future they must bear the brunt of millions of tourist steps and all the rubbish, parking issues, noise and other inconveniences that may follow if tourism is not marketed and managed carefully.

However, I believe Auld Reekie, as one example, may take the best of the Big Apple in terms of tourism strategies and build a more sustainable future with attractions that are more decentralised, such as the plans for the developing the waterfront in Newhaven and perhaps offering new attractions such as an arena in the western part of our city.

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I further believe that if we use technology to develop, promote, market and manage the tourists coming to our city, we may be able to blend visitors more seamlessly within our neighbourhoods as they pay homage to Robert Burns, Elsie Inglis, Walter Scott, JK Rowling and many other of our great luminaries. And yes, they are also welcome to capture for posterity with their camera phones where Outlander’s Sam Heughan once dined or slept.

In the not-too-distant future, international tourists will desire to return to Scotland in great numbers and now is the time to learn from other successful destinations how to best manage their expectations so that, during their pilgrimage, they come not only to worship the fantasy they have dreamed of seeing but also cherish how creatively and effectively we deliver their dreams.

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Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, and visiting professor at New York University’s Tisch Center of Hospitality

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