Life is good in East Lothian. It rightly prides itself on its attractive towns, pristine countryside, glorious coast and golf galore, Together with good schools and easy access to Edinburgh, that makes it a magnet for commuters and retirees. Unfortunately, that does little for the local economy and jobs. To date, the county has been smart enough to avoid spoiling its splendour with factory development but has so far failed to exploit an opportunity to prosper that relies on keeping things pristine and presentable: tourism
It already boasts a national name in golf and in day trips from across Central Scotland. And, as home to the award-winning Scottish Seabird Centre world-famous Bass Rock and Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, has a growing profile as a wildlife destination, especially for ‘twitchers’. But the bulk of high earners still do their earnings elsewhere—county GDP per head is no better than Turkey. Add in a myopic VisitScotland closing all three of our Tourist Information Centres and tourism growth is sluggish.
The most obvious next step would be for East Lothian to work closer with Edinburgh—the biggest tourist destination in Britain outside London—by broadening Edinburgh’s portfolio of appeal. But there is one barnstorming opportunity to put the county on the global tourist map they simply won’t support because they already make a killing from it; cruise liners.
In the last decade, despite recession, the global cruise business has gone through the roof. Forget your experience on the cross-Channel ferry, these ships represent the future. Kirkwall in Orkney was one of the first Scottish towns to exploit this business. A recent survey there showed, of the two dozen ships calling, 94% of passengers went ashore, each spending an average of £100 while there.
A typical modern liner (Royal Princess which moored off Queensferry on May 18th) has 3,500 passengers on board. That gives a one-day boost of more than £1/3m to the local economy. These ships are now so big Leith cannot accommodate them. Yet there will be no fewer than 36 such behemoths calling this summer. This represents a £12m boost to local revenues from passengers alone.
So far, Forth Ports has been adept at making money but not in sticking its fiscal neck out to invest in the future. Landing in the rain from bouncy little boats at Hawes Pier is not the five-star experience to which cruise passengers are accustomed. The only serious marine study was the £3/4m project in 2008 for ferry services across to Fife and that came to nothing.
But Napier University has put its thinking cap on and has an unpublished proposal for the already derelict Cockenzie pwer station site. where a deepwater pier out into the Forth could transform the only ugly part of the East Lothian coast using the existing rail branch that served the coal yards. Add a proper passenger terminal able to handle ferry as well as cruise passengers and you would have a dynamic business core to which Ocean Terminal style facilities, yacht marina, boardwalk and restaurants could be added.
With a weather-secure rail link into Waverley, cruise passengers could be whisked into town in 15 minutes (and ferry passengers out)—rather than endure the inadequate 90-minute-long lighter-plus-bus solution via Queensferry.
The knock-on boost to the local economy could be massive, with chandlery, catering, engineering, and other high-value facilities required. And with stylish redevelopment of not just the Cockenzie industrial dinosaur but both Prestonpans and Cockenzie waterfronts, all could prosper with copious jobs and revenues by bodily shifting the start of East Lothian’s attractive recreational coast seven miles closer to Edinburgh to start at Musselburgh Racetrack instead of Seton Sands.
It is exactly the engine needed to restore pride, purpose and prosperity to the county’s ex-mining region and contribute its proportionate share of the dynamic economy of Edinburgh’s city region without spoiling what makes it unique in the first place. But is anyone thinking big enough to realise it?