Tourists and locals sharing public space: how festival practice can inform better policy
In a globally competitive world, branding destinations using culture, diversity and creativity is an important policy strategy for city governments everywhere. Dublin is an example of a capital city that has been using festivals & events to boost its global reputation, trying to turn itself an ‘eventful city’ (Richards, 2010). Branding often highlights cultural festivals & events, activities which can extend the tourism season, attract tourists and investors, and generate economic growth. Not surprisingly, at a national level, the aspiration to develop Ireland’s global reputation through festivals & events is most clearly outlined in Ireland’s national Tourism Policy Statement and Tourism Action Plan. These strategy documents aim to achieve Ireland’s full potential as an international destination and showcase Dublin as both a gateway for the country and an important destination in its own right.
Similar policy aspirations are identifiable in documents produced by Dublin City Council (DCC). The city’s Culture and Creative Strategy (2018 – 2022) highlights the more than 100 festivals & events which ‘help to attract millions of visitors, and build the cultural profile of the City internationally’. Currently, these include St. Patrick’s Festival, Bram Stoker Festival, Dublin Pride, Chinese New Year Festival, and Culture Night, among others. This strategy further states the intention to continue developing emerging festivals, like the New Year’s Eve Festival, ‘which seek to position Dublin as an attractive and vibrant global destination’. In its Event Strategy & Event Sponsorship Guidelines, DCC represents Dublin as an ‘events city, globally renowned and locally celebrated, where citizens and visitors enjoy a year-round programme of events and festivals that celebrate our unique and vibrant culture’ (2018, p.1).
These national and city level policy documents highlight the tourism goals that an ‘eventful city’ can achieve and show a very strong emphasis on tourism in the city’s thinking about festivals and events. The Event Strategy & Event Sponsorship Guidelines document categorises events into three distinct categories, each with distinct eligibility and evaluation criteria. Premier Events are defined as those with:large audiences – at least 10.000 attendees, capacity to achieve significant tourism outcomes, attract overseas attendees, and deliver significant local benefits. Major Events: attract substantial audiences – at least 5.000 attendees, deliver significant tourism outcomes and strong local benefits while City Events: offer free admission, are aimed primarily at a local audience, aim to celebrate local culture, add to the vibrancy and inclusion, and contribute to wellbeing. The first two event categories (Premier and Major) refer to large scale events with destination branding / tourism goals. The third, City category, however, is different. It refers to small-scale events that aspire to achieving e.g. community wellbeing, celebrating culture, enhancing the livability of the city.
The strong tourism rhetoric noted above, in addition to the clear distinctions drawn between these event categories, indicates that current strategy thinking is dichotomous, understanding that tourism and destination branding goals are best furthered through spectacular large-scale events while ‘community-related’ goals are to be achieved through small scale events. An analysis of festival and event practice in the city reveals the shortcomings of this approach. In contrast to the apparent privileging of tourism and destination branding goals, festival and event practices on the “ground” illustrate how events can achieve multiple policy aims simultaneously. The Bram Stoker Festival is a case in point. Established in 2012 primarily with tourism objectives and the aim of extending the tourism season into late October/early November, the festival “combines a focus on Dublin’s literary heritage with cutting edge contemporary arts events” (Culture and Creative Strategy Dublin, 2018, p. 20). It’s about “bringing fun and adventure to Halloween weekend to celebrate the gothic and the supernatural legacy of one of Ireland’s most treasured authors, taking his gothic novel – Dracula – as inspiration” (Bram Stoker Festival, 2020).
The festival curates a range of events across the city: in libraries, parks, churches, castles, art galleries, streets, cinemas, as talks & walks, and pop-up events. While it aims to attract international tourists to Dublin for Halloween celebrations, data gathered at the 2019 festival attest not only to the strong tourism value of this event but also to marked social and community benefits. Fieldwork undertaken at one of the festival’s main events, Stokerland, held in St Patrick’s Park found international tourists mingling alongside day-trippers, city dwellers, and recent immigrants. The city park was animated with street theatre, free face-painting, Victorian funfair rides, storytelling, and food outlets.
Festival-goers interviewed described the atmosphere as family-friendly, fun, happy, nice, relaxing, diverse and inclusive. The fact that the event attracted diverse cohorts was commented upon by tourists and locals alike. A tourist couple, for example, commented on this diversity, noticing “people speaking different languages, with different backgrounds”. A recent immigrant said it made her “feel more included, because the event is for everybody, you feel part of something”. A group of young women visiting from USA explained that the event “make us feel part of the community, more a local than a tourist”. Interviewees born in the area spoke positively of events being held in public spaces, noting their accessibility, how they enhance parks and cultivate interactions between visitors, tourists and locals. “I see a mix of people. Tourists, visitors, locals… It is great for the socialization values”, said one of the locals. Most of the interviewees – tourists and locals – mentioned the importance of having events that are cost-free, because these can be really accessible for everybody and, as a local said, “can bring people together” and invite casual engagement as a young immigrant woman said: “it’s not for specific people, or one specific group. It’s just pop in for a bit, and enjoy yourself”.
For a young woman that lives in the city centre with her family, it is important that DCC promote artistic and culture events in public spaces because, in her words, “it’s concerning to us that a lot of spaces are going towards hotels and tourism […]. We live here too. We want stuff, we want shops, and we want nice things to walk to, to enjoy, because we want to spend time in the city”. This echoes a comment from one of the event managers, who explained that obviously this event “aims to reach the wider market, attract visitors to Dublin, but it’s also an important event for the locals, to engage the community. Events in public space are important to parents, to get kids away from the TVs and phones. It’s culturally important”.
Another relevant social value is the community engagement that the festival facilitates with the city itself and with other people. It is a chance for families to be together, for children to spend time with their grandparents, and for people to go out and enjoy the city. A local resident said that going to events like this in public space makes it easy to engage with other people: “I just talked to another woman because she had a dog as well […]. There are a lot of tourists too. People can sit down, and share tables to eat…”. The informal, casual sociability that the event engenders is particularly important for people like single parents, for whom it becomes “an opportunity to chat with other people, beside my child”, as a single mum said. More generally it creates a convivial atmosphere where people are prompted to converse with strangers. For a young couple of immigrants: “you can see other people and have a nice conversation”; for a parent with his little son, these events can “pull the community together. You can chat with other people and enjoy yourself with them while waiting for a ride on the roller coaster or at the face painting”. This engagement can create a sense of community, as a young woman said: “when you live at the city sometimes it’s difficult to form a sense of community, everyone is busy going to work, going home… and events like this can connect people with the history of the city, connect culturally and this is very important”.
Unfortunately, as with so many events in 2020, the Bram Stoker festival moved online. It focused on ‘interactive and fun experiences for all ages’ (Bram Stoker Festival, 2020) through a range of activities such as immersive theatre, film premieres, online scavenger hunts and live events on Bram Stoker’s life and legacy. While all these activities perpetuated local and community involvement, its tourism orientation was not lost, with the festival website noting that events are “enjoyable nationwide and indeed, from anywhere in the world. For international vampires, please note that all start times advertised are GMT” (Bram Stoker Festival, 2020).
With the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, festivals and events are experiencing something of a watershed moment. The sector is experiencing a great deal of change and opportunities exist for a strategic rethink. The critical reading of festival policy and practice presented here notes a strong tendency in Dublin city both to privilege tourism and city branding objectives and to categorise the tourism values associated with event activity as being quite distinct and separate from social/community values. This blog analyses an example of event practice in the city and shows that it is possible for events to generate different kinds of valuable benefits simultaneously. Accordingly, it recommends that event strategies adopt a more integrated lens; that policy-makers develop their strategies in a more integrated and cohesive manner, ideally in a way that understands how events and festivals can enhance the liveability of the city such that all city users, irrespective of where they come from or why they are in the city, can benefit. The disruptions caused by the pandemic give pause for reflection. It is likely that in a “post-Covid world” tourism and events will rebuild from the local, with smaller than usual, localized activities aimed at local and domestic markets. This is an opportunity to realign event policies to privilege the needs of all city users and to ensure that the ‘eventful’ city fosters not only more tourism activity but also more inclusiveness, more diversity and more opportunities for creative participation for all.