RESIDENTS on Edinburgh’s “Instagram Alley” have been left feeling they have no control over how mass tourism is affecting their street.

The capital’s Circus Lane has been transformed in recent years from a quiet residential mews to a bustling visitor destination after it became popularised by Instagrammers.

One resident of 30 years, Fiona [not her real name], said: “We’ve got residents now who are moving because of it. I’m looking at properties because I don’t think I can take it any longer.”

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Searches on Instagram show that posts tagged to Circus Lane as a location are 20 times as frequent as those linked to seven other streets in the surrounding area.

Fiona described the heavy volume of visitors to the lane as “the sole reason” for considering moving. “It’s gone from somewhere that was a little on the edge to somewhere that’s promoted as a tourist attraction,” she said.

Locals say the numbers of visitors increased significantly around 2018. Fiona said: “Instagram started it. There was no reason for people to walk down this lane before.”

(Image: NQ)

(Image: NQ)

Posts linked by hashtags to Circus Lane – a street with no shops or hospitality outlets – also total more than double those of Stockbridge Market, a popular weekly event.

Not all those living on Circus Lane are frustrated with the crowds. One resident, who has lived there for three years, recently told Edinburgh Live: “I love it being so fun and vibrant – due to living in London for such a long time, I actually think Edinburgh is quiet and sleepy even during the height of the Fringe.”

Fiona understands why tourists are attracted to wandering through the picturesque lane. She said: “That’s fine, most people just enjoy it. But some abuse it and pick flowers for their photographs. The other day I picked up about 20 cigarette ends and wrappers.”

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The flowers and plants which line Circus Lane were cultivated by its residents. Fiona added: “It was a peaceful little backwater, you’d get people saying, ‘God, I’ve never been down this street before’. We’ve kind of created a monster.”

How Instagrammers and influencers use Circus Lane

A wide variety of visitors come to take photos using the lane as an attractive backdrop. Fiona said: “We get wedding photographers, we get supercars coming and taking their pictures. Or just boy racers with their cars as well.

“You get Instagrammers who will be here an hour. And they can’t understand why you get annoyed, I just came out and a man nearly fell in my front door.”

Seeking to understand something’s “Instagrammability” has been a focus of Dr Ben Marder, who researches social behaviour linked to the use of digital technologies at the University of Edinburgh.

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He suggested what might be attracting people to Circus Lane: “We’ve done multiple studies on how Instagram drives behaviour. Previous to Instagram people would travel to destinations because of some quality of the destination. Now people choose destinations because they’re Instagrammable.”

According to Marder, some of these visitors might “have little interest in the destination itself” and are “choosing destinations because of social capital linked to online personas”. He described this as a change observed over the last 10 years, and one which is associated more with Millennials and Gen Z than older age groups.

Many travel blogs post guides to visiting Circus Lane using techniques known as search engine optimisation (SEO). Instagrammers and bloggers place the street’s name in headlines or meta descriptions, which describe the content of a search engine result, to increase traffic to their websites due to its popularity as a search term.

One travel writer acknowledged this in a post: “A lot of people (according to my Google Analytics stats, anyway) end up reading my Edinburgh blog posts after searching for ‘Circus Lane’, even though I’d only mentioned it in passing in them. So I thought I’d whack out a short post about Circus Lane itself. Give the people what they want and all that.”

Another aspect of the growth in popularity of Circus Lane is that there are fewer owner-occupiers living there. Fiona said: “A lot of the people who are moving in, or not moving in, are buying properties here to make a profit off it.”

She described how some neighbours use their flat: “They live in America. They were trying to put eight people in there on Airbnb. Some nights I think it was over £1000 a night.”

Searches show that Airbnb hosts on Circus Lane are charging from £560-£640 a night for stays in whole properties.

Anti-social behaviour and frequent turnover of guests are problems often cited by campaigners calling for greater regulation of Airbnb properties. Fiona said this has at times been an issue for Circus Lane.

“People are not trying to be disrespectful, but they come in late at night [and] they continue with a bit of drinking. Of course, the wheely suitcases are a nightmare on the cobbles. Maybe you do get hypersensitive to it, but it’s only because of the overtourism.”

Staff and regulars at the St Vincent Bar, located at one end of the lane, have noticed the changes over the years. They described how visitors will often pose for photos in front of the bar but leave without buying a drink. However, staff also acknowledged that uploaded content helps to promote the bar.

The contrast between activity on Circus Lane and Royal Circus around the corner is striking. Aside from passers-by and the odd resident sitting outside on a nice day, Royal Circus’s rows of Georgian terraces are generally quiet. One local living there, retired journalist Bill, has a view overlooking Circus Lane from his home. “I call it ‘Instagram Alley’,” he said.

(Image: NQ)

Bill (above) discussed the increase of visitors to the wider area in recent years: “Stockbridge has become quite a magnet for tourism. It used to be that they’d all congregate up the Royal Mile or Princes Street. They’ve discovered the New Town and Stockbridge.”

But he takes a different view of the issue: “Oh, it’s harmless. I’m quite welcoming to people, I like talking to people.”

However, regarding his neighbours on Circus Lane, Bill added: “I can see that they buy a place there and want some peace and they get a deluge of cameras, basically.”

The entire City of Edinburgh Council area was designated a short-term let control area by the council in September 2022. These controls require property owners to seek planning permission to let out entire properties that are not principal homes.

Using these powers, the council ordered one Airbnb host on Circus Lane, Robert Murray, to remove his property from the site’s listings.

Google Maps showing search results for 'tourist places'Google Maps showing search results for 'tourist places' (Image: Google Maps)

This decision was imposed as Murray had continued to list the property after being refused permission to use it for short-term lets due to the “materially detrimental effect on the living conditions and amenity of nearby residents” that this would have.

Fiona said no assistance is available to help residents cope with the crowds or to limit usage of the lane’s image. She said: “It’s people from all over the world. I think we may appear in guidebooks, we have no control over it. There’s nothing we can do. The police don’t want to know unless someone’s blocking  the road.”

VisitScotland, the Scottish Government’s tourism body, describes enhancing the quality of life for Scottish communities as a key objective in its sustainability policy. It also states that encouraging community engagement in local tourism planning is a priority.

Despite the concerns expressed publicly by residents, VisitScotland has posted photographs of Circus Lane on social media platforms including Instagram, Twitter/X and Facebook.

(Image: Instagram)

Two images of the lane also feature in the organisation’s media toolkit. The terms of use state: “You can use this asset for marketing and advertising campaigns promoting Scotland as a tourism destination without paying royalties or licence fees.”

The “Things To Do” section of VisitScotland’s website advertises a “Dean Village & Circus Lane Walking Tour”.

Organised by Local Eyes Walking Tours, it offers to guide visitors to “where Edinburghers go to take a stroll on the weekend, away from the overcrowded Old Town” and into areas “still relatively untouched by mainstream tourism”.

A spokesperson for VisitScotland said: “We recognise there is a careful balance to strike to ensure that communities feel comfortable and capable of welcoming visitors.

“For several years now, our marketing strategy has been focused on promoting Edinburgh and the Lothians, as with our other regions, as a year-round destination, encouraging visitors to explore lesser-known parts of the city and visit across the seasons.

“We work with local partners such as destination marketing organisations and local authorities to understand impacts in specific communities and this is reflected in our planned activity.

“Through our consumer facing website we provide practical information and advice to visitors on how to travel responsibly in Scotland, while our consumer social media activity uses visitors’ images to highlight a mixture of iconic sights, lesser-known locations, local businesses, attractions, as well as events. Tourism sustains communities, creates jobs and attracts investment.

“The social media posts identified were from between four and six years ago. We don’t post images of Circus Lane often. According to our records, the last social post of the location was in 2022.”

Instagram, the ward’s councillors and Edinburgh Central constituency MSP Angus Robertson were contacted for comment but no replies  were received.