Brian Ferguson: Shadow of bed tax looms large in Edinburgh

Despite an insistence that tourist taxes are the norm overseas, the fact no other part of the UK has such a scheme is a major drawback. Picture: TSPL
Despite an insistence that tourist taxes are the norm overseas, the fact no other part of the UK has such a scheme is a major drawback. Picture: TSPL
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TRYING times for tourism as face-off looms over bed tax, writes Brian Ferguson

There was an unusual undercurrent of tension as the great and good of Edinburgh’s tourism industry held their annual summit in the city. Amid the usual smiles, hugs and air-kisses, there was much animated discussions and debate on an issue which has gathered a remarkable head of steam in recent weeks.

The idea of a tourist tax for Scotland’s capital has been touted so many times over the past decade that I had become weary every time it reared its head. The Scottish Government has gamely attempted to kill off the idea on several occasions but, just like the classic horror film serial killer, it has refused to die.

The prospect of Edinburgh becoming the first city in the UK to introduce a bed tax for visitors has returned to haunt the city’s tourism industry with a vengeance since the turn of the year.

Having fended off previous attempts fairly successfully, senior tourism industry figures are furious at having to campaign on the issue again. But, this time it is more serious, with suggestions the Scottish Government is much more sympathetic to the idea than previously.

Alarm bells were set ringing by an opinion column penned by Edinburgh MSP Kenny MacAskill, published just after the Hogmanay festivities, which said it was time for the city’s visitors to help meet the huge costs of such events. He posed a simple question: “In reality local residents are contributing, but tourists don’t – why should that be?”

The issue at the heart of the debate is fairly simple. There is no formula at present for ensuring that some of the income from visitors, particularly from overnight stays, returns to the city council, which funds all of the major events held in Edinburgh throughout the year.

As politicians like Tommy Sheppard, the former comedy promoter elected to Westminster for the SNP last year, have pointed out, the city’s hotels do not seem to hesitate over hiking up prices during peak periods.

The intervention of senior SNP figures is highly significant as it signals a shift in thinking in the party. It has offered hope of bringing an end to a stalemate over how to raise new finance for the festivals when arts funding has been targeted for cuts by the government and the city council.

The recent Thundering Hooves report into the future of Edinburgh’s festivals delivered a stark warning that the city faced slipping out of the “premier division” if it failed to maintain funding for these events in the face of the public spending “fiscal cliff”.

It was no surprise to hear Julia Amour, the new director of Festivals Edinburgh, express support for the idea to at least be considered. Within days she had found support from the city’s main cultural venues, all of whom have key roles in at least one major festival.

To this observer, the introduction of such a scheme is anything but a done deal, though.

If this new-found political support within the SNP was to manifest itself in the Scottish Government giving its full backing, even in principle, it will find itself at loggerheads with the industry at both local and national level.

Despite an insistence that tourist taxes are the norm overseas, the fact no other part of the UK has such a scheme is a major drawback.

Will the SNP be happy to sign off on a deal which will see visitors to Edinburgh hit with an extra charge compared to those staying in London, Birmingham and Manchester?

That would be the brutal reality.