Festival promoters back tourist tax for Edinburgh to pay for marketing

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The promoters behind the Underbelly Fringe venue and Edinburgh’s winter festivals have thrown their weight behind the city’s controversial tourist tax – if it is used for the biggest ever marketing drive for the capital’s major events.

Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam say there is a pressing need for the first “concerted and co-ordinated” campaign to promote all of the festivals under the one banner properly.

The Edinburgh festivals enter their first weekend of what promises to be a busy month for the capital. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Edinburgh festivals enter their first weekend of what promises to be a busy month for the capital. Picture: Neil Hanna

The long-time business partners insist the tourist tax will not put people off coming to the city because similar schemes are in place all over the world.

But they are adamant it should not be brought in if it means public funding for the festivals is cut back.

The city council has been lobbying the Scottish Government for the powers to bring in a “transient visitor levy” for more than a decade.

However, the idea has been consistently opposed by ministers and the main Scottish tourism bodies.

Tourists are staying in hotels for terrifying amounts of money and a tiny charge on top of that isn’t going to put off a tourist coming here

Charlie Wood, Underbelly co-founder

Despite the lack of support, council leader Adam McVey has embarked on a new charm offensive to secure new support for the initiative, which could see £1 or £2 a night added to the cost of hotel rooms across the city.

A recent claim that such a tax could be imposed on visitors to the city’s festivals in 2019 was dismissed by Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop.

However, the idea has previously won the backing of leading cultural venues in the city.

Mr Wood said: “The first step is to get over the hurdle of Edinburgh being allowed to bring in a tourist tax. Then it can be worked out how it is spent.

“It is important that some of that money is ring-fenced for the festivals. They are obviously a big contributor of tourism into the city. Tourists are staying in hotels for terrifying amounts of money and a tiny change on top of that isn’t going to put off a tourist coming here.

“It doesn’t put tourists off going to Paris, Rome or Venice. Why is going to put people off coming to Edinburgh when there is more to do than any of these cities?

“It’s something we can only advocate for. Clearly it’s a decision that has to be made by the Scottish Government, but we’re a big supporter of the idea.

“We have an interest in the Fringe and the winter festivals and are part of Festivals Edinburgh. Anything that supports the whole festival ecology in Edinburgh has to be a good thing, but the one thing it shouldn’t do is replace any existing funding.”

Mr Bartlam said: “Tourist taxes have proved successful in plenty of other cities around Europe and elsewhere in the world. It’s not a new concept.

“A tourist tax shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for funding that is currently there, but it’s a simple fact that more funding is needed for wider cross-city initiatives to support all of the festivals.

“There is a lot more that can be done on joint marketing across all the festivals.

“We all do our own things in our own pockets or within the different festivals.

“There is a much more exciting thing to do around cross marketing around all of the festivals and thereby Edinburgh and thereby Scotland.

“One of the great things about Edinburgh at this time of year is that there isn’t just one festival on. There is a multitude.

“We should be pulling our knowledge, expertise and marketing clout together, with additional funding, to be able to sell that to the world.”

The Underbelly founders said money raised from an Edinburgh tourist tax could help pay for infrastructure improvements for the festivals, including a long-awaited joint box office system.

Mr Wood said: “How does someone coming to Edinburgh fresh for the first time know where to go, what festival to go to or where to buy tickets from? Wouldn’t it be great if there was one box office selling tickets for all the festivals?”

However, William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of the Assembly Rooms, said: “In principle, a tourist tax is great idea, but in practice I’m not sure about adding even more cost to the price of hotel rooms in Edinburgh, which are already exorbitant as it is and then there is the issue of how the money raised is disseminated.

“The Fringe Society is seen as the organisations which holds the whole thing together and tends to get the funding, but the work is actually done by the venues.

“I would believe in a tourist tax if some of the money actually went into shows that would keep the festival lively and encourage work that would not normally come.

“The cost of accommodation in Edinburgh has just gone bananas. We should be trying to find cheaper ways of people coming here. The Fringe Society should be looking at some way of giving a stamp of approval to those that set a reasonable rate and encouraging people to use them.”