Brian Ferguson: Edinburgh has been naive in its bid for a tourist tax

Tourists on the Royal Mile.
Tourists on the Royal Mile.
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Edinburgh’s bid to introduce a tourist tax has been naive and all of the parties involved should make a genuine effort to find compromise, writes Brian Ferguson

Of the many stories I’ve covered that have left me with that “Groundhog Day” feeling none can quite match the never-ending saga over Edinburgh’s efforts to introduce a tax on tourists.

Perhaps Fiona Hyslop had that feeling when she saw switched on her phone and saw predictions from the city council that such a scheme would be ready to be rolled out within 12 months. The Scottish tourism secretary certainly didn’t take long to despatch a stinging rebuke to council leader Adam McVey, a rising star of her own party

Pointing out that there is no such agreement with the government to press ahead with a “transient visitor levy,” Ms Hyslop appeared to kill the idea stone dead. Her tweet, despatched during an extensive tour of Japan to drum up interest in Scotland, was a humilating turn of events for Mr McVey, for a signature policy.

Yet it was simply a reheat of ideas put forward previously by the council and repeatedly rebuffed over more than a decade. To the best of my knowledge, Mr McVey and his colleagues have received no more encouragement from the government than at any other point in the last decade or so. Yet still they keep coming back for more punishment from their political masters. In fact, the more vocal the opposition the louder the council has banged the drum, an interesting if somewhat naive tactic.

It was only last Christmas that Fiona Hyslop wrote to senior industry figures to make clear that her government had “no plans to introduce a tourism levy” - as solid a promise as a politician can make these days. Within months the council was bringing forward fresh plans based on “comprehensive desk-based research,” claiming an extra charge of £1 a night could generate upwards of £11 million, although it was far from clear which businesses would be affected and where the money would go.

Where we are now is where we have been for years - the council wants to impose a tourist tax, but seems incapable of winning even in-principle support from the government or the main industry bodies.

The Scottish Tourism Alliance and British Hospitality Association, two of the harshest critics of Edinburgh’s plans, are large, powerful and influential industry bodies that have direct access to the ear of politicians.

The STA has pointed out that its stance has been backed by the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, whose members include Edinburgh Castle. Holyrood Palace, the National Museum of Scotland and the Royal Yacht Britannia, all big hitters to say the least. There is also clearly little confidence in any research produced by a local authority which has made its support for a tourist tax clear from the outset.

What undoubtedly has changed over the last decade is that the popularity of all these attractions, and Edinburgh as a tourism destination, has grown dramatically.

That has brought significant extra demands on the council, particularly during peak periods, with the city’s roads network, public transport, pavements and waste collection services under mounting pressure,

These have undoubtedly helped fuel anti-tourism sentiments among some local residents, which has been unwisely stirred up further by certain politicians and could seriously damage the city in the long term. The council is also having to grapple with wider demands to balance ambitions for growth within the industry while protecting its World Heritage Site. With the challenges only likely to get more acute that is why it is incumbent on all those with an interest in the industry to put their differences aside and make a genuine effort to find compromise rather than further grievance.