Kenny MacAskill: Tourist tax will not deter anyone from visiting Scotland

Other European cities have benefitted from a tourist tax, and so can Edinburgh, writes Kenny MacAskill

Visitors are here in ever-increasing numbers, and a small levy would not put them off
Visitors are here in ever-increasing numbers, and a small levy would not put them off

The Edinburgh festivals are fast approaching and visitor numbers to the capital are increasing. Festivals are now a 12-months-a-year phenomenon. The Film Festival has recently passed and announcements have just been made about the Hogmanay festivities. This phenomenon is mirrored in other towns and cities across Scotland where events are more frequent and visitor numbers more numerous.

Additionally, the range of visitors has increased from UK, USA and North America to include a huge influx from Asia who come at all times of the year and even periods when locals are loathe to go out, given the weather. The number of Chinese visitors in a rain sodden Royal Mile or Holyrood Park in November or February can be staggering.

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It’s not just urban Scotland but throughout the country that tourism has increased. The Highlands have always been popular but numbers are growing. That’s understandable given the majesty of the scenery, but even more distant areas are experiencing the growth. I was in the Western Isles last week and the growth of tourism was evident from the number of caravans and cars queuing to get on the bigger and more frequent ferries now sailing. It was a far cry from childhood visits to grandparents when visitors were returning islanders and the odd stranger intrigued by the tranquillity of the misty isles.

Tourism is a global phenomenon. Increased wealth and ease of access have made it a huge and worldwide industry. It creates jobs and brings in badly needed income in Scotland, as elsewhere. But it can come at a cost. not simply in damage to pristine areas whether in the popular Highland destinations or in pressures through simple numbers in urban ones. There’s a financial cost to it. Suitable infrastructure has to be provided and requirements catered for, from the prosaic but necessary toilet provision and litter picking, to the grand events that draw and the maintenance of historic sites viewed. Grants from Government and contributions from the private sector do not come close to offseting that cost. Much falls upon the hard-pressed local authority and in turn the equally struggling council tax payer.

That’s why it’s time for a tourist tax. So far, the introduction of such a levy has been opposed by the Scottish Government but was sought by the past Labour leadership in Edinburgh and viewed sympathetically by the SNP opposition in the council. The new SNP/Labour administration may very well see not just the desirability but necessity of the income that could be generated. The capital city won’t be alone, as other areas may see the benefit of some additional revenue raising when costs are mounting and income is restricted.

A tourist tax is also applied in many areas where Scots will travel to this summer. It has neither deterred them from going nor harmed the destinations they’re visiting. Far from boycotting such destinations, Scots have continued to go in their droves. Italian resorts and the ever-popular Balearics along with others use such a method to sustain, not deter, tourism.

The arguments against a tax are also unravelling. Opposition has been based on the UK being a high-cost destination and suggestions that a further increase would deter visitors. That was always flawed, as people just kept coming even though with a high pound and high VAT costs incurred. But visitor numbers are ever increasing and the pound has been tumbling. Scotland has become much less expensive for foreign visitors, and it’s evident in the crowds.

Moreover, a tourist tax has always been a marginal consideration, if a factor at all for holidaymakers. Stepping down from Parliament last year, my partner and I indulged ourselves with a round-the-world air ticket offering the opportunity to see sites never before realisable. When considering where to go and what to visit, a variety of factors were considered, primarily locations long dreamed of, though other issues arose. Time and logistics were the prime ones, although safety and cost were also addressed.

However, what was never discussed, let alone even thought of, was a tourist tax. Whether one applied in any of the many destinations visited was an irrelevance, at best a factor in the overall cost of a city or country, but it most certainly wasn’t an impediment to going. Physical danger, distance and difficulty with language and access, as well as overall expense, were issues that could preclude a stop, but not the imposition of a modest tax or surcharge. It’s been ever thus since I first started travelling as a student through Europe on interrail over four decades ago.

Neither I nor any of my travelling companions have ever vowed not to return to a destination after having had to pay a tourist tax. There have been complaints about overall cost, and gripes about finding a tourist tax on the bill at the end of the vacation, but this was a minor matter in the overall stay. If the visit was enjoyable, the extra charge is quickly forgotten and if it wasn’t enjoyable, the reason will be because of other factors such as weather, cleanliness or some disturbance that upset or irked.

So, the tourist tax’s time has come in Scotland. Not all areas will want it or require it. Many rural areas may see it as unhelpful or an incumbrance. That’s for them to decide, as it should be for each local authority to decide. But some pressured cities will see the benefits for enhancing tourism and not just revenue raising. Collecting the tax can be kept simple and whilst it’s an inconvenience to business large or small, it’s still both manageable and a marginal cost.

The tax can be offset by hypothecating revenue garnered for tourist related costs. Instead of disappearing into the black hole of council finance, it can go into a special fund designated for defraying costs in running events, maintaining sites or keeping streets clean and toilets open. Think of it as a tourism supplement, rather than a tourist tax.