Tourist tax on cruise ship passengers visiting Scotland is absolutely justified – Kenny MacAskill

Large numbers of tourists who may contribute little to the local economy still require facilities that cost money

A few weeks ago, I took my eldest son to Lewis to show him his great-grandparents’ graves and the island more generally. Tourist sites like the Calanais standing stones and Luskentyre beach were the busiest I can ever recall, and it wasn’t peak summer.

When Justice Secretary, I remember being taken to the stones by the island’s police commander and, when asked what I thought, I pointed across Loch Roag at my grandparents’ croft where I’d holidayed most summers. I’ve been going for 60 years and at one time you simply parked at the side of the road and walked across a field to the stones. Usually no one else was there, the beaches often the same.

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For most of my life, tourism on the island was those with a link returning home or visiting relatives, other than the odd intrepid tourist seeking something different. Now it’s changed dramatically. Campervans and cruise liners have transformed the tourist trade and it’s having an impact. No wonder that those running the stones site are considering a charge for access. The visitor centre’s excellent with layout and signage an enhancement. But it all comes at a cost.

It's why a tourist tax shouldn’t just be available for councils to apply to the likes of myself and my son staying in accommodation in Stornoway but to those visiting in other ways. When we were there, a cruise liner was in every day, towering over the CalMac ferry we sailed in on. A jetty’s being built so passengers don’t need to transfer to land by small boat but who’s paying for that?

The impact on the island’s considerable but where’s the financial benefit for the local community? Ship operators work on maximising spend on board, not ashore. Tours will be offered to the sites. But other than the bus operator, where’s the tourist spend?

A few were simply wandering around Stornoway, rather than going on the organised tour. No doubt they’d buy a coffee and shortbread at a café and maybe even a tartan bunnet or a bottle of the new Isle of Harris whisky. Cafés and shops can benefit as Kirkwall shows.

But there are still costs and why shouldn’t these visitors contribute? A per capita tax on cruise liner visitors is as legitimate one on those holidaying by staying on the island. Otherwise, the costs for public facilities and services are largely met by the community. That’s just not right.

Why shouldn’t those who land at Greenock and are likely bussed to Loch Lomond be charged a modest fee? It might even provide the seed-corn funding for an Emigrant Museum as exists at Cobh, Ireland’s equivalent point of departure and an incentive to spend time in the town. Leith and other destinations large and small are likewise. Just as in Lewis, it can support site maintenance at the stones or public toilets and other facilities.

A few years back, I was in Venice and crowds mostly from cruise liners hugely detracted from the visit. They plan to charge day-trippers and why not? It should be up to each local authority to decide if they want a tourist tax but if they do, they should be able to include cruise liner visitors.

Kenny MacAskill is Alba Party MP for East Lothian



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