Gordon Dewar: Tourist tax shouldn’t just be paid by hotels

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Other businesses, including airports, could contribute to a levy, says Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar.

It’s a strange feeling, to have something that you’ve been passionate about for years suddenly burst on to the front pages.

All tourism beneficiaries should contribute ' bars, airports, shops etc

All tourism beneficiaries should contribute ' bars, airports, shops etc

Like when your favourite unknown band gets a number one album, or that wee restaurant you love suddenly gets a great review. There’s a mix of pleasure that it’s become topical but annoyance that not everyone thinks the same about why it’s important or what is the best way to develop it in the future. But, on balance, it’s good that everyone has an opinion on the thing you’ve nurtured and supported because then there is the chance for action.

I feel a bit like that with tourism in Edinburgh. It’s our job to sell the city across the world to airlines and therefore tourism in Edinburgh is really important to us.

At the airport, it’s our passion. We’re geeky about it. We even volunteer to help in the tourism cause at city and national level! And yet, with the passion of someone who was ‘into the band’ from the start, it can be frustrating.

Where were they all for the last ten years when lack of growth was the problem?

Take the discussion around a tourism levy or tax for example. Sir Richard Branson recently join in, giving his view about what was needed while launching his new five-star hotel. It’s something we’ve been looking at with others, including Marketing Edinburgh, for many years.

READ MORE: Donald Anderson: How a tourist tax would help Edinburgh stay great

I generally think that we all agree that investment in tourism is a clever idea and, if done well, will give a return in jobs and economic growth. I certainly have no truck with people who don’t want more tourism and claim that we’re full or those who try to limit Edinburgh’s ambition and opportunities based on anecdote, emotion or a fixed and narrow mindset.

Edinburgh is not a museum. It’s a vibrant modern city. It’s a city that its residents can thrive within as well as one that needs our respect for its history.

Tourism is a vital industry for us, but it must sit alongside the needs of residents and businesses. It needs to contribute and pay its way and be part of conserving the very attractiveness of Edinburgh for tourists, businesses and residents alike.

That’s how I reason that investment driven by some sort of levy is worth looking at. As long as the funds raised are invested in tourism and recognise the long-term value of the city’s heritage and the needs of all.

Marketing Edinburgh is on to something with its “triangle” approach to tourism management – an equal stake in it from the three points: tourism, businesses and residents. That feels right.

I also think that the council seeking to collect more information and views is the right approach. We work in a data-driven business and we applaud the council’s intended research on the impacts of a levy and the types of models available. Ensuring that the views of residents, businesses and tourists are understood can only help make informed decisions.

I would argue that everyone with an opinion should participate and I also believe that tourism organisations, even those that disagree with the concept of a levy should be supportive, even financially, of the research even if unconvinced by the concept at this early stage.

READ MORE: Richard Branson: Edinburgh tourist tax could drive visitors to Glasgow

I realise that this may be an unpopular view, but we can’t build policy on anecdote and opinion. Let’s see the data and let’s use that to guide us.

Furthermore, let’s try and get some cornerstones that we can agree on and then use that to help with the design and implementation of a scheme that can attract wide support. I for one would favour an approach that spreads the burden and spreads the widest possible net for contributions. It can’t just be hotels that contribute. I think that would be a mistake, unfair and will not maximise the available funds. All those that benefit from tourism should contribute – Airbnb, bars, restaurants, airports and shops among others.

I think that the money needs to be ringfenced with clear areas for spending. The governance of that spending should be clear too and those that pay must decide where the money goes.

This money, hard fought, can’t be used for potholes or spent by those that have not paid in.

Ideally, I’d suggest a voluntary scheme or I would think that any proposal at least needs a majority support from within business population who will be asked to pay.

And finally, I’d want a scheme that is not burdened by excessive administration costs.

So that’ll be my feedback to the research. Sir Richard would disagree with at least some of that, though I think we’re on common ground on the need for the funds raised to be spent on tourism.

I urge all coming to this debate, please don’t throw rocks from the sidelines. Don’t disengage completely, instead make the case, raise any concerns and propose what would be acceptable and beneficial.

But don’t dare claim we’re like Venice and full, or that there isn’t a need for further investment without a good argument to support these views.

It’s good to have so many new people on board for the discussion of the future of tourism and all its many opportunities. Don’t you love it when your passions become popular?