Leader: Real debate about tourist tax should be ‘how high?’

Taxing visitors could raise up to �70m. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Taxing visitors could raise up to �70m. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Visitor numbers to Scotland were up by 17 per cent during 2017, while the amount they spent rose by almost a quarter, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.

This should be good news. After all, as the slogan goes: tourism is everyone’s business.

Hotels, bars, restaurants, tourist attractions, gift shops – they all provide employment for locals which helps to keep a successful economy turning.

Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland, described the results as “outstanding” and proof that “Scotland can compete on a global stage”.

So, tourism is good for the economy and positive for national identity – we like to feel good about the country we live in. It also helps to support business and attract skilled staff. It’s far easier for a Scottish firm to strike an overseas deal if they are dealing with someone who already knows our country.

But the growth of tourism in Scotland has now sparked a debate about whether there are also negatives, major negatives, to this rise in visitors. In Edinburgh, a debate has been ongoing in recent years about how to manage visitor numbers, particularly around Festival time. The increase in the number of hotels and bars, associated noise, pavements unable to cope with the sheer numbers, have sparked calls for a change of strategy. The proliferation of Airbnb properties has also concerned some residents.

This debate is no longer restricted to our big cities. As we report today, rural Scotland is also struggling to cope at peak season. Residents on Islay have major concerns and the increased popularity of the North Coast 500 route has left some there asking whether the benefit to the local community is worth it.

Cash-strapped Highland Council, for example, plans to close a number of toilets in the region, already short on provision.

This goes to the heart of the debate. Whether it’s Edinburgh or Durness, should we introduce a tourist tax that can allow local authorities to benefit from tourism numbers – and then use this money to maintain and upgrade local infrastructure, whether it is fixing potholes, litter or public toilets?

MSP Monica Lennon writes in this paper today arguing that Scots are paying a tourist tax in countries as varied as Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and New Zealand – often without even noticing it.

With local authorities under pressure – and the likelihood that tourism numbers will go on climbing – we need a solution. The debate should be around how we levy the tax, the rate and how it’s spent. Not whether to have one.

Do we really think a visitor from Europe or North America would choose not to visit Scotland because of a £2 a night local tax? The truth is that the cost of a holiday here varies far more as a result of currency fluctuations.

It has been suggested that a tourist tax could raise up to £70 million. This isn’t money we can afford to turn away.