Stephen Jardine: Hoaching Edinburgh needs a tourist tax

Tourists during the Edinburgh Fringe. Picture: JP
Tourists during the Edinburgh Fringe. Picture: JP
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A small levy or ‘tourist tax’ on hotel rooms would provide much-needed funds to improve Edinburgh for tourists and locals alike, says Stephen Jardine.

Edinburgh City Council gets it wrong most of the time. The £776 million trams fiasco established their incompetence beyond reasonable doubt. They also botch planning decisions and seem unable to fix simple potholes in the road but on one thing they are 100 per cent correct: Edinburgh needs a tourist tax.

If in doubt, walk through the city centre today. Edinburgh is full to bursting. The streets are jammed, the pavements are mobbed and it is standing room only on every bus. The world is here but so are the residents of the city and there lies the problem.

August has always been a busy time in Edinburgh due to the Festival and the locals accept that, but the city is now enjoying a year-round boom bolstered by a full calendar of events and a weak pound. Over the last five years, visitor numbers in Edinburgh have increased by half a million, up to 3.85 million – up 18 per cent. The rise of Airbnb is changing the character of some areas. There is now a real risk Edinburgh’s success is ruining the city for those who call it home.

In Barcelona and Venice, local people have taken to the streets to protest about the suffocating number of visitors. It will take a lot to get the douce residents of Edinburgh to man the barricades but collective patience is clearly becoming strained.

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The frustration would be mitigated if we lived in a city offering great infrastructure and fabulous local services but that isn’t the case. Instead those pillars of local life are crumbling under the weight of tourism. The city council’s proposed tourism tax is the obvious answer. What’s being suggested is a levy of £1 per bedroom per night. Critics say that risks sending visitors elsewhere but to where? From Rome to Berlin and Bruges to Amsterdam, all the other obvious destinations have a higher tourism tax in place already and the impact has been non-existent. Is anyone really going to switch their choice of holiday destination over being asked to pay the price of a cup of coffee to visit ?

One key factor is where the money goes. No one likes a tax so instead we should call it the Public Realm Levy. Every penny raised needs to go into improving the city. That means fixing pavements, filling potholes, removing graffiti, emptying bins and picking up litter. If a tourist doesn’t want to pay a pound to make the city a better place for them to visit, do we really want them here in the first place? We can learn from experience in the beautiful hamlet of Civita in Italy. Founded by the Etruscans, it was crumbling under the weight of 850,000 tourists a year. Locals had reached breaking point so the mayor introduced a solution. To cross the bridge to enter, visitors now pay three euros during the week and five euros at the weekend.

“The ticket price has not discouraged people at all,” says Mayor Francesco Bigiotti. “In fact, it has increased the quality of tourism. The tourists are more attentive, stay for longer and are more respectful.” The residents are also now happy and no wonder. The income has allowed the Mayor to abolish the council tax. We may be a long way from being able to do that in Edinburgh but what a tourism charge would do is signal some benefit for local people.

Unless they work in tourism, it is hard for local people to experience the positive impact of record Fringe tickets sales or the highest hotel occupancy outside London. We are lucky to have a wonderful city so many people want to come and visit. But a tourist levy is the only way we can maintain that.

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