Nicky Marr: What is taking us so long with a tourist tax?
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Have you been on holiday this summer? Did you head abroad, to Europe perhaps?
Then the chances are that on top of your travel and accommodation costs, your food and bar bills, and entrance fees to any visitor attractions, museums, theme parks, or galleries, you’ll have paid an extra few Euros in tourist tax.
Did it ruin your holiday? Probably not. Did it mean you’ve now added that country onto your travel blacklist, because you were outraged at contributing a tiny fraction of the cost of your holiday to the local community? No, I didn’t think so.
But if you did, you’ll find your list of ‘can’t go there again’ destinations might severely curtail future European adventures.
Currently, only a tiny minority of EU countries don’t impose tourist tax, and many have been charging it for decades. Recently, we’ve paid it at campsites in France and Belgium, and in hotels in Tenerife and Dubrovnik. And it seemed entirely fitting to do so.
We were using local infrastructure, taking advantage of roads, footpaths, and cycle routes, and public toilets too. All of that has to be maintained. Why should locals bear all the burden? A couple of Euros a night was less than the price of a coffee or a beer.
Finally, the Scottish Government look as though they will allow a similar levy to be introduced here. A consultation is under way on the Visitor Levy (Scotland) Bill to allow councils to apply tourist tax on overnight accommodation. In terms of the Bill, the money collected must be reinvested in local infrastructure, and in services used by visitors.
Improving potholes and passing places on Caithness roads? Creating more motorhome waste facilities around the NC500? Upgrading car parks at visitor hot spots on Skye and in Speyside? Reopening closed public toilets, and improving picnic areas, footpaths and cycling networks? If any or all of these come out of this, we should all be delighted.
Investment in the fragile and often crumbling infrastructure across our region will improve life not just for visitors but for the locals who live here too.
The amount of the levy will be decided by each council following local consultation and will likely be based on a percentage of cost. And it won’t be much.
But as those of us brought up with any Doric know, ‘mony a mickle maks a muckle’. A 2019 study suggested Highland Council could earn up to £10 million a year, and with the explosion in Highland tourism since lockdown, figures are likely to exceed that.
Estimates suggest that even £1 per overnight stay in Moray could earn the council £800,000. A similar scheme in Manchester city centre nets around £3 million per annum. I’ve not heard any complaints from Mancunians.
So what’s not to love? I wish they could hurry things up. If the current Bill goes through, it will be at least 2026 before any tax can be collected. But where there are good ideas – and Highland Council is in favour – there will always be a few who pour cold water.
Detractors have been scathing of the proposals, calling this levy an additional tax on the already heavily taxed tourism industry at a time when they remain battered by rising costs and a recruitment crisis. And there’s fear that councils’ block grants may be reduced by similar amounts by the Scottish Government, which would totally wipe out any benefit.
But unless I’m missing something, with hotel prices here pushing London and Edinburgh rates, tourists will hardly be put off by an extra couple of quid. And collection is an accounting exercise. Each check-out transaction might take a fraction longer, but once systems are in place, the tax will be submitted by the accommodation provider to the council. That can be largely automated.
Public consultation through the Scottish Government website has been extended to September 15, and views are sought not just from accommodation providers, but from the public too.
If you believe that our cash-strapped councils could benefit from this boost, you know what to do.