Brian Ferguson: Tourism tax debate needs to be put to bed

Tourism tax needs to be decided writes Brian Ferguson
Tourism tax needs to be decided writes Brian Ferguson
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While other parts of Scotland have long since given up on trying to stage major events in the run-up to Hogmanay, the pinnacle of Edinburgh’s winter festivals programme still has undoubted drawing power.

As has become tradition over the past 25 years, the torchlight parade which heralds the start of the city’s Hogmanay celebrations brought thousands of locals out onto the streets to mingle with the many overseas visitors taking part.

Being involved in the parade of fire has long had much more appeal than joining the much merrier throngs on Princes Street the following evening.

Even more impressive are the kind of images which can be sent around the world from Edinburgh the night before Hogmanay. It is little wonder that the city is the envy of many others across the globe when it comes to its festivals.

What the vast majority of those who descended on Edinburgh for a few days were probably blissfully unaware of is a festering anti-tourism feeling in the city.

Opposition to major hotel developments, increasing concern about a lack of regulation to control the amount of short-term lets flooding the market, and over-crowded streets have all triggered significant levels of public debate and interventions from politicians. All three would appear to require serious attention.

However the most high-profile manifestation of anti-tourism sentiment has emerged in the latest episode of the seemingly never-ending debate on whether Edinburgh should introduce Britain’s first tourist tax scheme.

Its councillors have long been frustrated at the city’s inability to capitalise more on the vast influx of tourists every summer and winter.

For some, it is not enough to boast an industry supporting 30,000 jobs and worth £1.3 billion to the economy.

They see operators charging more than £400 a room at peak times and wonder how much an extra few pounds on the room rate could benefit the council’s finances if it was ringfenced for the authority.

Perhaps suspecting that a tourist tax in Edinburgh would be used to justify making funding cuts affecting the industry, the Scottish Government has rebuffed the idea on numerous occasions over the past decade.

There is also almost universal opposition within the tourism industry itself. Just before Christmas, Gordon Robertson, the chair of Marketing Edinburgh, the main body responsible for selling the city to the world, admitted that the tourism sector was “under-rated and can be unloved.” He issued a fairly stark warning that the city could not afford to give the impression it is “full” or wants to “turn away visitors.”

The British Hospitality Association was much less diplomatic recently in accusing the city council of showing “complete disdain” for the industry by repeatedly pushing the idea of a tourist tax in the face of consistent government opposition.

We may have to wait a while to discover if the idea really is dead and buried, as the BHA claims, But in the meantime, some serious thinking is required on what tourism in Edinburgh needs and how it should be better supported - at every level. That may require a truce to be called.

But one thing is for sure. Whipping up more anti-tourism sentiment is not going to end well for anyone in the current economic climate.