Tourist tax: Edinburgh Council, not Scottish Government, should decide how to spend tourist tax cash – Kevin Lang

There were times this summer when you could easily have thought Covid, lockdowns, and social distancing had all just been a bad dream.

A tourist tax would see visitors pay a little bit extra on their hotel bills (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)
A tourist tax would see visitors pay a little bit extra on their hotel bills (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

Edinburgh’s festivals were back in force. More than two million Fringe tickets were sold, the sixth highest figure in the event’s 75-year history.

It may have been smaller in scale, but the Edinburgh International Festival still sold more than 150,000 tickets, with more people per show than before.

Even outside of the festivals, Edinburgh is seeing a boon in inbound tourism, particularly from the USA where exchange rates and direct flights mean it’s seldom been easier, or cheaper, to come and visit.

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This has inevitably reignited the debate around how we manage tourism in the city and how we pay for the services and infrastructure needed to cope.

Despite the deep political divisions we see locally and nationally, there has been a growing cross-party consensus for Edinburgh to have new powers to levy a ‘transient visitor levy’. This, for people who talk normally, is a ‘tourist tax’, most likely in the form of a small charge added to overnight accommodation costs.

This political will hasn’t always matched the overwhelming views of the public in favour of a new tax. Some previous opponents decried the policy as a serious risk to the tourism sector, as though it represented some revolutionary or dangerous change which would put visitors off from coming to Edinburgh and damage our city’s competitiveness.

This attitude always missed a key point, that many cities around the world levy tourist taxes and have done so for many years. I’m just back from a (non-council) work trip to Minneapolis in the USA where I wouldn’t have even noticed the three per cent charge on my hotel bill had I not looked out for it. Brussels, Vienna, Paris, New York, Berlin – all levy small charges successfully with the money reinvested locally.

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In the years to come, I think people will ask two questions; what was all the fuss about, and why didn’t we implement the tourist tax policy earlier?

Given this last point, we really do need to get on with it. After two years of the policy sitting on the political shelf, it is good to see the Scottish Government finally getting on with the process of devolving the power to Edinburgh and other councils so charging can start.

That process will open up another important principle to fight for, that it should be down to local councillors in Edinburgh and not Scottish ministers to decide how the money is spent.

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This may jar with the SNP/Green government, known for its centralising streak and instinctive need to control. I hope it will break with that behaviour and stay true to local democracy by giving Edinburgh the maximum flexibility to spend the money we raise on what we believe matters most.

It could be improved street cleaning. It might be enhancing our public parks. It could be investing more in public transport. Whatever the choices, it should be down to us locally to decide. Let’s see if the political consensus holds for that new debate to come.

Kevin Lang is the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Edinburgh City Council