John McLellan: What’s not to like about tourist tax?

A packed Royal Mile during this year's Edinburgh Festival
A packed Royal Mile during this year's Edinburgh Festival
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With London Mayor Sadiq Khan dragooned into the campaign, the introduction of a tourism tax in Edinburgh looks increasingly likely.

And although hardly scientific, the unanimous support at the city council’s “Question Time” event this week might indicate a broader appeal.

It’s not difficult to see why, if it will keep a lid on council tax rises and make visitors foot the bill for the services they receive and the attractions they enjoy.

The principle of a “transient visitor levy” as the SNP calls it (what is a visitor if not transient?) was included in the SNP, Lib Dem and Green council election manifestos, but without details. Little things like how much, who pays, what is taxed, how it’s collected and on what will it be spent..

READ MORE: Edinburgh leaders urge public to back tourist tax

The simplest method is a hotel bed tax, advocated by the SNP, where visitors pay a fee for each night and the operator passes it back to the authority. Limiting it to hotels above a certain size would make it easier to collect but reduce the revenue.

Despite the fears of the tourism industry, I doubt a small charge will make much difference to visitor numbers because, unlike the highly price-sensitive mass-market, tourists to a premium destination like Edinburgh are unlikely to change their travel plans because the cost has gone up by £2 a night or whatever the levy might be. Obviously, the higher the fee, the greater the danger.

READ MORE: Tourist tax plans would be ‘suicidal’ for Scotland

But even if it does rake in a hefty sum, what if the Scottish Government simply slashes the block grant it gives the council, as it does with business rates? Even if it doesn’t, what if the council administration simply sloshes the revenue into its coffers and allows it to brush inefficiencies in its services under the municipal rug? We could easily end up fleecing tourists and not see much difference to the fabric of the city, the visitor experience or our council tax bills.

On the face of it, what’s not to like about ring-fenced income to ensure the Festivals are properly funded, the city effectively marketed and the streets kept pristine all year round. But is that the plan?