Ian Swanson: Tourists will pay and you won't '“ what's not to like?
NEW taxes are not Ânormally popular '“ but according to a survey of hundreds of residents and visitors in Edinburgh at the height of the summer season, the council's proposed tourist tax looks like an exception.
It found 59 per cent of residents backed the idea – perhaps not surprising since they would not have to pay it.
Visitors were evenly split on the introduction of a tax. But more significantly, as many as 92 per cent said a £1 per night charge would not put them off coming to Edinburgh – and even if the tax was £4 per night, 78 per cent said they would not be deterred.
Many supporters of the tourist tax find it hard to understand why there is any opposition to the idea.
What is not to like about a tax which the local population does not have to pay, which those on whom it is levied seem content to accept and which would bring in millions of pounds in extra revenue for the city?
Such taxes are already quite routine in many places in Europe and around the world.
Nevertheless, tourism industry bodies and some individual businesses have made it clear they do not support the council’s plans – and crucially they seem to have the Scottish Government on their side.
Although the Capital’s SNP-Labour administration is pressing ahead with detailed proposals for a tax, it cannot be implemented until the government agrees to grant local authorities the power to do so.
Edinburgh is not alone in wanting to bring in a tourist tax. Highland and Aberdeen councils are both also interested.
All local authorities are strapped for cash these days and if they face a clearly identifiable extra financial burden as the result of being a tourist destination, it is natural they will think it fair to try to recoup some of that from the tourists themselves.
As Highland council convener Bill Lobban told MSPs last week: “The tourist uses the same sort of facilities that the public does, yet the public pays and the tourist doesn’t. Provision of these services costs money.”
Visiting Edinburgh earlier this year Sir Richard Branson suggested a tourist tax in the Capital could lead people opting to go to Glasgow instead – though Virgin Hotels chief executive Raul Leal says the official company position is that it is well used to local tax arrangements and sees “no difficulties” if Edinburgh decided to introduce a tourist tax. Short-term accommodation site Airbnb similarly says it already has arrangements to collect a tourist tax in cities around the world and would “gladly support” a levy in Edinburgh if the city decided to bring one in.
The council says it is getting positive feedback from the industry in Edinburgh – with hotels and others recognising a levy is likely to be introduced and being keen to help influence how it will work.
UK Hospitality, however, remains opposed – it says a tax in itself might not make people stay away, but claims there is evidence that higher costs for tourists have a negative impact on their overall spending, affecting bars, restaurants and attractions.
The government has so far appeared hostile to the idea. But its official line is that it will not consider a tourist tax “unless the tourism and hospitality industry is involved from the outset and its long-term interests are fully recognised”. That does leave the door open to approving a tax – just.