Nicola Sturgeon’s speech last Tuesday setting out the Scottish government’s legislative programme for the year ahead confirmed what was already pretty clear. Scottish councils are set to be the first in the UK with the power to levy charges on visitors, with Edinburgh likely to lead the way.
Tourist taxes are not new. The Himayalan kingdom of Bhutan has a longstanding policy of charging visitors a daily fee. France’s taxe de séjour on overnight stays was introduced to assist thermal spa towns to develop, and around half of French local authorities use it today.
But such levies are on the rise. Moves by Barcelona and Venice to deal with the phenomenon of “over-tourism” through the use of charges have recently gained prominence. Japan and Greece are among the countries to have recently introduced tourist taxes, while their collection by Airbnb is a condition of that company’s licence to operate in Paris.
That the UK lags behind is due to our weak (by international standards) local government, as well as the antipathy to taxes and regulation of our aggressively pro-market ruling party. Bath is one English council to have lobbied without success for the power to levy a charge on visitors. Birmingham’s plan for a £2-a-night hotel charge is more likely to be approved as the cash is needed to fund the 2022 Commonwealth Games – and it already has support in the House of Lords.
Such levies are no panacea. The amounts raised would be tiny compared with what has been taken away by central government since 2010. Still, it is to be hoped that the SNP’s bold move will jolt others to act. There is no reason why visitors to the UK, or domestic tourists on holiday in hotspots such as Cornwall, should be exempt from taxation – particularly when vital local services including waste collection, park maintenance and arts and culture spending are under unprecedented strain.
On the contrary, compelling tourists to make a financial contribution to the places they visit beyond their personal consumption should be part of a wider cultural shift. Westerners with disposable incomes have often behaved as if they have a right to go wherever they choose with little heed for the consequences. Just as the environmental harm caused by aviation and other transport must come under far greater scrutiny, the social cost of tourism must also be confronted. This includes the impact of short-term lets on housing costs and quality of life for residents; cities including Paris and Berlin are leading a campaign for tougher regulation by the EU. It also includes the impact of overcrowding, litter and the kinds of behaviour associated with stag and hen parties.
There is no “one size fits all”. The existence of new revenue streams for some but not all councils is complicated, and businesses are often opposed, fearing higher costs will make them uncompetitive. But those places that want them must be given the chance to make tourist taxes work.
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