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Tourist tax in Highlands could move a big step closer

By Ian Duncan

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A tourist tax in the Highlands could take a big step forward next week when councillors vote on whether to further explore the idea and draw up firm proposals.

Councillors are set to discuss the Scottish Government's proposed Transient Visitor Levy (TVL) at a meeting on Monday.

It follows the end of a council consultation over the plans, which generated more than 6500 responses – the highest number to an online consultation run by the authority.

Highland councillors are being asked to give their backing in principle to a tourist tax in the region.
Highland councillors are being asked to give their backing in principle to a tourist tax in the region.

Responses – which included a face-to-face survey, online consultation and written submissions – were generally in favour of the TVL which it is anticipated, if approved, could be introduced by early 2021.

More than six million visitors are welcomed to the area every year and the authority believes the measure could raise between £5 million and £10 million annually.

In the online survey almost two-thirds of respondents were in favour of the levy – which included 52.3 per cent of the visitors who might be expected to pay.

More than 75 per cent of residents were supportive, and 47.4 per cent of businesses were in favour, compared to 44.2 per cent who were against the charge.

Under the scheme, councils could impose a rule that hotels or other businesses would have to charge visitors extra money to offset the impact of growing tourism on local infrastructure.

However concerns have also been raised that it should not just be a hotel "bed tax", but also be extended to cruise ship passengers and motorhome users as well. Exemptions for Highland residents were also mooted.

Monday's report to councillors has recommended that they should commit to giving further consideration of how such a scheme might be designed and implemented – to reflect the views given in the consultation, and to mitigate any potential negative impact.

It is also recommended that it should be more than just a "bed tax" on those staying in paid overnight accommodation, Highland residents should be exempted from paying a Highland TVL when visiting other parts of the region and that revenues should be ring-fenced for tourism uses.

If approved council officers will work on the detail of a scheme – such as whether it would apply per person or per room – before being brought back to a future meeting of the council for final approval.

Legislation would also need to pass the Scottish Government before this could happen.

However, Stewart Nicol, the chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, said members had been "strongly against" the proposal and added: "If Highland Council go ahead and impose the levy, and other parts of Scotland do not, that is putting out the message to visitors to the region that it is a more expensive part of Scotland to visit."

Tony Story, the managing director of Patio Hotels which owns both Kingsmills and Ness Bank, said he thought the idea was an "insane" way of collecting more money and there were already structures in place, such as business rates and VAT, to collect taxes on tourists.

"I think it's going to go through but I don't think it's a great idea," he added.

The Cairngorms Business Partnership, Federation of Small Businesses and Aviemore Business Association have also been outspoken critics of the proposal.

A VisitScotland spokesman said: "In order to support tourism’s economic contribution here and safeguard the thousands of jobs the industry currently holds in the region, were a tax to be introduced, we would want the resulting revenue to be re-invested in tourism."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said under the proposals it was up to local authorities to determine whether they applied the charge and no decision had been taken as to whether this will apply to cruise ship passengers.

A council spokesman said: “The council paper and supporting analytical appendices present the findings from the TVL consultation.

"This received more than 6600 responses from Highland residents, businesses and visitors to the region.

“Members are recommended to recognise the support for a TVL in Highland evidenced in the online and face-to-face surveys, but also the observations on impact and design made across the consultation.

"They are recommended to determine whether this evidence constitutes a mandate to introduce a Highland TVL and if so, commit to further consideration of how such a scheme might be designed and implemented in order to reflect the views given in the consultation and to mitigate any potential negative impacts."

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