Edinburgh’s council chiefs have announced potential plans to join forces with London and impose a levy on visitors to their capital cities. By forging a cross-border alliance, councillors hope to convince Westminster and Holyrood to grant the cities the power to raise such taxes, which they insist are necessary to support local services.
Though such a ‘tourist tax’ would be the first of its kind imposed in the UK, these taxes are in fact already highly common across many hotspots across Europe. Austria, for example, levies an overnight accommodation tax, the rate depending on which province the guest is staying, ranging from 12p to £1.75 a night, whereas Italy’s Tassi di soggiorno varies from city to city, and will depend on the star-rating of a visitor’s hotel. There has been little to no evidence that such taxes have negatively impacted tourism in these countries in any significant way.
With many essential services facing cash shortages this year, Edinburgh’s city councillors argue that a tourist tax is essential to making up the shortfall and keeping the city running. With more than 4.5 million visitors to Edinburgh this past year, local leaders insist that both residents and tourists would benefit from this measure, which would fund the upkeep of roads, public toilets and street cleaning.
Though details of Edinburgh’s tourist tax have yet to be confirmed, previous proposals have suggested a levy of £1 to £4, depending on the time of year and the type of accommodation, similar to those already seen on the continent. Not every city or region would have to implement such a tax, with the major cities and popular locations in the Highlands being more likely to seek such an option.
Previous attempts by Edinburgh’s councillors to impose such a tax failed after business leaders expressed concern that it would drive tourists away from the city centre. Indeed, the tourism industry in Edinburgh has become crucial to the city’s financial health. A 2016 report by the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group (ETAG) found that Edinburgh sold £1.3 billion in services the previous year, and is responsible for the creation of 30,000 jobs and £400 million in wages. Most of this tourist activity occurs during the August boom of Edinburgh’s famed festival season, wherein the Fringe alone reported an excess of 2 million tickets sold, and the International Festival and Book Festival marking a combined total of 700,000 tickets.
Despite these financial benefits, there have been growing fears that, as the tourism industry continues to balloon to unprecedented proportions, the city centre might become a mere commercial shell of its former self. Local authorities and residents have begun engaging in a struggle for Edinburgh’s soul, which manifested most recently in an ongoing bitter dispute with a hotel developer. The hotel consortium, represented by Donald Trump’s former planning adviser, intends to convert the A-listed Old Royal High School into a luxury hotel, which critics insist will severely threaten Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage status.
Though the issue of the tourist tax is far from settled, one thing is certain: Edinburgh’s natural and cultural treasures cannot be taken for granted. Something must be done to ensure that the city stays open to the world, but also remain liveable and vibrant for generations to come.