Highland Transient Visitor Levy – the background on the current ‘tourist tax’ consultation

The Highland Council believes that a visitor levy could generate between £5 million and £10 million each year to invest in Highland tourism.

A consultation on a potential Highland Transient Visitor Levy – also known as a tourist tax – is currently underway following a launch by the Highland Council last week.

The consultation which launched last Thursday (15th August) at the council’s environment, development and infrastructure committee has been informed by detailed research in other regions’ and countries, visitor levy schemes, and the council’s pre-consultation meetings with tourism industry stakeholders across Highland.

Running until Autumn 2019, the main consultation consists of two components: an online questionnaire aimed at residents and tourism businesses, but also open to visitors; and targeted face-to-face questionnaires with visitors at locations across Highland, conducted by the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism at Glasgow Caledonian University. The council has also produced a short video explaining its position on the matter and the consultation.

According to the Highland Council, the region welcomes approximately four million overnight visitors a year, and another two million day-visitors, including cruise visitors.

In announcing the consultation, the council stated that its rationale in considering a visitor levy is that “visitors should help contribute to the maintenance and development of the free public services and infrastructure they use.”

And that “in the context of the council’s unprecedented budget pressures”, revenue from a levy could be “used strategically to manage the impact of tourism and help the council invest to ensure the region continues to be a great place to live and visit.”

Depending on how a scheme was designed, the council believes that a visitor levy could generate between £5 million and £10 million each year to invest in Highland tourism.

Underlining the increasing popularity of the Highlands as a visitor destination and the associated challenges in accommodating a significant number of people each year, EDI committee chair Allan Henderson said: “Highland welcomes visitors numbering roughly 25 times our resident population every year. Whilst visitors are very welcome, some of Highland’s infrastructure and services are struggling under the pressure of these additional users.

“Ultimately, the council, with the help of everyone who responds to the consultation, needs to decide what is better for our region: introducing a visitor levy, with its potential positive and negative impacts – or not implementing a visitor levy, avoiding potential negative impacts but limiting possible investment and therefore leaving the region with the problems we currently face.”

The consultation follows on from a commitment given by the Highland Council in December 2018 to Highland residents, businesses and visitors on a potential scheme.

Highland Council Leader Margaret Davidson has said that the levy is one option that the council is considering.

Highland Council Leader Margaret Davidson said: “Tourism is of huge importance to the Highlands. We recognise the benefits, challenges and impact that tourists have across the area and are committed to supporting this industry to ensure its success is sustainable.

“A Highland Transient Visitor Levy is one option the council is considering to raise income to manage the challenges tourism is both facing and contributing to in Highland.

Detailing the process, she went on to say: “The consultation has been shaped by lots of research and engagement with the public and tourism industry to ensure we are asking the right questions. It does not simply gather information on people’s support or opposition. It gives respondents lots of opportunities to help us shape what a levy might look like were it to be implemented.

“This includes important questions such as who should pay? How much? And how? And how revenue from a visitor levy could be invested to deliver maximum benefit for Highland?”

In 2017 the Scottish Government established the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund (RTIF) to support projects that will alleviate some of the pressures at popular visitor destinations. The Fund is administered by VisitScotland.

According to a release from the tourism body Skye Connect this week, the Isle of Skye has benefited from £1.25 million of investment – a figure which does not include match-funding elements required for certain projects.”

The beautiful vistas on offer at Neist Point prove to be a hugely popular attraction for visitors to Skye. Image by Willie Urquhart – WHFP.

Examples of that investment include:

Fairy Pools – A £300,000 project to develop visitor facilities, including toilets, at the Glenbrittle pools and waterfalls.

Neist Point Lighthouse – A £100,000 award for road access improvements and parking.

Blabheinn – £65,579 for composting toilets and a redesigned carpark to for up to 30 vehicles.

Old Man of Storr – £292,637 to create new toilet facilities including motorhome waste facilities and parking for cycling

– £184,506 path project to enhance visitor access while also protecting iconic landscapes and internationally important habitats.

Facilities at the Fairy Pools are among those on the island which have been developed from Scottish Government funding to help accommodate visitors and locals. Image by Willie Urquhart – WHFP.

Bayfield Carpark, Portree – £300,000 to create an extended hardstanding area in the west , to provide more parking spaces, day parking for motorhomes with waste and water facilities.

The Scottish Government has committed to introducing legislation by 2021 that would allow local authorities in Scotland to implement a Transient Visitor Levy.

The Highland Council has said it will use information gathered through its consultation to ensure Highland is represented in the Government’s National Consultation.

Findings from the visitor survey, open consultation and research will be reported at the full meeting of the full council on 12 December 2019.

The online questionnaire and video are available here.