“Others should follow”
Valencia will introduce one by the beginning of next year. Bologna charges €4 a night, about average for an Italian city, and French resorts have been able to impose a taxe de séjour since 1910. But local authorities in Britain have consistently wavered when it comes to imposing a tourist tax similar to those commonplace in the rest of Europe. In recent years Oxford, Bath and Hull reportedly contemplated a levy but decided against it.
At the start of this month, however – in time for the Easter bank holiday weekend – Manchester finally took the plunge, after winning surprisingly strong backing from the city’s hoteliers. Visitors staying in a Manchester city centre hotel or holiday apartment are now required to pay a £1 per night City Visitor Charge. An estimated £3m worth of annual revenue will be dedicated to tourism-related and cultural projects, as well as more mundane necessities such as street cleaning. The Welsh government is preparing to follow suit, giving councils power to institute a levy to pay towards the upkeep of beaches, parks, pavements and footpaths. Edinburgh is reportedly considering a £2 a night tourist tax, subject to approval from the Scottish parliament.
Despite inevitable concerns from businesses fearful of discouraging visitors, particularly in tough economic times, this is surely the right direction of travel. A recent study by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership concluded that replicating the £1 tourism levy across England would raise £428m for local authorities annually. It is true that swingeing cuts to council funding since 2010 put that figure in sobering perspective. But this is nevertheless money that can be used for the common good, in places where there is often an unacceptable gulf between the circumstances of well-heeled seasonal visitors and members of host communities.
In regions such as Cornwall and Cumbria, where the influx of visitors places a heavy load on sometimes crumbling infrastructure, a tourist tax would help share the burden with authorities that are brutally overstretched. In the absence of a fair settlement for local government funding, some recognition of the special requirements of such areas is urgently required. As council officials in thinly populated Cumbria have pointed out, the Department for Transport funds the region’s pot‑holed road network only on a per‑head basis, but many millions of visitors use it to access the Lakes each year.
More broadly, at a time when the debate about the social and environmental impact of tourism has become increasingly tense, a levy provides a means through which communities can exercise some influence and control. Controversies over the proportion of second homes in tourist hotspots such as Whitby have illustrated that a better balance needs to be struck between the interests of residents and visitors in many of the country’s most attractive destinations. Faced with similar challenges, Valencia’s regional parliament intends to devote part of the new tourism tax revenue towards the construction of affordable housing for local residents.
This type of approach can reinvigorate local democracy, inculcate a sense of shared stewardship for places that are part of our national heritage, and ensure that the financial benefits of tourism are more equitably shared. In foreign destinations where levies have been introduced, visitor economies continue to flourish. Manchester has led the way. Others should follow.