The awful irony of planning a meeting on spending ‘tourist tax’

Coronavirus crisis grips city

by Colin Campbell                                                                                                              Thursday, March 19

WITH exquisite bad timing Highland councillors are due to meet this week to plan ways they’d spend income from a tourism “bed tax” they wanted imposed on visitors to the region. 

That now makes about as much sense as an Inverness hotel planning a “Scottish night” for this weekend filled with music, dance and whisky. 

The Scottish Government has still to decide on whether or not the proposal should go ahead. As of now, I think and hope we could be pretty sure of what the answer should be.

Who’s now talking of a “bed tax” to cope with – and even reduce – the level of tourism in the Highlands? That’s been the demand from some councillors and politicians for quite some time. I suspect it’ll be a long time before we hear the issue raised again.

I warned several times in the last paper I worked for that the bed tax demands were tempting fate. This did not require any great foresight, only experience and caution, but no-one could have imagined a coronavirus-scale disaster.

Nevertheless, for virtually all of the four decades and more I’ve been covering the Highlands as a journalist, the clear and simple emphasis was on trying to attract more visitors to this region.

Well, around three years ago we began to get more, lots more, mainly due to the Brexit-battered low pound, but also because of improved transport links and mega-attractions like the North Coast 500 route.

And suddenly – all too suddenly – the tone changed among too many people. The problem wasn’t that we weren’t getting enough tourists – we were getting too many. The area couldn’t cope. The roads couldn’t cope. The infrastructure couldn’t cope. It was necessary to start squeezing an extra tax out of our visitors to help pay for it all.

This mix of complacency and presumption is something, among many, to wonder at as what’s shaping up as a tourism disaster begins to emerge from a black cloud on the horizon.

Hotels are obviously being very heavily hit by the economic carnage we see all around us. It’s probable or maybe inevitable some of the landmark names in Inverness will close down, for several months at least. Instead of welcoming the big influx of visitors they anticipated, they’ll become sad, empty shells. And no-one will bat an eyelid if or when that happens. The once unthinkable has now become almost commonplace.

It’s a horrible situation for everyone involved, owners, management and particularly the hard-working staff.

All we can hope for is that we emerge from this current hellish predicament sooner rather than later, which means within a few months, and gradually get back on track.

Then it’ll be time to consider the many lessons to be learned. And foremost among them will be, in the good times don’t take so much for granted.

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