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Highland councillor issues tourist tax appeal

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A tourist tax is needed to prevent visitors being put off visiting the Highlands because they “have to go to the toilet behind a bush”, MSPs have heard.

Holyrood’s Tourism Committee heard the six million annual visitors to the region bring £1.2 billion a year and support 20,000 jobs, but put pressure on roads, parking and public toilets.

“Our infrastructure is deteriorating and it will lead to a negative impression, and that will cause reputational damage,” Highland Council convener Bill Lobban told the committee.

“In some areas there is more tourist traffic on our roads than there are residents … the local residents are actually paying for the tourists, who are not providing us with the income.”

He said a dependable long-term funding solution is needed “otherwise we run the risk that visitors just won’t come back”.

He added: “Personally speaking, I don’t actually accept the argument that visitors will be deterred from visiting the Highlands if we charge them a £1 a night bed levy.

“In the Highlands we have some of the best food in the world, the best accommodation and the most magnificent scenery, but all that can come to nothing if a tourist pulls a wheel off his car or has to go to the toilet behind a bush.”

No formal plans have been put foward for a tourist tax in the region but Mr Lobban said there is cross-party council support.

Edinburgh City Council has led the way in plans for a tourist tax in Scotland and leader Adam McVey told the committee a £1 a night bed charge could generate about £11 million a year for the city.

However, councils will be unable to introduce any tourist tax unless Scottish ministers hand over the necessary power.

Conservative Jamie Greene highlighted a Federation of Small Businesses survey in which three-quarters of respondents were against the tax, complaints from the industry and a warning from the Tourism Secretary against bringing in measures which would “hammer” this industry.

He asked: “If the industry isn’t in favour of it, if small businesses that it will affect aren’t in favour of it and it sounds that even the government itself aren’t supportive, do you feel like you are fighting a losing battle on this?”

Mr McVey said the reaction from business has been mixed and large firms such as Airbnb and Virgin back the plans.

Councillor Gail Macgregor, from local authority umbrella body Cosla, denied fighting a losing battle on the tax, claimed engagement with industry would continue and warned against “kneejerk” reactions on both sides.

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