Highland tourism industry needs ‘collective voice’ over visitor levy

John O’Groat Journal & Caithness Courier – Alan Hendry 

Highland tourism needs a “collective industry voice” to set out the priorities for money generated by a proposed visitor levy, a conference in Caithness has been told.

Chris Taylor, VisitScotland’s destination development director for the Highlands and Islands, said there was “a lot of political and official will” behind the scheme within the region.

He was speaking at Venture North’s well-attended annual tourism gathering in Mackays Hotel, Wick. Venture North is the destination management organisation for Caithness and Sutherland, promoting responsible and sustainable tourism.

Also known as a tourist tax, the legislation would give councils the power to introduce an overnight accommodation levy to raise funds for local tourism facilities and services. Highland Council is supportive.

MSPs have voted to endorse the general principles of the Visitor Levy (Scotland) Bill. Local authorities would be required to consult local communities, businesses and tourism organisations on whether a visitor levy should be brought in and how any revenue should be spent.

“It’s very close,” Mr Taylor said. “The legislation will probably go through parliament in early summer.

“And I think then the big question for everyone in this room is how do you want that money to be spent? Because it has to be spent for the benefit of the visitor economy.

“The council will need industry engagement on how it is spent. We are talking about many, many millions being levied every year forever so we need to get that collective industry voice about what the priorities are for the visitor economy. Where do we need investment?”

Mr Taylor also spoke of the “political and economic uncertainty” looming ahead.

“Public sector budgets are going to be extremely challenging over the next few years, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “I don’t underestimate for a second the pressures on you [tourism operators] in terms of the cost of doing business and the challenges that you’re facing.”

Mr Taylor also gave an insight into market trends in Scottish tourism. He described the North American market as “huge and growing”.

Replying to a question from the audience, Mr Taylor said: “The US has always been really significant. It has got even more so in the last couple of years after Covid – the bounce-back from the US has been really strong.”

Earlier, Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, had given an online presentation. He emphasised the importance of community-led tourism, saying it was “very much part of the industry”.

Mr Crothall said: “We do want to be a leader in community-led tourism. We will advocate for it, but importantly it’s about how we measure the success of that as well.

“The third sector, the public sector and the private sector are integral parts of the jigsaw. If one piece is removed, the other two fall over very quickly.”

On the country’s net-zero ambitions and how they relate to tourism, Mr Crothall said: “When it comes to the net-zero acceleration it’s about going beyond the existing activities that businesses are doing.

“It’s about considering everything that you do in your operations. How can you make your business more climate-efficient, carbon-neutral, working with the likes of green tourism and VisitScotland and others?”

He also spoke about transport needs.

Mr Crothall said: “How can we make sure that there is robust transport that gets people from A to B? How can everybody reach and touch the parts of Scotland that are so magnificent, and we would like people to see?

“And importantly how can we continue to get a flow of tourists and other visitors coming into Scotland and the UK? We are an island so we need airlines and more air connectivity too.”

The gathering was supported by Caithness Chamber of Commerce and Developing Young Workforce North Highland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, NRS Dounreay and VisitScotland.