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30 May 2017

Highland tourism: invest in infrastructure now

Portree

The Highlands’ tourism star is in the ascendancy, with visitor numbers remaining very healthy, annual spend totalling over £704 million and 15,700 Highland jobs supported. Quite simply, this region is blessed with many of the assets that modern travellers most revere and it really can claim to be a world-class holiday destination. However, it would be foolish to take it all for granted.

The provision of essential infrastructure is one concern, and not just WiFi. A serious long-term worry for areas like Skye and parts of the Northern Highlands’ “North Coast 500” route is that increasing visitor pressure is putting immense strain on roads, on the supply of public toilets, and, very importantly, on the inadequate provision of parking at natural attractions. In addition to being dangerous, substandard infrastructure can seriously impact on visitor satisfaction and on their propensity to return/recommend. Then there is the lack of reasonably-priced accommodation for staff, a factor that prevents some businesses from expanding.  

Coral Beach SkyeWhat we need is a joined-up approach to infrastructure and a review of how it should be funded, something that first requires governments at all levels to fully appreciate and acknowledge the importance of tourism. Re-working the Tourism Development Framework for Scotland would be a great place to start.

What we don’t need is the introduction of a tourist bed tax – something that is still being discussed by local councils, despite Scottish Government opposition.

The World Economic Forum’s 2017 “Travel and Competitiveness” report reveals that the UK is the second most expensive holiday destination in the world, lying 135th out of 136 countries. A Highland bed tax would make this already expensive region more expensive still. Moreover, countries with bed taxes have far lower VAT rates on hospitality than us and, overall, are cheaper to visit. Liathach from Loch Clair Glen Torridon Wester Ross

In a recent FSB survey, 93 per cent of Highlands & Islands members rejected the introduction of a bed tax outright, 99 per cent saying that it would damage their businesses and 96 per cent that it would damage other businesses and the local area. The message to Highland Council from the business community is therefore clear: tourism is the goose that lays the golden eggs and we must treat our visitors with care and respect if we want to grow the industry and economy and sustain our fragile communities.

So who pays? One solution is to build the car parks and toilets that visitors (and, by extension, local economies) need, and charge motorists and visitors modest and proportionate fees to use them. It happens throughout much of the rest of the UK and EU, so why not here?

 

David Richardson is FSB's Highlands and Islands Development Manager 

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