TWO leading figures in the Helensburgh tourism industry have warned that a ‘tourist tax’ could do more harm in the area than good.

John and Anne Urquhart, who run the town’s Balmilling House B&B and are heavily involved in promoting tourism across Helensburgh and the Loch Lomond area, were reacting to Argyll and Bute Council’s views on how a ‘tourist tax’ – or Discretionary Transient Visitor Levy, as it has also been called – might operate, as part of a Scottish Government consultation on the principles of such a scheme.

The council’s draft response, which was considered at a meeting in Lochgilphead on Thursday, does not express a view on whether a tourist tax is a good idea.

It does, however, express reservations about the practical implementation of any such scheme – especially on day visitors.

And the council also suggests that in the event of a tourist tax being introduced, the authority should have the power to decide whether revenue raised in a particular area, like Helensburgh, should be spent in Helensburgh or elsewhere.

The idea was part of a package of measures put forward by the Scottish Greens in exchange for their backing for the SNP's spending plans in the Scottish Parliament earlier this year.

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The Urquharts said a ‘tourist tax’ could be seen as a means of plugging the gap left by cuts in government funding for official tourism bodies and facilities.

“It seems to work in some other countries,” they said, “but many operators here, understandably focussed as they are on the ‘bottom line’, are wary.

“The devil is in the detail. How do you make it fair and not adversely affect local residents?

"With that in mind, it would seem the burden would need to be levied mostly on accommodation providers. What do you do about businesses which use Airbnb and where some accommodation providers already freeload under the existing tax radar?

“How would the money be gathered and how would it be spent? Should monies raised in one area only be spent in that area?

“A few operators do ‘get it’. They appreciate the bigger picture and do understand that ultimately their business depends on the quality of the environment and public realm services, and they know that, by definition, visitors are on the move, and understand the short sightedness of the demand that money raised in an area can only be spent in that area.

“Quiet or remote areas with few businesses, but with very popular attractions, would then miss out on very necessary infrastructure investment, but actually be in most need - a recent example being the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle in Skye.

“Another difficulty is that a charitable body like the Friends of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs, which has been doing its best to fill the ‘public realm gap’ through its Business Supporter Scheme in and around the National Park, may find a tourism tax adversely affects its ability to raise funds to improve the visitor experience.

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“Whatever is decided, this is an important aspect which should not be overlooked.”

When asked how a visitor levy could be applied to day visitors to the area, the council’s draft response stated: “This could be challenging to achieve within the current policy environment.

“It is also challenging to envisage methods of implementation which do not have much of an administrative burden distinguishing between residents and visitors.

“Day visitors predominantly use cars to access destinations. Physical tolls and barriers are not preferable unless pressures are extreme. In many visitor locations there are car park charges being paid by visitors.

“Creating new touch points for collection of a visitor levy will likely be too costly and be an administrative burden.

“In some destinations internationally they intentionally limit access to parts of national parks by car despite there being a road network, providing access only through purchasing tickets on arranged bus services to manage the destination better.

“Some restrictions on access to places might be a positive step, as long as there is a managed solution available.

“The council is not sure that applying a levy to goods and services used by day visitors, such as food and taxi purchases, will result in positive outcomes.

“It might penalise local businesses and result in consumers changing their behaviours in ways which might exacerbate problems.”

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The consultation, containing a total of 33 questions, also asks whether, in the event of a visitor levy being imposed by an authority on a specific area, the money raised should be spent in that area.

The council’s draft response to that question states: “Argyll and Bute Council believe that any spending decisions from revenue generation remain flexible with spending approvals by area to be made by the local authority.

“Local authorities are best placed to understand local requirements and are accountable to communities and stakeholders.”

The Urquharts, meanwhile, said discussions over the possibility of a 'tourist tax' were the inevitable consequence of past decisions to allow the market to dictate tourism priorities.

"Neo-liberalism was the new model and market forces would deliver whatever was necessary," they said.

"Suddenly no one was looking after the public realm side of tourism.

"VisitScotland began to close down its information centres while increasingly cash strapped local authorities felt they couldn’t justify spending on rural infrastructure like public toilets, car parks, motor home hook ups, litter bins, viewpoints, picnic facilities, interpretation panels, the expensive maintenance of Victorian era steamer piers and the extension and improvement of the footpath network - all essential ingredients for the delivery of a quality visitor experience in 21st century Argyll and Bute.

"With litter building up in lay byes and picnic benches rotting, it was not a good picture.

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"Tourism operators all over Scotland began casting around for some mechanism to deliver the kind of tourism related public realm services which in Argyll and Bute’s case had been so ably discharged by AILSST (Argyll, the Isles, Loch Lomond, Stirling and Trossachs Tourist Board).

"At first, dedicated volunteer groups like Lomond and Clyde Tourist Association, made valiant efforts, but without proper funding, these small bodies could never hope to do the work which was needed.

"More recently, organisations like Love Loch Lomond were set up with grant aid from Scottish Enterprise, but with marketing as their main focus, these too were never in a position to deliver what was needed.

"Still more recently Argyll and The Isles Tourism Co-op has been doing some good work, but also has chosen to concentrate solely on marketing and networking.

"In Helensburgh itself, two volunteer efforts to deliver tourism information services have been tried, one in the old Clock Tower and more recently the Helensburgh’s Heroes Cafe effort in Colquhoun Street.

"Both have failed for lack of funds and volunteers."

READ MORE: Catch up on all the latest news from around Helensburgh and Lomond here