Tuesday 16 July 2019

Pól Ó Conghaile: Dublin doesn't want a tourism tax. But it may need one.

"Yes, we need tourists. But we also have a duty to plan sustainably," our Travel Editor writes

Report warning: Dublin must address risks related to visitor volume
Report warning: Dublin must address risks related to visitor volume
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Taxes suck. I think we can all agree on that.

Why do tourism taxes suck, in particular? Well, opponents say they thwart competitiveness and discourage visitors. Dublin is already short on hotel rooms and high on pricing. And you want to make it more expensive?

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Then you have an industry smarting from VAT hikes and with sore memories of Ireland's air-travel tax. It's also an industry facing the spectre of Brexit. Tourism supplies about 10pc of the jobs on this island, and overseas visitor spending fell during the first months of this year. And you want to slap a new tax on that?

But there is another side to the story.

That side involves a world crawling with cheap flights. A world in which international arrivals have passed 1.4 billion, new cruise ships the length of Croke Park sail out of shipyards, and forecasts call for still more growth.

'Overtourism' didn't exist as a term several years ago. Now, it's in the Oxford Dictionary. Popular destinations like Amsterdam and Barcelona are feeling the pinch. Venice is fining visitors €25 to €500 for misdemeanours like dawdling or jumping in canals. Thailand has closed the cove made famous by the film The Beach.

Dublin is not Dubrovnik, but it has some thinking to do. 'Destination 2030', a new report from the World Travel & Tourism Council and commercial real estate firm JLL, places the city in the same bracket as New York, Lisbon and Madrid - a "mature performer" that is managing well, but which must address "a risk of future strains related to visit volume, infrastructure or activity".

Yes, tourism is vital to our economy. But blindly chasing higher visitor numbers puts pressure on the environment, on housing and rental markets, on services like water, sewage and transport. It impacts liveability for locals. Couldn't a tourist tax help manage that flow, or pay to release some of that pressure? It's not a new idea. Think of the taxe de séjour in France, or Germany's bettensteuer ('bed tax'). If you've travelled, you've paid a tourism tax.

The trick is to avoid the sense of a tax tacked unfairly on to hotel rooms or airfares. To turn the discussion away from something that is anti-business and towards something that is pro-sustainability and community.

Majorca's 'Sustainable Tourism Tax' costs up to €4 a day, for example. On its own, that sounds like a pain. Explain it as a fund for conserving heritage sites, supporting organic farmers or raising awareness of health problems among chambermaids, however, and it starts to feel different.

New Zealand will soon charge $35 (€20) as visitors apply for its Electronic Travel Authority. Ouch! But hang on. Its tax will be reinvested into tiring infrastructure and protecting natural landscapes. And Japan's new 'sayonara' tax of ¥1,000 (€8.25)? The proceeds will be funnelled back into services like faster immigration and free Wi-Fi on public transport, it says.

Dublin gets roughly six million visitors a year. If they all paid a nominal €5 tax, that could provide an annual fillip of €30m for the city.

It's not enough to fund a metro to the airport. If it was ring-fenced for reinvestment in tourism, however, it could make a heck of a museum. It could go towards a night mayor with a budget to reboot nightlife in conjunction with local communities - similar to Amsterdam, Berlin or Prague. It could boost tourism marketing. It could go to public services, or the upkeep of the city.

A Dublin tourism tax would have to be equitable. It couldn't unfairly penalise hotels, for example. It could be charged on departure, or online. It would have to serve the city, its culture and tourism, and not the general purse.

Such a tax needn't be a lump of a thing. It could exempt children, or business travellers, or people who are arriving into Dublin Airport but not visiting the city. It could be tweaked to influence visitor flows - with higher rates in peak season or congested zones, or lower rates aimed at incentivising travel in quieter months or rural areas. It would start out a crude tool, but it could evolve.

Yes, we need tourists. We have a right to travel. But we also have a duty to plan sustainably. And the most sustainable cities are those that are liveable for locals - not dead shells like Venice. They are places with affordable rents, green policies, joined-up transport and clear tourism management plans.

€5 or so won't bother the kind of tourist that can afford to visit Dublin. It's less than the price of a pint, after all. But it could help balance the short-term needs of visitors with the long-term needs of locals.

Taxes suck. But so does the alternative.

Read more:

Pól Ó Conghaile: How one small Irish community is re-thinking 'drive-thru tourism'

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