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Tourist charge shouldn’t depend on the Games

Tourist charge shouldn’t depend on the Games

🕔13.Dec 2017

Did you notice the wording of the Birmingham Post’s front-page Commonwealth Games story last week – about how the Government might be “willing to give the green light to a tourist charge to secure the Games for Britain” (my emphasis), asks Chris Game?

At the time of writing, and possibly, in the Games Federation’s quaint English, until ‘year-end’, Birmingham has still to be judged actual winner of the race to host the 2022 Games.

Despite it being the only competitor across the original September finishing line in September, the supposed organisers of this drinking session in a brewery deemed the race should be re-run with some late, cobbled-together entrants from further afield in the Commonwealth.

I know little about the detailed machinations of either the Games Federation or our own Government on these matters. Less even than Fawlty Towers’ “I know nothing” Manuel might, what with his coming from Barcelona, which earns most of Catalonia’s regional tourist tax (tasa turistica), though to its annoyance takes proportionally somewhat less.

I do, though, know something about tourist, hotel and bed taxes – mainly through miserly checking of personal hotel bills. I’m aware, therefore, that two of the three cities back in the contest for the 2022 Games already have tourist taxes – though not, far more importantly, Birmingham’s national government guarantee to fund 75% of the Games’ total cost.

Victoria, capital city of British Columbia, is Canada’s candidate, despite having already hosted the Games in 1994, and having withdrawn its bid back in August.

Canada, as travellers learn quickly, is one of the great ‘the price you see is NOT what you’ll pay’ countries, with virtually all prices quoted net of federal and provincial and local taxes. These include the designed-to-confuse Municipal and Regional District Tax (MRDT) you’ll see on your hotel bill, on top of the provincial sales tax – for the good reason that it’s actually a hotel room tax.

It’s irritating to pay, but peanuts when it comes to funding an international Games, the more so at the short notice left by the very late withdrawal of the originally chosen host city, Durban.

Birmingham, already planning a bid for 2026, had a head-and-upper-body start on most other bidders, and neither the Ottawa federal nor BC provincial governments seem any keener to be rushed into underpinning their support with serious money than they were in the summer.

The same seems to be true of Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur, which hosted the 1998 Games and is keen to again, but would prefer 2026 to 2022.  As if in preparation, the Malaysian Government recently decided, with its hotels being by international standards “modestly priced”, to introduce for overseas visitors a flat-rate tourism tax, on top of the service charge and Goods and Services Tax. Again, though, no national Games budget guarantees this time round.

No significant federal financial backing for Adelaide either, the third additional city technically still in the running. It’s the only Australian mainland state capital not to have hosted the Games, but not helped by next April’s Games taking place just 2,000 kms away on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

My complete outsider’s view, therefore, is that the UK Government probably doesn’t need a tourist charge or indeed anything more “to secure the Games for Britain”, since the competition has either already withdrawn for a second time or is about to.

At which point my localist instincts would normally prompt a small rant – about how bizarre and humiliating it is in our hyper-centralised British polity that the second city’s elected representatives aren’t able to decide for themselves to introduce this most local of local taxes, in order, as Council leader Ian Ward puts it, to avoid “going anywhere near the city council’s revenue budget” for its 25% share of the Games’ funding.

I will still allow myself a tepid closing rant, but I concede that the Commonwealth Games may constitute an exceptional case.

When former Council leader Sir Albert Bore argued for Birmingham having the power to introduce a hotel bed tax, or when Bath, Edinburgh, currently Hull, and even London consider the feasibility of tourist taxes, the need to plead for central government approval and legislation is irritating and humiliating.

However, with this summer’s rushed bidding process actually caused by Durban’s late withdrawal on financial grounds, it’s understandable the CG Federation wants both local and national budget guarantees. Which makes ministers having to “give the green light to a tourist charge” sad, but here arguably quite useful to Birmingham’s cause.

But that’s the exception that should prove the rule. If you happen over the coming months to be sun- or snow-chasing, certainly in Europe, – the strong chances are that you’ll be paying tourist levies or hotel taxes whose rates and conditions are determined by the city or region, rather than the national or federal government.

Austrian provinces have their Tourismusgesetz or tourist levy; Belgium its city taxes; France its Taxe de Sojour; Germany its Kulturförderabgabe or culture tax, which possibly makes you feel a touch more uplifted than parting with your Bettensteuer or bed tax; Italian cities their Tassa di Soggiorno – and so on alphabetically.

As you obediently pay up, it might fractionally reduce the pain to think that they’re mainly local taxes contributing hopefully to local tourist economies.

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