From pent up to cock up 

Shortly before the pandemic forced our passports into storage, we were feeling bad about travel. Flight shaming, overtourism, it was all about how we shouldn’t be roaming around, no matter how much Instagram wanted yet another photo of the Bridge of Sighs.

This was forgotten with the return to travel, with thoughts of walkable streets and breathable air pushed away in favour of the joy of travel. It was all about getting out and about now that we could, cost to, well, anything, be damned.

And to be fair to the dolphins and old bridges, the lack of airlift and high prices meant that the explosion of travel bubbled up domestic markets and the luxury segment rather than a return to the travel patterns pre-2020. Even now, the jagged lifting of restrictions means that China’s outbound market is not back up to full strength (Mews has reported that outbound travel from China was seeing a recovery, representing around 1% of travel volume, off the previous volume of 2% to 2.5% at hotels using the group’s technology). 

But travel is coming back. The World Travel & Tourism Council’s 2023 Economic Impact Research forecast that the Travel & Tourism sector was closing in on its 2019 peak, recovering by more than 95%.

Are we facing the same old problems? We’re certainly looking at the same old solutions. This week the Scottish Parliament opened its consultation on its proposed visitor levy, which would allow councils add additional charges to Airbnbs, B&Bs and hotel bookings. A tourist tax. 

UKHospitality Scotland executive director Leon Thompson said: “The introduction of the visitor levy represents yet more red-tape being forced upon hospitality, at a time when businesses are under pressure across the board from increasing regulation and rising costs.

 

“I would urge businesses to take the time to respond to the Scottish Parliament’s consultation and outline the impact this will have on their businesses and the local tourism economy. It’s critical that hospitality’s voice is heard and that politicians understand just how detrimental this levy could be to Scotland’s reputation as a tourist destination.

 

“We’ll also be stressing the need for ringfencing of funds to be spent on hospitality and tourism, if the levy is introduced as the Scottish Government proposes. If that is the unfortunate outcome of this consultation, those funds must be spent effectively to protect and enhance Scotland’s reputation on the world stage.”

This last comment speaks to the need for such a tax being driven by a desire for revenue rather than a requirement to cut visitors, which is an issue for another time and another sector. But let’s just suppose it is about keeping the streets walkable and towns liveable.

You can’t stop people wanting to have their photos taken next to Amsterdam’s canals. You just can’t. But you can manage the hows and the whys and the whens. 

The new word in all this is ‘dispersal’, something Airbnb has been banging on about. And a good defence mechanisms on its part, seeing that overtourism has been laid at the platform’s doormat often enough.

This week the group said that it was just mean how mean people were about it and that analysis of data from Airbnb and Eurostat showed that Airbnb guests accounted “for a small proportion of visitors to Europe’s major cities, compared to guests using hotels and other accommodations”. 

It added: “We believe that dispersal is a key part of the solution to the challenges posed by mass tourism trends: distributing guests, income and benefits within and across destinations to less-crowded neighbourhoods within cities, and to places that don’t typically benefit.”

It then laid into the hotel groups, quoting a study from Booking.com and Statist, which it reported pointed to a “boom” in hotel construction and conversion projects across Europe, at the cost of independently-owned competitors – and that market prominence is “pushing relentlessly upward”. 

According to the report, France and the UK are now the first countries in Europe to witness “chainification” of their hotel industries, where the room share of chains has nearly doubled in just two decades. The report goes on to say that the growth of international hotel chains in Europe is “slowly eroding the share of independent properties in Europe”.

This is somewhat disingenuous (no, really) of Airbnb. Hotels are subject to planning and consideration is given by a city as to how a hotel will fit into a certain neighbourhood and what the impact might be. Airbnb is happy to refer to itself as a brand, as a place people stay. This is not true. An Airbnb is a private dwelling listed on a platform, not a brand or separate type of offering on its own. It is not subject to planning to turn it into a temporary hotel. It is circumventing town planning and messing with the local jurisdiction’s effort to create whatever community and environment it hopes to achieve in that location. 

But back to the topic at hand. The group said that Airbnb’s investment in flexible search features, including Airbnb Categories and I’m Flexible, was diverting bookings “away from Europe’s most saturated tourist hotspots in support of more sustainable travel trends”. 

This is a good thing and the appetite for fresh, new destinations is to be applauded. But people may stay further out to save money, but still want to travel into the city centre for that fancy bridge shot, so the issues remain. Rather than just piling on a tax every night of the year, a little thought needs to come into play. More at peaks and less during the off season seems practical. Amsterdam has been pushing the delights of the area around it. Museums and art galleries are being, yes, dispersed.

Governments are looking at ways to fill their coffers and the current frothing over of travel makes it a tempting target. There is too much temptation to shake it down as a cash cow and miss the why. In Scotland, it’s not too late for the sector to make its voice heard. 

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