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12-09-2020Marcelo Sastre

Tourism vouchers, an idea too late

It was the Italian government which set the ball rolling. Back in April, Lorenza Bonaccorsi, who is the undersecretary at the Italian ministry of cultural assets, of which tourism is a part, announced that “this summer we will go to the beach”.

How could she have been so sure? Well, this was because the Italian government had a plan: the “bono vacanze”, a holiday bonus. It would only get paid for taking a holiday in Italy, but payment there would be. It could either be in the form of a credit on the next tax declaration or in cash, however this cash might be handed over. Six hundred euros. That was the size of the bonus that was being mentioned in April. In the end, it was a maximum of 500 euros, but it wasn’t to be sniffed at.

In April, it was felt that tourism - if there was to be any this summer - would be national. In addition, there was the view that the staycation was going to be important for providing some sort of tourism economic activity. Spain was of this view, just as the Italians were. But unlike the Italian government, the Spanish government chose not to implement a bonus (voucher) system.

Right at the start of the pandemic in March, the idea was being floated. The Acave association of specialist travel agencies was one body which proposed a voucher scheme to the national minister of tourism, Reyes Maroto. She apparently brought this up, but the finance ministry said no.

Earlier this week, the office of the secretary of state for tourism let it be known that vouchers were under consideration. The Fetave federation of Spanish travel agencies territorial associations said that the government was working on creating these vouchers, even if the government was explaining that they were just one possibility. Anyway, Fetave was pleased at there being the possibility but made it clear that “regrettably it was rather late”.

Hotels closed, so the tourist tax goes up

There has of course been talk of the Balearic sustainable tourism tax (aka tourist tax or ecotax) being suspended because of the crisis. The government has preferred to ignore such a possibility but has generously looked at modifying “modules”, i.e. what hoteliers (and others) would normally hand over as first instalments in October.

In Catalonia, there is also a tourist tax. Unlike the Balearic tax, this tax doesn’t hint at there being any “eco” element. It is a tax on stays in tourist establishments (IEET) and has existed since 2012. In Barcelona, the most that is charged is 2.25 euros per night (the rate is higher in Barcelona than in the rest of Catalonia), but this is about to be added to. The town hall in Barcelona intends adding a surcharge that it will keep.

Due to come in at the start of January, this surcharge was originally going to have an upper limit of four euros a night. However, after “long conversations with the sector”, the town hall’s tourism councillor, Xavier Marcé, says that it will only be 0.75 euros. It will then go up each year until it reaches the four euros maximum by 2024; this is the limit that the Catalonia government has stipulated.

Some eighty per cent of hotels in Barcelona are currently closed. Occupancy of those hotels which are open has been running, on average, as low as ten per cent (well below breakeven), while prices have slumped by up to 50%. The “sector”, unsurprisingly, isn’t greatly impressed by the decision to introduce the surcharge, which Marcé describes as being a “relatively symbolic” amount.

It could be, however, that there is a moratorium. Aware of this possibility, of the disaster caused by the crisis and the impossibility of knowing just how many establishments might be open next year, the town hall has not made a forecast of the revenue from the tax. “It is not prudent or responsible to do so,“ concludes the tourism councillor.

Imserso, but not as we know it

The idea for vouchers isn’t necessarily one that the director of the FORST School of Tourism Business in Alicante would agree with. The crisis for tourism demands some imaginative thinking, and he might just have come up with it.

Again directed at the national tourist market, Javier Jiménez is proposing that there should be a scheme akin to the Imserso programme of holidays for Spanish senior citizens; it would be intergenerational. Extend Imserso to the rest of the population, without an age limit, and Jiménez believes that this would represent “a much cheaper investment” than all the government spending on ERTE.

Imserso holidays are subsidised by the state. Some figures were produced in June last year which showed that an Imserso season of over 900,000 trips between October and May set the Spanish government back 63 million euros. At the same time, because Imserso allows hotels to stay open, the government saved 90 million euros on unemployment benefit.

Hoteliers have long argued that the subsidies are too low and that they barely make any profit out of Imserso. But in the current situation, a subsidised system of holidays has greater appeal. And this shouldn’t only be appealing to hoteliers; the government will be able to do its sums.

The national finance minister, Maria Jesús Montero, stated on Tuesday that ERTE has been costing between 4,500 and 5,000 million euros a month. The furlough scheme applies to all manner of sectors, so not just tourism, but this colossal amount could perhaps be considered by comparison with what a proposal such as that by Jiménez might cost. He reckons that Imserso (as it normally is) provides a return of 1.54 euros for each euro invested. It isn’t much, but it is something, while an “ageless” Imserso could also encourage businesses other than just hotels. There would be bars and restaurants, to say nothing of airlines.

He argues that his Imserso model would be better than schemes which other governments have introduced, such as the Italian vouchers. It would be “more equitable, more widely distributed and of greater social and economic significance”.
It is a very interesting idea.

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