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Revealed: £2 visitor levy proposed for those staying overnight in Cambridge to boost investment

A £2 levy could be introduced in Greater Cambridge for visitors staying overnight, the Cambridge Independent can reveal.

The money raised – a potential £1.5million-£2million a year – would be directly invested back into the visitor economy, which the authorities behind the plans say will benefit not only tourists and those in the tourism industry, but residents too.

Tourism numbers in Cambridge are virtually back to pre-pandemic levels. Picture: Keith Heppell
Tourism numbers in Cambridge are virtually back to pre-pandemic levels. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cambridge BID (Business Improvement District) is drawing up the proposals with key partners and has had early discussions with hoteliers about the plan, which it would like to launch from January 1, 2025. It wants to create an ABID – Accommodation Business Improvement District – which would operate in addition to Cambridge BID and mean those staying in hotels overnight in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire would pay a levy per room per night, currently modelled at £2.

Although ‘tourism taxes’ are now commonplace in parts of the US and Europe, Cambridge could become one of the earliest UK cities to introduce such a charge, following in the footsteps of Manchester, which became the first in England to impose a visitor levy last year.

Cambridge BID says the aim is not to attract more visitors, but encourage longer stays, so that visitors explore more and spend more in the area.

Cambridge’s visitors numbers have nearly returned to pre-Covid levels, with more than eight million people visiting per year, but its dedicated tourism body – Visit Cambridge & Beyond – closed down in 2020 during the pandemic. Since then, the day-to-day management of the Visit Cambridge brand has been carried out by Cambridge BID.

Glen Sharp, chair of Cambridge BID, said: “Cambridge BID has been working on projects under the Visit Cambridge brand for about 18 months now. However, it quickly became apparent that further investment in the visitor economy is essential.

The Cambridge BID team, from left, Helen Hames, Chris Douglas, Natalie Cargill, Maria Manion, Becky Burrell and Glen Sharp. Picture: Keith Heppell
The Cambridge BID team, from left, Helen Hames, Chris Douglas, Natalie Cargill, Maria Manion, Becky Burrell and Glen Sharp. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Only about 10 per cent of our visitors currently stay overnight and this is something the ABID would look to change. I think it is also really important to be clear from the start that the ABID development is not about attracting more people to Cambridge.

“The city’s international reputation means it will always be an attractive destination and this is about developing an organisation

developing an organisation that has responsibility for generating longer, higher value stays from those visiting and looking at how we manage and enhance the visitor experience.

“This clear focus will ensure that Cambridge and its environs will thrive, which will not only benefit visitors but also those who live and work in the city.”

The BID has so far introduced the Ambassadors – a mobile visitor welcome team – and developed the Visitor Cambridge website at visitcambridge.org, while working on domestic public relations activity to position Cambridge as an overnight destination.

But with the funds from a visitor levy, it could go much further, including by helping to tell the story of the city and the surrounding district as a destination for longer stays, improving ‘wayfinding’ and potentially introducing a City Pass for guests.

Maria Manion, chief executive of Cambridge BID, told the Cambridge Independent: “Pulling all the attractions – particularly the paid ones – into one pass, like in New York, automatically tells you that you need more than one day here.

Cambridge BID CEO Maria Manion. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge BID CEO Maria Manion. Picture: Keith Heppell

“And we have had discussions with some of the hotels about their guests and staff having trouble travelling to locations and attractions. It wouldn’t be in year one, but for the future we are looking at whether there is a way we can work with transport providers to operate shuttle buses at key times to get people from A to B. They might be seasonal or run at times of peak demand.”

Residents could see more tangible benefits with efforts made to improve the quality of stays for visitors.

“At certain times of the year, bins get full at parks and nature reserves, so there could be investment in additional collections,” said Maria. “Those small investments can make a big difference.”

There could also be better management of how tourist coaches visit the city, and liaison with travel companies over itineraries, helping to bolster the domestic market in quieter months by, for example, encouraging visits to venues with snowdrops.

The levy would apply only to hotels with more than 10 rooms and with a rateable value of more than £34,500. Guest houses, pubs with rooms and Airbnbs would not be included.

Manchester is charging a levy of £1 per room, raising about £3.5million a year, and at least 16 other locations across the country are understood to be considering introducing an ABID.

Cambridge BID, which has been in operation since 2013, has been discussing the plans with Cambridge City Council as part of a feasibility study.

Cllr Alice Gilderdale, executive councillor for community wealth building and community safety at Cambridge City Council, said: “We are excited about the potential of an ABID in Cambridge and the wider area, to deliver investment in the visitor economy here.

Cllr Alice Gilderdale. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Alice Gilderdale. Picture: Keith Heppell

“It will be a chance to improve the management of tourism and make Cambridge a better place for visitors while also delivering improvements for the local community.

“We are looking forward to seeing the outcome of the work and will remain closely involved in conversations as they develop.”

Early meetings with those hoteliers more familiar with the BID have been broadly positive, the Cambridge Independent understands.

Chris Douglas, general manager at Graduate Cambridge, is a member of the BID board.

He said: “Investment in the visitor economy has been largely absent in recent years and there is the potential via an ABID for this to change. If it is developed and delivered correctly, with the right objectives around growth in overnight stays, then it could be really positive for this area.

Chris Douglas. Picture: Keith Heppell
Chris Douglas. Picture: Keith Heppell

“Colleagues in Manchester have seen it introduced and we can learn from their experiences. We are an integral part of the Cambridge offer and we want to work with Cambridge BID to ensure Cambridge continues to be somewhere our guests want to spend their time.”

There has long been frustration among hoteliers and others working in the visitor economy that Cambridge’s reputation as a great day-trip destination – easily accessible from London – means many visitors only stay for a few hours to see some key sights before departing again.

Such short-term visits provide limited economic benefit for the city – and none for the surrounding area – while still provoking concerns about ‘over-tourism’ and overcrowding, particularly in busy holiday seasons.

The now wound-up Visit Cambridge & Beyond organisation was named in the hope of encouraging visitors to explore beyond the city’s boundaries too to help spread the benefits.

Cambridge BID aims to learn from cities around the world and suggests the new visitor levy “offers a route to capitalise, manage and direct demand to ensure it enhances the prosperity of Cambridge for all”.

Tourists in and around King's Parade. Picture: Keith Heppell
Tourists in and around King's Parade. Picture: Keith Heppell

For the charge to be approved, hoteliers in the area will need to vote in favour of the business plan in a ballot in June or July, held along the same lines as the vote for the Cambridge BID, meaning a majority must vote in favour and a majority in terms of rateable value must also be in favour.

If approved, there would be about six months to set up the governance arrangements and train staff before the levy comes into force.

“We want to hit the ground running so that we have things in place in 2025 and start properly working for the city,” said Maria.

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