Jeremy Hunt must dump the tourist tax damaging Yorkshire as well as London: Jayne Dowle

If you’ve ever found yourself going through the revolving doors of Harrods, the prestigious Knightsbridge department store, and wondered what might connect the surrounding hordes of well-heeled American and Far East tourists with the levelling-up agenda, I have two words for you; tourist tax.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s decision not to reinstate duty-free shopping for overseas visitors is short-sighted and damaging, not just to the swanky stores of central London, but the rest of the UK too.

He has clearly never been to York, for example, on a busy summer’s afternoon, or grabbed a spiced rum in the middle of a bustling December Christmas market. Our historic city is just one shining example of the draw of regional tourism, reported to be worth more than £9 billion per annum and supporting almost 225,000 jobs in Yorkshire alone.

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Levelling-up? If the government really does believe in the concept, it should be fully aware that tourism offers so much potential for regions to raise their economic and employment game.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt leaving 11 Downing Street, LondonChancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt leaving 11 Downing Street, London
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt leaving 11 Downing Street, London

It’s not just the historic cities either. In Yorkshire we are blessed with National Parks and AONBs that are the envy of the world, buzzy urban hotspots such as Leeds and Sheffield and mile after mile of breath-taking coastline.

And we don’t shout enough about it to the world. Is that any wonder, really, when the government does literally nothing to underpin our confidence?

In London a few months ago, I got chatting with the hotel receptionist, a young man from Croatia who was here working for a year with his girlfriend. He noticed my accent and asked me where I was from.

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When I started to explain about Yorkshire, he was so interested. He had heard of York, and Edinburgh, but outside of that he had no real concept of our great industrial cities or outstanding natural beauty.

I gave him some suggestions for a Northern mini-itinerary and told him to hop on a £10 Megabus to Leeds next time he had a spare weekend.

Well-heeled or not - and by no means all overseas visitors to the UK fly business class and hold platinum Amex cards, many are younger travellers - the prospect of a tempting 20 per cent off clothes, souvenirs and other goods is a huge incentive to encourage them to come and spend their money here.

The Treasury argues that keeping hold of this tourist discount will generate an extra £2bn to help fill the UK’s bruising budget deficit. But surely this is a false economy?

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Would it not make better sense to put pressure on employers to pay fairer wages, and take a rigorous stick to the supermarkets, the energy companies and the utilities providers who have seen the ‘cost of living crisis’ as an excuse to hike prices and keep them high, even when supply costs are falling across many sectors?

If people could afford to live on the wages they earn, and if the benefits system wasn’t broken and bloated, there would be no need for the government to supplement incomes with top-up payments, such as the £301 ‘top-up’ hand-out eight million families are due to receive this week.

And then, instead of constantly plugging gaps, the government could invest in growth. As every post-industrial town in Yorkshire realises, there is no point looking back. My own town, Barnsley, still has shocking levels of poverty in some postcodes.

But the town centre has totally re-invented itself in recent years, thanks to colossal local council investment and the chutzpah of local independent businesses. And now it’s a hub of cocktail bars, restaurants and decent pubs which attract people from far and wide.

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The government, stuck in Westminster, doesn’t see this kind of enterprise. And clearly doesn’t realise – or want to accept – that there is so much money to be made in welcoming visitors, in developing our already outstanding hospitality trade, and making the UK a must-stop destination for both domestic and inbound tourists.

Almost every other major destination in Europe still offers VAT-free exemptions, so it’s obvious that tourists from outside Europe will simply head to Paris, Milan or Madrid to splash their cash instead.

What a missed opportunity this head-in-the-sand attitude to the tourist tax represents. And there was I thinking that one of the big selling points of Brexit was that it was all about taking back control to make the UK more competitive. Where’s the joined-up thinking there then?

As GB Plc prepares to put the country on the world stage with the King’s Coronation in just a week’s time, Mr Hunt should stop and think. Clinging on to this damaging tourist tax is damaging and detrimental.

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MPs and business leaders have already told him and Rishi Sunak that they’ve got this all wrong. Their obdurate stance is a false economy; the Prime Minister was taken to task on the matter by Burberry chairman Gerry Murphy at a business summit only this week.

Research shows that reinstating the 20 per cent discount would attract more than 1.6m extra visitors to the UK – boosting GDP (gross domestic product) by £4.1bn and creating more jobs. Really, Mr Hunt, what’s not to like?