Visit Moray Speyside has issued warrants totalling more than £60,000 to cover unpaid bills from predominantly short-term let businesses.
The move will lead to sheriff officers visiting homes to demand either immediate payment or seizing goods to be auctioned off to cover the debt.
Board minutes seen by the Press and Journal reveal the debt had been as high as £93,000 in June last year.
That was reduced to £63,000 by September following a campaign of letters, e-mails and telephone calls to encourage payment.
The figure represents the equivalent of potentially 20% of all eligible firms not paying a penny for three years.
Visit Moray Speyside says the debts date from bills as far back as 2020 when the tourism business improvement district was first formed. Enforcement was then delayed to allow firms time to recover from the Covid pandemic.
However, it is understood there are concerns among local short-term let operators about whether Visit Moray Speyside provides them value-for-money.
Financial pressures on Visit Moray Speyside
Visit Moray Speyside was formed in 2020 as a tourism business improvement district, meaning it is funded by a levy on all tourism-related firms in the Moray Council area.
The annual costs start at £273.75 for the smallest eligible firms and has four tiers ranging up to £1,460 for the biggest.
Unpaid levies totalling £63,000 are the equivalent of a five-month gap in the books of the organisation, based on the £151,000 projection in its initial business plan.
Moray Council is responsible for enforcement action on behalf of Visit Moray Speyside, but refused to release exact figures of those affected in response to a freedom of information request.
Unpaid bills totalling £63,000 is the equivalent of 76 firms on the lowest band not paying for three years, which represents potentially 20% of the 378 of the total eligible firms.
How Visit Moray Speyside supports tourism firms
Gemma Cruickshank, chief executive of Visit Moray Speyside, told the Press and Journal the organisation had delayed enforcement of the unpaid bills as long as possible to try and support firms.
She said: “We held off on recovery because we knew how hard Covid has been on the industry, but it came to the point this year where we needed to recover the money because we need the income as well.
“I personally contacted everyone on the list either by phone, e-mail or letter and advised them of the money outstanding to try and find a way forward. Obviously sheriff officers isn’t an option we want to have to go down.
“It’s given me the opportunity to explain what we do and can do for them, which has helped. If we’re not here then there’s nobody marketing this region.
“We’re also a voice for the industry locally. We fed into the short-term let legislation process and raised the concerns of local operators that there needs to be more consultation about what is viable. We’ve helped 50 firms apply for their licences now. A tourism tax is a future issue we’re keeping an eye on as well as the DRS (deposit return scheme).
“We’ve also split our invoices into two for his year, just to make it easier for some firms.”
Why are short-term let owners not paying?
Businesses including caravan parks, distilleries with visitor centres, golf courses and tourist shops are among those covered by the tourism business improvement district.
It is understood that short-term let operators were among those with the greatest concern before the January 2020 ballot.
Only 106 of the 378 eligible firms voted in favour of forming the organisation with 35 voting against and 237 not voting at all.
The ballot was passed because there was turnout of over 25% and the rateable value of those who voted was more than 50% in favour.
However, the organisation was rocked within months of being established after seven of the 15 directors resigned.
One short-term let operator, who paid up after being issued a warrant, told the Press and Journal they did not think the current levies were distributed fairly.
They said: “The levies are skewed in favour of the big businesses, like the distilleries.
“If I run a small short-term let then I have to pay £273.75 a year. The big distilleries have to pay just five times that and I’m certain they make more than just five times what B&Bs do.”
Another ballot to decide whether Visit Moray Speyside will get another five-year term is due to be held early next year.