UNTIL recently, few had heard of the term “overtourism”. Listen carefully in places like Edinburgh and Skye, however, and you will probably notice it being used increasingly frequently to describe a very modern phenomenon: the negative impact of too many visitors.

Whichever way you look at it, Scotland’s tourist industry is booming. A record 30 million people visited our diverse array of attractions last year, according to figures out this week, with the National Museum of Scotland and Edinburgh Castle each enticing more than two million through their doors for the first time.

The North Coast 500, the Highland touring route dubbed Scotland’s Route 66, also had its most popular year to date, with numbers up by one-third.

International visitors and their increasingly generous spending were a big factor in all this success, encouraged here by a weak pound, increased capacity on flights, the popularity of TV shows such as Outlander and accolades such as being voted the World’s Most Beautiful Country by travel bible Rough Guide.

Domestic tourism is also growing, as many of us weigh up poor exchange rates abroad and take advantage of the multitude of festivals and cultural events across the length of Scotland.

Edinburgh remains the jewel in the tourist crown, the gateway to Scotland for two-thirds of foreign visitors, with its four million visitors bringing in £1.4 billion a year and supporting 35,000 jobs.

But what happens when the natives start to feel frustrated about the impact tourism is having on the quality of their lives, the over-crowded streets and roads, the litter and inadequate facilities and infrastructure, the short-term lets driving long-term residents out?

Edinburgh resident and leading arts figure Richard Demarco warned recently in The Herald that big business was destroying the city’s cultural offering, describing it as a “money-making machine” that is “out of control”.

The city has more than 9,000 Airbnb listings – second only to London in the UK – with residents in districts such as the Grassmarket complaining that their once thriving community had been “ruined” by short-term lets.

Residents on Skye, meanwhile, called for help last summer to deal with overcrowding after a surge in tourism led to thousands of visitors descending on beauty spots, clogging their single-track roads with tour buses and campervans, dropping litter and relieving themselves outside.

In European cities such as Paris, Berlin, Rome, Prague and Vienna, part of the answer has for some time been a tourist tax added to hotel rooms – usually in the region of €1 to €5 per night – to help pay for the public services and staff needed to cope with high numbers of visitors.

City of Edinburgh Council supports the introduction of such a tax but the hospitality industry is strongly opposed, saying it would deter visitors.

The Scottish Government, meanwhile, would have to change laws to allow councils to raise revenues in this way, though ministers could be minded to make such changes in this difficult financial climate if they provide struggling local authorities with new opportunities to raise funds.

With the capital’s SNP council leader Adam McVey behind a new drive to introduce a levy – which he believes could bring in about £15 million a year – added to research showing more residents support the move, the idea is gaining momentum.

Pressure is also mounting for changes to the short-term rental market. Indeed, last month Airbnb put forward voluntary plans to ban its Edinburgh landlords from renting their properties for more than 90 days per year, though peak festival times would not be included in this limit.

Mr McVey, who took over as council leader last May, believes the time for change is long overdue. “We’ve worked hard to create a strong business case and now we need to go out and engage with the industry before we take it to the Scottish Government,” he said. “We need a solution that will secure the future of what makes our city such a brilliant place to visit. It is short-sighted for the hospitality sector to assume tourism will just keep growing if public-sector funding is not there to support the reasons people are coming.

“We are flexible on what the proceeds of the levy would be spent on but if we could use it to give long-term funding to our festivals, that would be fantastic.”

He acknowledged a growing sense of unease among residents about the effects of tourism on the city. “Most of Edinburgh’s residents see our festivals and tourism industry as a big part of what makes the city so special,” he explained. “But they want the whole thing managed better and we all have a responsibility to ensure that happens. They have genuine concerns around issues like access and short-term lets.

“It would be embarrassing for the hospitality sector if Airbnb brought in voluntary restrictions before them. That would suggest that Airbnb has more interest in the city than a well-established industry and that simply cannot be the case.”

Mr McVey is due to release the full details of the plan in the coming weeks, and says he will look to hold talks with the hospitality industry in advance of asking finance secretary Derek Mackay to draw up legislation.

“What’s important is that the industry engages constructively with us about where the difficulties lie,” he added. “They can’t just say they don’t like the plan.”

Proponents argue that with so many tourist taxes already in place throughout Europe and the US, visitors are used to the idea of paying, and would not be put off by a couple of pounds a night on a hotel room. They also make the point that room rates fluctuate widely due to seasonality and web discounts, so a couple of pounds will make little difference.

The body that represents hotels and restaurants, however, the British Hospitality Association (BHA), strongly disagrees, labelling any tourist tax “a blunt instrument”.

“No-one advocating this tax has been clear about what the money will be used for, what the rate will be or who would collect it,” Willie Macleod, its executive director in Scotland, said. “We also know that once taxes are introduced they only ever go one way.

“Hotels and restaurants are already contributing through VAT, corporation tax and business rates – the UK has the highest level of VAT on hotel services in Europe.

“It seems to us absolutely inequitable to charge an extra tax on people who have chosen to come to your city to spend their money and support your employment.”

He added: “We hear proponents say tourist taxes don’t prevent people from visiting places. But charging yet another tax gives customers less money to spend on things like taxis and entertainment. Visitors are price sensitive – they have limited budgets and look very carefully before deciding where to go on holiday.

“It’s also important to make the point that people who talk about tourist taxes elsewhere are not comparing like with like.

“Even in the US hotel rooms, which are quoted before local, tourist, state and federal taxes are added, the highest combination of 18.3 per cent is still cheaper than our 20 per cent of VAT.

“We simply can’t keep taxing our visitors. And remember, this tax would also apply to Scottish residents.”

Ultimately, it will be up to the Scottish Government to decide whether it believes too much tourism is a problem and, if so, who should pay to fix it.

Until then, the long-suffering residents of Edinburgh and Skye can only watch and wait.