The $100bn cost of making tourists get visas

"Tough on migration" can't help but meaning "tough on tourism".

There's a lot written about the extent to which restrictions on immigration hurt the UK economy. People settling in Britain and working is a good thing: someone else has paid for their education and upbringing, and we reap all the rewards. When we stop that happening, we hurt our economy.

On top of that, overly restrictive limitations on migration have spillover effects. The most obvious one is that caps on international student numbers – who are, bizarrely, counted as migrants in national statistics – severely limits the ability of our university sector to export its services. That sector punches well above its weight internationally; if we can't even make policy which lets it compete, what hope have our smaller industries?

But other spillover effects are less discussed. One of the possible wounds of our closed-borders policy could be on tourism. A new study, highlighted by Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, looking at the effects of visa restrictions in India, finds that particularly onerous requirements can lead to a 70 per cent reduction in inbound travel.

The authors take those findings, and apply them to the case of the US. Although they caution that "extreme counterfactuals…should always be judged cautiously", the estimates are nothing short of stunning:

What would happen if the United States opened up tourist travel to all comers without requiring visas? … We calculate a 112% increase in total inbound travel. In 2010, the U.S. recorded 59,791,000 inbound visitors who spent an estimated total of $109,975,000,000 (approximately $2000 per visitor) according to World Bank data. Increasing these figures by 112% yields an additional 67 million visitors and $123 billion in spending.

That's around one per cent of US GDP a year from tourism alone; and it still doesn't take account of the extra disincentive effect of immigration checks. British people, for instance, don't require a visa to travel to the US, but the unpleasant, borderline-abusive reputation of border guards in the country may well have a deterrent effect of its own.

Tourism restrictions have to get stronger the harsher limits on legal migration are, to prevent people entering the country through back routes, so liberalisation in both areas would have to proceed hand-in-hand. But if it did, the possible gains seem to get higher every day.

The US Embassy. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496