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Starting a tourism business

Tourism takes people to all corners of the UK, including historic sites and picturesque protected areas. Tourism can involve risky activities, which often take place in crowded places. Operating a business in such an environment requires consideration of various legal requirements, to minimise risks to safety, heritage, and the business itself. Read this guide to learn about legal considerations for running a tourism business.

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Tourism businesses tend to operate in unique environments and situations. The services they offer often include activities that involve risk - from selling alcohol to running bungee jumps or boat trips. As such, licences or similar formalities are often required to make sure tourism businesses are run safely.

Do I need any licences for my tourism business?

The licences you’ll need depend on what exactly your business does and on when and where it operates. Some common licences that tourism businesses may need include: 

  • a street trading licence - if your business sells things (eg souvenirs) on the street, you’ll need a street trading licence. You’ll also need a street trading licence if you:

    • only sell tickets on the street (eg tickets to your tours)

    • sell services (eg a tour service or a guided adventure activity)

  • a premises licence for activities - this may be necessary if you show films or music as part of a tourist attraction

  • an alcohol licence (ie a ‘premises licence’) and food business registration - these licences may be relevant if your tourism business wants to, for example, offer its customers a drink or a meal during a tour. If you sell (or even give away) any alcoholic drinks, you’ll need a licence. There are different licensing options available, depending on who is selling alcohol and in what situations. You’ll need a food business registration if you give your customers food 

  • an adventure activities licence - if you’re running certain outdoor adventure activities for people under 18 years old. This includes various water activities or trekking. For example, sea kayaking or hill walking a distance away from assistance

  • a pleasure boats licence - if you’re hiring out boats to people, or carrying up to 12 people on a boat, you’ll likely need a pleasure boats licence. If you run a business carrying more than 12 people, you may need a small commercial vessel certificate. You should also check whether you need a licence for any activities you run, such as diving

You can usually apply to your local council for any licences you need.

Do I or my employees need any licences?

Employees of your tourism business may also need to hold some licences. For example, premises that sell alcohol usually need to have an individual who holds a personal licence to act as a supervisor. 

If you run tours, you may choose for your employees to have (or to obtain) the White, Green, or Blue Badge tour guide qualifications. Certifications like this can reassure customers as to the quality of your business’ tours. 

If you run a business on a boat, you may need a boatmaster’s licence

Your tourism business may need various other licences, depending on the kinds of activities you run. You can use the Government’s licence finder to investigate what you may need. 

Tourism is often about showing people the most interesting, unique sites that the UK has to offer. Consequently, many tourism businesses will operate in areas and sites of historical, cultural, or natural interest. These places are often protected by organisations such as the English National Trust or English Heritage, or their equivalents in Wales and Scotland. As such, when starting a tourism business, you should be aware of rules and permissions protecting these areas that may be applicable to you. Some of the key restrictions to consider include: 

Protected areas 

Certain areas of land (eg Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, National Parks, and Special Protection Areas) are ‘designated’ or ‘protectedareas. This means they’re protected by laws and/or councils and organisations (eg Natural England). If you want to operate your tourism business in a protected area, you must check if there are any restrictions that may prevent you from doing certain activities in the area. You may need permission from the area’s local council to open a business in the area. You may also need to carry out surveys or assessments, such as an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

For more information, read the Government’s guidance on protected areas. 

Listed buildings

If your tourism business operates inside a listed building (ie a building or site legally protected due to its cultural or historic significance), you might need certain permissions if you want to alter the building (or sometimes its surroundings) in any way. 

If you’re altering or extending a listed building, and the works will affect the character of the building, you will usually need listed building consent from your local planning authority. Works that will ‘affect the character’ include a broad range of alterations that may affect the building’s overall architecture or historical value. This is not limited to just the most significant or notable features of the property. 

If your proposed works also affect the external appearance of the listed building, you may also need planning permission.

For more information, read the Historic England guidance, the Historic Environment Scotland guidance, or the Cadw guidance for Wales. 

Signs

Putting up signs is a debatably old school but still useful method of attracting customers to a tourism business. In some instances, for example if you run your business from a listed building, you’ll need permission to put up signs advertising your business. For more information, read the VisitBritain guidance.

You can also apply for a brown tourist sign. These are regulated signs that appear on public roads. They are well known as a signifier of tourist attractions, so having one can help associate your business with authority and quality. You can apply for a brown tourist sign through either Highways England, Transport Scotland, the Welsh Assembly, your local authority, or Transport for London. For more information, read the Government’s guidance

Reviews

Setting up a profile to receive reviews on websites like Tripadvisor is a great way to market your tourism business. However, you should ensure that you don’t create reviews in a way that breaks the law. The Government is planning to introduce tighter restrictions on fake reviews. For example, it may soon become unlawful to commission somebody to write a review for you. 

When you sell your tourism business’ tours, site access, activities, or other services, you should do so in a way that protects your business from risk. For example, you’ll want to protect yourself from loss due to cancellations. One way of doing this is by creating comprehensive and legally enforceable Terms and conditions for the supply of services to consumers. You can also make a version specifically designed for use on your website.

You should be sure to handle customers’ bookings in a professional manner, which is compliant with relevant laws. For example, if you take a booking, you’re expected to fulfil the booking unless you cancel in a way that adheres to a cancellation policy that was in place when the customer booked. Always make sure that your cancellation policy is fair to your customers, or it may be unenforceable. For more information, read Doing business with consumers and Consumer rights

If you offer package travel services, you must also be careful to comply with The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018. Your services may be classified as package travel services if you offer a tourism experience which lasts more than 24 hours or overnight and includes more than one type of travel service (eg transportation and a guided tour). The Regulations impose requirements regarding matters including: 

  • the information you must provide to consumers before they purchase a package

  • changes made after purchase to what’s included in a package 

  • what happens if somebody cancels their booking, or if part of a package cannot be performed

For more information, read the Government’s guidance

Tourism businesses work with the general public, often in busy and fast-paced situations in unique locations. As such, when starting a tourism business you should make sure to consider: 

  • business insurance, especially public liability insurance. Having public liability insurance helps to protect your business from the financial risk due to litigation that could occur if somebody visiting your business is injured due to an employee’s negligence. For more information about this and other relevant types of insurance, read Business insurance

  • health and safety. Ensuring that your employees and your customers are safe is integral to running a successful tourism business. For example, you should conduct regular risk assessments. For more information, read Health and safety

  • consider your occupier’s liability obligations. The Occupier’s Liability Act 1984 and the Occupier’s Liability Act 1957 impose a duty of care on occupiers of a premises (eg the person(s) controlling your business’ premises) to ensure that visitors to your premises are reasonably safe. Complying with these obligations may include, for example, putting up warning signs explaining any potential hazards present at your site. For more information, read Health and safety

If your tourism business provides accommodation, there are various other laws and requirements that you must comply with. For more information, read the relevant VisitBritain guidance and consider general landlord and property matters, such as fire safety

Lastly, anybody starting a tourism business must consider the same legal matters that apply to any other new small or medium-sized business (SME). You’ll have to: 

  • plan your business - making a Business plan helps you work out how to make your business successful and can help you find investors. For more information, read What is a business plan

  • choose a business structure - the formalities required for starting your business vary depending on which business structure you choose. For example, you could choose to be a sole trader or a private limited company (Ltd)

  • fund your business - you can seek capital from equity investors (ie those who take shares and, therefore, part ownership in the business) or debt financing (eg loans). For more information, read Funding your business

For more information, read Start a business

Operational considerations

Running a business requires compliance with various areas of law. You should ensure that your business:

Make your Terms and conditions for the supply of services to consumers
Get started
Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest