Did anyone else find the response by Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister to the UK’s refusal to hold off on the imposition of a tax or air passenger duty on passengers to the Caribbean not only hypocritical but laughable as well? There’s a strange sympathetic parody that Dr Anthony and some other CARICOM leaders are playing out in public that is tantamount to a pantomime. But I am prepared to enjoy the laugh, for it is far better for the soul they say, than sitting in a bar discussing who is red or yellow or discussing the obvious—that under our current crop in the region we are all doomed, no pot of gold, no better days coming anytime soon.
So, better to laugh at the growing wealth of PM Douglas in St Kitts or pretty boy Skerrit’s allure to the tenderonis in Saint Lucia or elsewhere . . . Better to laugh at the ballooning top heavy government here complemented with consultancy-appointments. Yes, that makes me laugh too, not to mention the good doctor’s school teacher like “stern” letter to the British on their passenger tax. But while all this laughing is going on Kenny Anthony and the band of so-called CARICOM leaders are impeding us from really enjoying the company of each other in the region so we can laugh and interact a little more.
The free movement of goods, services and people from across the region is being shackled by the high taxes these governments have imposed on airlines and airline tickets. And so we are crying wolf to the British but blowing down the shacks of our people by our arrogant huffs and puffs of taxes. At a recent CTO meeting Captain Ian Brunton, the CEO of LIAT, invited to speak on “The Challenges of Regional Transportation,” told attendees that though LIAT has been described as “a vital air bridge to countries scattered across the Caribbean Sea, several factors were plaguing the regional carrier. “These include taxation-where taxes account for between 30-50 percent of fares and the company administers 66 different taxes for the countries it serves,” Brunton said. Any ticket purchased to travel to or from Saint Lucia has at least four separate taxes including an EC$35 departure tax/EC$54 for non-residents and the controversial Airport Development Charge which was brought on by the past administration in May of 2011. This tax added a further US$35 on already high costs to travel the region and affected all passengers arriving at or departing from St Lucia, including those travelling on inter-island regional airlines within the Caribbean, as well as persons on international routes. The then opposition Saint Lucia Labour Party charged that the Airport Development Charge was imposed on the people of Saint Lucia by “deception and stealth.”
“The Saint Lucia Labour party recalls that the Bill creating the tax was never circulated to the Opposition ahead of the debate on the tax,” the SLP website stated. Then in May 2012 during the budget presentation, the recently re-elected Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dr Kenny Anthony had this to say about the tax: “In Opposition, we had difficulty with this tax. In our view, this tax is unconscionable at this time especially, given our challenges in increasing stay-over tourism arrivals. It is a tax to pay for an event in the future. Not one block has been put into the ground to justify the tax,” And then the news many had been waiting to hear.
Said Dr Anthony: “The Government, therefore, will suspend the application of the section of the Act authorizing the tax for the time being. This will give immediate relief to travelers.” However the immediacy we have all been hoping for is yet to be realized. Days later I purchased a ticket which still had the “tax of deception and stealth” included. My queries to the travel agent at the time revealed that removing the tax was not as simple as Dr Anthony had made it seem. “It will probably be a question of SLASPA and the Ministry of Finance collaborating and writing to IATA (The International Air Transport System) through whose system the tax is collected and remitted to Government about removing this tax, and that has not been done,” I was told.
Six months after the Prime Minister’s announcement, the tax is very much alive, and still no word from SLASPA or the Ministry of finance as to when it will be removed, if at all. Does this have anything to do with Dr Anthony’s revelation in May when he said; “I am advised that since the imposition of the tax, SLASPA has collected US$7.7 million dollars thus far and it is anticipated to collect a total of US$10 million for the year 2011/12.” So why then is this tax which all seem to agree is a bad tax that hurts travel and our vital tourism industry still in effect like a noose around the necks of travelers and an impediment to the free movement of people around the region that Dr Anthony had been championing for once upon a time. Is this freedom only for a chosen few and is Dr Anthony just as disappointed in Britain’s response as he is about the lack of collective will of regional leaders to address the high cost of regional travel? On the British APD, a press release from the PM office this week read: “Prime Minister Hon Dr Kenny D Anthony is disappointed by the response of the Chancellor of the United Kingdom, Hon. George Osborne, to his letter to the Chancellor complaining about the imposition of the Air Passenger Duty (APD) on persons traveling from the United Kingdom to the Caribbean.”
According to the release, this was what the Chancellor’s letter in part read: “In your letter you recognize the fiscal challenge that the UK faces and so I hope you will understand that the Government remains focused on tackling the deficit in order to protect the UK economy from global instability and secure sustainable long-term growth. Air passenger duty makes a vital contribution to the public finances and it is important that revenues from the duty are maintained.” Dr Anthony: “In my letter, I drew to the attention of the Chancellor that it was unfair and unjustifiable for travelers from the United Kingdom to the United States to pay a lower duty than travelers from the UK to the Caribbean, when, for all practical purposes, the United States and the Caribbean are in the same geographical zone.” The air passenger duty (APD) costs Caribbean-bound passengers an average of £75 per ticket, which is set to rise by 8% in April to £83 per ticket in economy class. At issue is the controversial four-tier banding system based on the distance between London and the destination country’s capital city. This puts South Florida and even Hawaii in a lower tax band, despite the fact they’re further away from Great Britain than Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and other holiday destinations. According to the Saint Lucian Prime Minister, “Given the Chancellor’s response, it is now for CARICOM countries to consider their options and to take the issue to another level.”
But while CARICOM is begging for relief from the UK are they negating on stimulating a potential tourism market from within? Or is the once discriminatory mentality that Caribbean tourists are not as important still a factor? This begs the question then, when will CARICOM governments review their misconstrued tax regimes on airline tickets thus bringing down the high cost of travel within the region which for the most pat is not the ticket price but the high taxes. Richard Doumeng, president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA), stated recently at a meeting in St. Kitts; “travel within this region is a real problem.” “Fifty years ago, they were talking about airlift problems in this region, and we’re still talking about it today. We’re trying to make it easier for intraregional travel so that Caribbean people can visit each other on different islands. Intra-Caribbean tourism is down by 40% in the last five years. Make air travel more accessible. Get rid of the visa regulations, make it cheaper—and more people will travel. It changes the equation.” “Sometimes it is easier for travelers in the Caribbean to go to New York rather than a neighbouring Caribbean country, and we need to fix that,” says Adrian Harrison marketing officer for the Jamaica Tourist Board. The volume of intraregional visitors generated among the 33 member countries was close to 1.5 million in 2011. That number is decreasing and data shows that the number of arrivals in 2011 was below 2007, when more than 1.5 million were recorded. Ricky Skerritt, minister of tourism and international transport for St Kitts and Nevis, at the said CTO conference in St. Kitts stated; “we cannot afford for our own domestic travel market to be stifled any further. We owe it to all travel consumers to provide the means to travel across our region as frequently and as cost-effectively as possible.”
Who will lead the charge and break the people of Saint Lucia and indeed the region from this debilitating economic embargo that does nothing to enhance the free movement. Will Dr Anthony as Chairman of CARICOM? Or will he simply join the team of leaders who sit and wait it out while some of us drink ourselves into a stupor at a bar down the road or laugh for five years straight at the politics of the day, our rants no different from the vagrant round the corner.