Prime Minister Mia Mottley could easily have lifted parts of her speech to Parliament on Monday during the presentation of her so-called mini Budget from an October 2009 “We’re all in this together” speech to the Tories convention by David Cameron, who was then vying to become prime minister of Britain.
In addressing the national debt, which had doubled in five years under then Labour government, Cameron promised to confront the debt situation, “deal with it, and take the country with us”.
“I want everyone to understand the gravity of our situation,” he said then.
“The progressive thing to do, the responsible thing to do is to get a grip on the debt, but in a way that brings the country together instead of driving it apart. That means showing leadership at the top, which is why we will cut ministers’ pay and freeze it for a parliament.
“It means showing that we’re all in this together, which is why we’ll freeze public sector pay for all but the one million lowest paid public sector workers for one year to help protect jobs . . . if we pull together, come together, work together — we will get through this together.
“And when we look back we will say not that the government made it happen … not that the minister made it happen … but the businesswoman made it happen … the police officer made it happen … the father made it happen …the teacher made it happen. You made it happen.”
In taking up the cudgels for the struggling Barbadian taxpayer against the defeated, deflated and virtually diminished Democratic Labour Party, which, few would disagree, pushed the economy to the brink of disaster, Ms Mottley echoed much of what Cameron said back then.
Her reference to the people’s plan and that she was sharing the burden among all, including our visitors, was much like Mr Cameron.
We accept that the Prime Minister made it clear this was the first of three phases of her economic recovery plan. However, it is quite a heavy load that we are being asked to carry, while there was nothing about cutting public sector spending, bar removing two state entities from the Consolidated Fund, and partially removing another. There was no cutting parliamentarians’ pay or cuts in allowances, which she can easily legislate considering the fact that she has virtually total control of the House, nor was there any further freezing public servants’ pay. Instead, she gave them a five per cent rise.
What was even more curious was that while Ms Mottley announced several punitive measures on the tourism industry, the only ones asked to share the burden are the land-based sector. There was not a word about the cruise sector.
The land-based tourism sector has long complained that the cruise lines are not carrying their fair share of the economic load. It seems that virtually all of the taxes, from property tax, to room tax, departure tax, are borne by those who invest millions to build properties here, and are going nowhere, while the cruise lines are allowed to float in and out without much contribution to the economy.
And they seem to have a point. While, for example, the departure tax at Grantley Adams International Airport is US$30, the head tax for cruise passengers is only US$6.
According to Ministry of Tourism figures, there were 818,752 cruise arrivals at the Bridgetown Port last year, over 155,000 more than the 663,441 stayover arrivals, the majority of whom would have stayed in hotels and homestay accommodation.
Yet, the ministry’s own numbers reveal that the economic contribution of the cruise industry to Barbados is miniscule compared to stayover. Only about two to three per cent of visitor expenditure comes from cruise, according to the ministry’s numbers.
The fact is, while cruising places greater demand on our resources, cruise passengers tend to spend very little money ashore.
On any given day we see them in their numbers walking to Bridgetown, engaging in window shopping, and walking back to the ship for lunch. Those who go on a tour are few and for the most part only the cruise lines and the tour operators benefit.
Therefore, it seems patently unfair for stayover visitors to be asked to pay so much more, when, at least up to this point, those sailing in and out are allowed to simply cruise along without a worry in the world.
Roseanne Myers, the outgoing chairman of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association, said at the association’s annual general meeting on Wednesday that a cruise tax was mooted, and would likely be implemented in the second phase of Government’s economic recovery programme. Interestingly, Ms Mottley, who addressed the meeting, said nothing about it, although she vaguely mentioned something about some more heavy lifting “that is not fiscal”.
Whatever tax measures she imposes on the cruise lines, they will not take it lying down. When in the mid-1990s Caribbean governments decided to impose a US$20 per passenger head tax, the cruise lines were furious. After going from country to country to coerce the governments to reverse the decision, they publicly threatened to pull out ships from ports that did not give in, including Barbados. This led to the collapse of the idea.
After Alaskans voted in 2006 to impose a $46 head tax, the cruise industry raised loud objection and took the government to court.
So it will not be easy, but Ms Mottley has a responsibility to share the burden fairly, and to dispel of the widely held notion that Caribbean governments are in hock and in thrall to the cruise industry, to the disadvantage of others in tourism.
To act otherwise is to make a mockery of the suggestion that we’re all in this thing together.