Ridiculous is how an independent Senator has described the rise in charges planned for travellers departing the Grantley Adams International, as he warned the country to brace for a significant falloff in visitor arrivals.
But Barbados Labour Party (BLP) senators backed the new airport service charge, suggesting that while no one likes paying new taxes, the measure was needed to improve infrastructure and boost the economy.
And one senator suggested that not flying is one option open to travellers unwilling to pay the tax.
As the measure, the Airport Service Charge (Amendment) Bill 2018, came before the Senate Wednesday afternoon, Senator Reverend Michael Maxwell said while he supported a hike in the departure tax to help upgrade the Grantley Adams International Airport, he said the new rates were uncompetitive among other CARICOM states.
“This to me will negatively impact on what we have already started to build in terms of our tourism industry. That is my concern. And so I share, like some of the [Senators] that have the concern that this rise would affect the frequent flyers . . . business travelers . . . those who are coming here for holiday with a big family. And therefore it would have a significant impact, maybe a very significant falloff in the number of those who come and then depart from our shores,” Senator Maxwell said of the levy which comes into force on October 1st.
The new taxes of US$70 for travel outside of the region and US$35 for intra-Caribbean air passengers, are expected to raise $95 million as part of Government’s fiscal measures announced in Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s June mini-budget.
The independent senator said the structure and rates of the levy suggested that those travelling further from the Caribbean either have a lot more money to spend because they are being charged more or are getting a better service. But he stopped short of outright describing the measure as discriminatory.
“Other Caribbean islands would have one fixed rate across the board. And so, it is a very bold move by our Government to be able to suggest that those who are travelling in the region would pay Bds$70 and those outside of the region would have to pay Bds$140. And so again, I believe that this would have a negative impact when our tourists are comparing and analyzing what is happening in the other Caribbean islands,” he said, noting that St Vincent now has an international airport with others moving in that direction.
St Lucia charges US$13 in departure tax, Jamaica US$35 and Trinidad and Tobago US$14.75, he told the Senate.
Senator Maxwell said only Antigua and Barbuda, with a US$75 departure tax, was charging travellers close to what Barbados is recommending. “Now that US$75, however, is across-the-board,” the reverend told the Upper House, adding that he doubted St John’s would charge North American visitors more than than that to return home.
In introducing the bill, Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Senator Romel Springer suggested Grantley Adams become a regional hub, citing Dubai and Panama as examples.
“Seventeen milion people pass through Dubai every year, but most of them are not going to the United Arab Emirates, as Dubai has positioned itself to benefit from the movement of people throughout Asia, Europe and Africa.
“In Central America and the Caribbean, Panama is now a hub for the entire region, and I believe this is what Barbados should do. We do not want a situation to arise where another airport steps up out of the blue and becomes the aviation hub in our part of the region because we have not had the resources to upgrade ours,” the Govenment senator said.
“I won’t stand here and pretend I enjoy paying taxes – I don’t, but everyone here knows that if we want all the amenities and facilities at the airport up to international standards, we need a large amount of money,” he said.
New jet bridges were touted among the infrastructure improvements to be paid for by the new charge, Senator Springer told the Senate.
“I would like to walk straight through to the terminal via a jet bridge whenever I land in Barbados. I am sure we would want to see more shops, restaurants, cafes, the things you see internationally at our airport. The runway is approaching the end of its lifespan and is in need of some repair, and all this expansion requires money. I would say for a country that boasts of the number of arrivals we do, our airport definitely needs sprucing up.”
Deputy President of the Senate Rudolph Greenidge suggested airlines had also played a role in the rising cost of air travel, harking back to the amenities of a bygone aviation age.
“In the 1960s, if you were on a plane for just an hour, you would get a full meal free of cost. These days, if you take a four-hour flight, you’re lucky if they offer you a sandwich and they make you pay for it,” Senator Greenidge added, saying lawmakers had no control over this.
But he gave this advice to would-be passengers: “The reality is, if you don’t want to pay the increased fees, maybe you should not travel.”
He said that while he expected people would object to the increased fees, “other countries in the region have already put these charges in place, and increase them from time to time as well, and in all honesty, some of our fees are lower than theirs. Nevertheless, our economy is in serious trouble and we have to find new ways to breathe life into it, and increasing the service charge is one way to do it”.
Independent Senator Maxwell praised the former Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy for working to build the tourism product and the resulting increase in arrivals.
“I would wish to give credit in my humble opinion where credit is due. I know we have criticised the previous administration in a number of areas they would have failed. But I must take the opportunity to compliment them for the work they have done, particularly within the tourism sector and how the former Tourism Minister would have worked hand-in-hand with the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc and the BTPI [Barbados Tourism Product Inc] for planting some seeds that enabled this vital sector to survive even during some very tough times,” he said.