Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Bringing a strong case

Tourism officials across the Caribbean, and the UK allies, are to be congratulated for winning what seemed to be an impossible battle.

While delivering the 2014 Budget in the British House of Commons last week, Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that changes will be made to the Air Passenger Duty (APD), which has been pilloried by the Caribbean tourism sector as being unduly onerous. Effective April 1, 2015, the APD will revert to a two-band system; Band A for short-haul flights of less than 2 000 miles from London and Band B for all long-haul flights over 2 000 miles from London.

The APD was structured in a four-band system that imposed a tax on flights from the UK based on the distance to the capital of the destination. This gave some US destinations a competitive advantage, such as Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, since it would attract a lower APD than a flight to Barbados in the Atlantic Ocean, given the location of the US capital of Washington D.C.

When the four-band APD was still at the proposal stage, this newspaper expressed concern over the impact it might have on travel to the Caribbean, and regional tourism officials were of a similar view. Accordingly, they submitted a proposal to the UK government shortly after the system was implemented in 2010, calling for a return to the two-band system. In the years that have followed, tourism officials and their allies in the international travel industry mounted a significant lobby against what they deemed an unfair tax that jeopardised the viability of the tourism sector, the lifeblood of many of the small island economies of the region.

Despite them being competing tourism destinations, the countries of the Caribbean know when banding together makes good sense. In addition, a favourable set of circumstances came together to help the Caribbean lobbyists’ in their quest. They found influential allies from within the UK itself – businesses such as UK airlines, travel agents and tour operators, members of the Caribbean Diaspora and even the British people themselves who would have grown attached to visiting the region and would have been most displeased with the steep charges added onto the cost of their usual holiday travel. Indeed, in citing the motivation for the APD restructuring, the Chancellor pointed out that the reform would make it more affordable for UK families to travel abroad.

The next big case the Caribbean seems bent on presenting to the UK is that of reparations for slavery. While this is more of a legal battle than a political one, public opinion will likely still play a role. In this instance, however, Caribbean officials are unlikely to find as many allies as they did on the APD issue. Indeed, recent Letters to the Editor of the London Times that were drawn to our attention show the average reader to be firmly against this route. The consensus was that it was unreasonable for modern Britons to pay compensation for their ancestors’ actions, with some letter writers at pains to point out that their predecessors were not of the planter class.

The Caribbean will certainly have a major fight on its hands, especially since some of its own are not entirely convinced of the strength of the case. Would it be too much to hope that fortune might again smile on countries in the region? That may just be wishful thinking for the proponents of reparations. However, the APD outcome may have given them some encouragement as to what can be achieved if they develop the right strategy.

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