Save Enough Currency to Pay Departure Tax

Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Getting there may still be half the fun, but in dozens of countries around the world, leaving can sometimes be less than pleasant, thanks to a travel charge you probably won't know about until you're at the airport, ready to board your plane.

It's called the departure tax.

Ask travelers who have just left Australia, Japan or Hong Kong, and chances are they'll complain about being hit for some pretty heavy departure taxes.

Unhappy passengers leaving the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Brazil, Singapore, Sri Lanka or the Sudan must pay departure taxes in local currency. More than 50 countries charge a departure tax.

Sign Announces Fee

When Japan opened Narita Airport in 1978, the government began charging a departure tax to all passengers embarking on international flights. The charge is 2,000 yen, about $11. Travelers leaving Pakistan are required to pay a tax of 100 rupees, or $6.25. A sign in the airport at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, announces that the departure tax is $10 and subject to change.

The current winner in the departure tax derby is Hong Kong, where the charge is 120 Hong Kong dollars, or U.S. $15.40.

More often than not the departure tax is large and can force delays. Some passengers have missed their flights because they had literally run out of money before arriving at the airport to fly home. Some arrive at the last minute to catch those flights, only to find they must run to an airport bank to change their money back into Hong Kong currency to make the payment.

Hong Kong was only recently declared the winner in high departure taxes. For years the position was held by Australia, which charges a whopping $20 Australian tax to departing airline passengers. Thanks to a stronger U.S. dollar, the Australian charge is now roughly U.S.$14.

In 1985 Australia collected $2.5 million from the taxes. But with the revenue came hundreds of complaints, many lodged through the Australia Tourist Commission.

After five years of fighting, the ATC thought it had won. Then, late last year, the Australian government suddenly announced that the unpopular tax would be removed. It would be replaced by a ticket tax imposed only on tickets written in Australia, primarily affecting Australian residents.

But just as suddenly, the order was reversed, and the government announced that it would keep the controversial tax. The only difference: Now the tax will be collected by the airlines instead of the government. Complaints have also been heard because travelers who have to stay just overnight at Japan's Narita Airport are required to pay the tax, whereas other Japanese airports do not require the departure tax for an overnight stay.

The departure tax in Barbados is 16 Barbados dollars, or U.S.$8.10. The tax had risen over the years from $6 to $10, and then two years ago to the present fee.

In Jamaica the departure tax is $40 Jamaican or U.S.$8, double what it was last year. But in many cases the tax is quietly included in travel packages. As a result, many people traveling to Jamaica never know they paid a departure tax.

Not every country has been able to maintain a departure tax. About six years ago Germany tried to levy a departure tax.

"It was short-lived," says Hans Baumann, director of the Western region of the German National Tourist Office. "Opposition from the airlines, German residents and travelers was so strong, it practically started a revolution." The tax was removed.

The airlines helped to defeat the German tax. After all, many passengers mistakenly assume that the airlines, not the governments, are charging the tax.

Airlines Collecting Tax

In many cases the airlines are collecting the taxes. Most Americans don't know it, but a $3 international departure tax is included in the price of every ticket they buy to a foreign destination.

"Departure taxes are something we just have to live with," says James Arey, systems director of public relations for Pan Am. "We don't like it, but we also can't control it."

Some countries, concerned about their economic situations and galloping inflation, have begun departure taxes aimed at their own citizens. Last summer Israel announced a $300 travel tax, which every Israeli national must pay before leaving the country.

Some countries essentially charge an arrival tax. Incoming travelers at Cairo's airport must buy $150 in local currency at airport banks before passing through customs, though enforcement is spotty. Visitors are also told to keep their exchange receipts if they hope to convert their extra Egyptian pounds back into dollars.

The Hidden Tax

But there's an Egyptian Catch-22. In small print, or in some cases in no print at all, is the regulation that requires visitors to spend at least $30 worth of Egyptian pounds for every day they're in that country. And, sorry, credit card purchases don't count.

All too often, departing Americans make the painful discovery at the Cairo airport that they can't exchange their Egyptian pounds, that their receipt is meaningless and that their pounds have suddenly become an unexpected souvenir of their trip. Voila-- you have just paid a hidden departure tax, and your unspent dollars stay in Egypt.

An entrance fee into the United States may soon be enacted into law. Last year the House of Representatives approved a $5 customs user fee that is expected to generate $200 million in revenue. The plan, which would affect foreigners and returning residents, is awaiting Senate approval.

"It's a form of double duty," says one angry travel agent. "In addition," she said, "if you think there are long lines getting through customs now, just think what it will be like if this goes into effect."

Objections From Many Sides

The proposal is meeting its share of opposition.

"We're lobbying hard to get this tax waived for Hawaii," says Ron Letterman, American Express' man in the 50th state.

"We're a place that's totally dependent upon air traffic for access. As such, this tax would impact us unfairly. And states like Florida and California would also be greatly affected."

But the strongest objections have been lodged by the Air Transport Assn., the lobbyists of the U.S. airline industry.

"The airlines strongly object to the user fee," says Jim Gorson of the ATA, "but their objection would be less vocal and violent if passengers got something out of a tax like this. It's inexcusable. And besides, it would open us to retaliation from other countries. If we do it to them, they'll do it to us."

For the time being, when you return to the United States you'll only have to produce your passport, not your wallet.

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