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Airport Departure Fees Are a Taxing Experience

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i> .

Getting there may still be half the fun, but in dozens of countries around the world, leaving can sometimes be less than pleasant.

It’s all thanks to a hidden--at least a poorly publicized--travel charge that you probably aren’t even aware of until you arrive at the airport, ready to board your plane.

It’s called the departure tax, a nasty little addendum to the cost of your trip.

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

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And chances also are that they had no idea of the additional charge until they arrived at the airport to leave each country.

There are other unhappy passengers leaving Mexico, the Bahamas, Bangladesh or Brazil, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the Sudan who were forced to pay departure taxes--in local currency. More than 50 countries charge a departure tax.

When Japan opened Narita Airport in 1978, the government began charging a departure tax on all passengers embarking on international flights. The charge is 2,000 yen, about $14 U.S. A sign hanging in the airport at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, announces that the current departure tax is $10, “subject to change.”

Hong Kong’s departure tax used to be $120 Hong Kong (about $15 U.S.). Recently the tax was lowered to $100 Hong Kong, still stiff at about $13 U.S.

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Forced Delays

The problem with the departure tax goes beyond its cost. More often than not, the fee can force delays. I’m writing from experience. On a number of occasions I have converted my local currency back to U.S. dollars, only to be told of the tax when I got to the airport.

And some passengers have missed flights because they had run out of money before arriving at the airport to take a flight home.

Or they have arrived at the last minute to catch their flight home, only to have to run to an airport bank to change their money back to local currency to make the departure tax payment.

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For years, the highest departure tax was imposed by Australia, which has charged a whopping $20 Australian (about $14 U.S.).

The Australian government collects millions of dollars each year from people leaving the country. Still, the revenue was not received without hundreds of complaints by travelers through the Australian Tourist Commission.

After five years of fighting, the commission thought it had won the battle when late last year the Australian government announced that the unpopular tax would be removed.

It was to be replaced by a ticket tax, imposed only on tickets written in Australia, therefore primarily affecting Australian residents.

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But just as suddenly, the order was reversed, and the government announced that it would keep the controversial tax. The only difference was that the tax would be collected by the airlines instead of the government.

One piece of good news: The current charge has dropped to about $10 U.S.

Passenger Complaints

Complaints also have been lodged by passengers connecting from other countries who had to stay overnight at Narita Airport because of airplane schedules. They are required to pay a departure tax, whereas the tax for overnight stay at other Japan airports is not required.

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The departure tax in Barbados rose over the years from $6 to $10, and then two years ago to $16 Barbados (or about $8 U.S.).

In Jamaica, the departure tax is $80 Jamaican or $16 U.S., double what it was just a few years ago.

In many cases the tax is quietly included in the price of travel packages. As a result, many people traveling to Jamaica never even know that they have paid a hefty departure tax.

Not every country has been able to successfully maintain a departure tax. About eight years ago, West Germany attempted to levy one.

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“It was short-lived,” said a spokesman. “Opposition from the airlines, German residents and travelers was so strong that 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.

International Tax

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

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“Departure taxes are just something they have to live with,” a spokesman for Pan Am said. “We don’t like it, but we also can’t control it.”

Some countries are so concerned about galloping inflation that they have also begun departure taxes aimed at their own citizens who are leaving town.

Israel levies a 250-sheckel travel tax (about $175 U.S.) that every national must pay before leaving the country.

Some countries have even tried to charge a form of arrival tax. For several years travelers landing in Egypt were required to buy at least $150 in local currency at airport banks before passing through customs.

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And the visitors were told to keep their exchange receipts if they hoped to convert their extra Egyptian pounds back to U.S. dollars at the end of their trip.

But there was a Catch-22. In small print, or in some cases no print at all, was the regulation that required visitors to spend at least $30 worth of Egyptian pounds for each day they were in the country. Credit-card purchases didn’t count.

As a result, many departing Americans made the painful discovery at the Cairo airport that they couldn’t exchange their Egyptian money, that their original exchange receipt was meaningless and that their pounds had suddenly become an unexpected souvenir of their trip. In effect, they had paid an arrival tax and a departure tax.

Thankfully, the Egyptians have eliminated the $150 purchase requirement. But exchanging money at the end of a trip can still be a problem. Warning in Egypt: Only exchange dollars for Egyptian pounds as you need them during your stay, or make credit-card purchases. It will make leaving the country that much easier.

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Entrance Fee Proposal

For a number of years, bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress to charge an entrance fee into the United States. Under one proposed plan, international travelers and returning citizens would be required to pay a $5 “user fee.”

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


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