ST JOHN’S, Antigua – Regional travellers could pay an average of up to US $30 more to use VC Bird International Airport, according to government estimates.
The hike in fees was yesterday approved by the House of Representatives, though there was strong condemnation from Antigua Labour Party parliamentarians who called for the bill to be withdrawn due to what they view as its potential impact on the tourism industry.
“Here we’re going again with yet another (tax measure), a backward initiative, Madame Speaker, which is obviously going to damage our tourism product and especially at a most difficult time, a time when people of this country are in dire straits, where unemployment is at its highest, poverty levels at it’s highest,” argued St John’s City West representative Gaston Browne.
“The government needs to go back to pack. You need to go and study this initiative; look at it from a competitive standpoint … we cannot accept this initiative without any studies and without any consultations so I’m asking them to withdraw this.”
But Finance and Economy Minister Harold Lovell, the St John’s City East Member of Parliament, who laid the bill before the house, struck aside accusations that the government is pricing the country out of the market.
And he insisted that the changes and fees are necessary and in the best interest of the country.
“We do not want to place ourselves in a position where we have the (airport) facility and we can not service the loan for the facility. It’s all nice and good to be sentimental because … there’s never a good tax if you’re in opposition … so we expect that you will say ‘don’t do it’ but when you get in the driver’s seat you have to think about passenger safety and you have to make sure that you can be responsible going forward,” Lovell said.
“That would still keep us within the range of all the regional airports insofar as hubs are concerned.”
Government is seeking to repeal the Embarkation Tax (US $20 for nationals and US $25 for international passengers) and the Passenger Facility Charge (US $25), consolidating both into the Airport Administration Charge.
This charge would be applied at a standardised rate of US $37.50 to enter and the same amount to depart the country. The measure would be administered by the Antigua & Barbuda Airport Authority and deposited into a special fund.
Lovell explained that passengers would also continue to pay the Travel Tax, applied at 10 per cent on each ticket; this would be collected by government.
Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation John Maginley noted that the charges would be built into tickets costs, simplifying the process and removing the need for departing passengers to pay at the airport after check-in.
The House also approved amendments to the Airport Authority Act of 2006, giving the authority autonomy from central government, including for subventions.
The changes allow the authority to collect funds and meet its financial obligations. It will be subject to the Finance Administration Act. The Director of Audit would also be able to inspect the authority’s finances.
Maginley, the St John’s Rural North representative, who poured scorn on the arguments put forward by opposition members, said this is necessary.
“Every one of our financers said, “listen, the airport must run independent of central government, they must have their own revenue source, they must have their own management team or else you’re going to have a problem funding any future development. That is not unique to Antigua. Go to Barbados, same thing. Go to St Maarten. The airport authority must be able to stand,” Maginley said.
The bills must now go before the Senate for debate before they can become law.
(More in today’s Daily OBSERVER)