Increased Departure Tax Alarms Operators


NEW YORK -- The departure tax increase to fund improvements at St. Maarten's international airport was met with concern from some industry executives and tour operators. The tax, which jumped from $12 to $16 on Oct. 1, will increase again to $20 on March 1. At $20, the tax will be the second highest in the region, following Haiti's $25 levy; Aruba also charges $20. Most Caribbean states charge departure fees of $10 or less, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

U.S. visitors to the island's French side also will be affected, since all North American visitors arrive through Princess Juliana Airport, located on the Dutch side. Peter Innes, Gogo Worldwide Vacations' vice president of Caribbean marketing, said the Caribbean already is perceived as an overpriced destination, "and the continued increase in these and other taxes just adds to that perception." Although numbers have picked up recently on the French/Dutch island, he said, Gogo's business "has not come back to levels attained before Hurricane Luis in 1995, but is performing at about half of what it was prior to Luis."

Melanie Alexander, director of marketing for Island Resort Tours, said the increased tax "is not going to make travelers change their minds if they've decided on the destination, but if you add in the new U.S. taxes, you're talking about $64 per couple, and that could make a difference." Alexander referred to an increase from $6 to $12 in the U.S. departure tax, and a new arrival tax of $12, both of which took effect Oct. 1.

A spokesman for the St. Martin Tourist Office in New York said St. Maarten is in "a Catch-22 situation. "The island needs to improve to build revenues," but the announcement of higher taxes on tourists is never welcome news, he said.

Airport projects under way include a bigger parking area; air-conditioned arrival and departure halls; a VIP room, and a second luggage belt. This first phase is slated for completion by December 1998, according to a spokeswoman for the bureau. Phase two, which will create an additional terminal and extend the runway, is scheduled to begin in December 1998, she added.

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