By Alexander Britell
It’s a humid July day in London and Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, joined by top Caribbean sprinters, heads to the track ahead of the start of the London 2012 Anniversary Games.
Bolt is wearing a bright t-shirt over his Jamaica uniform — one that includes the letters APD, with a line drawn through them.
It’s just wishful thinking, but, for some, this imagined scene is the kind of creative strategy the Caribbean needs to step up its struggle against the United Kingdom’s Air Passenger Duty, a tax which the region says is significantly harming its tourism industry.
The APD, as it is known, is a tax on all flights originating in the United Kingdom, with the amount levied calculated using the distance flown.
At the beginning of this month, the tax increased to $126 per person on a given flight to the Caribbean in economy class, with substantially higher tax rates for higher classes.
The Caribbean says the calculations are unfair, placing a smaller tax on flights to certain destinations like he United States, despite a longer distance traveled. The tax has led to criticism from abroad, including the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Thus far, years of Caribbean diplomatic opposition have been met largely with silence from the British government, which increased the levies in its most recent budget.
That’s why it’s now time for a change of tactics, according to Graham McKenzie, managing director of TravelMole, the leading global online community for the travel and tourism industry.
“It’s really the corridors of power at Westminster, diplomacy has come to an end — because no matter how much diplomacy and research has gone on, the British government won’t budge,” he told Caribbean Journal. “So I think if the Caribbean, which have known about the tax for six or seven years now, want to do something about it, they’ve got to take it to the next level.”
The Caribbean can do that by taking advantage of its international renown in areas like sport and music to increase public pressure over the APD, he said.
McKenzie pointed to two upcoming events: the aforementioned Anniversary Games and the ICC Champions Trophy 2013, as perfect opportunities for Caribbean athletes to express the region’s opposition to the tax.
“Why don’t they protest with some simple t-shirt or something like that?” he asked. “All of the major Caribbean athletes will be there, including Usain Bolt.”
Hugh Riley, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, said that the region had thus far focused on lobbying the British government and the Caribbean Diaspora living in the UK, with the idea that the Diaspora had enough voting power to make its displeasure felt at the ballot box.
He acknowledged the need for more creativity, but suggested that APD concerns were already well-known in Britain — indeed, the UK’s recent budget speech specifically mentioned the Caribbean’s position.
“There’s no lack of information on it,” Riley said last week at the Sustainable Tourism Conference in Trinidad. “Suggesting that taking it to the next stage will somehow effect change — that what we haven’t done yet is to take it to the streets, as it were — I’m not sure if that’s going to make a vast difference, because the public pretty much knows how we feel about it.”
For McKenzie, however, while the APD may be well known within the British travel industry and the government, the Caribbean’s efforts thus far haven’t taken it to the British public at large — a crucial step if the region truly wants to influence British lawmakers.
“People in the street do not know about it, and they should know about it,” he said. “It’s only when it becomes in the public domain, will our government change their minds — and they do change their minds — once the publicity becomes adverse. But the fact is, you can make a huge campaign about the APD and the deleterious effect that it has on communities and people in the Caribbean.”
“One little gesture from Usain Bolt would probably do more than about six years of diplomacy,” he said.