IN “L’ENFER”, a latest novel by the French thinker Gaspard Koenig, a college professor dies solely to find that hell is an eternity spent …
Time to finish duty-free
IN “L’ENFER”, a latest novel by the French thinker Gaspard Koenig, a college professor dies solely to find that hell is an eternity spent traipsing round airport duty-free retailers. Others appear to benefit from the expertise somewhat extra. Travel retail has grown right into a mastodon, with annual gross sales of $86bn earlier than the pandemic hit. It is busy adapting by increasing past the airport terminal, notably in China (see article). As it does, its tax privileges have gotten ever extra indefensible.
The premise underpinning duty-free is that the mere act of crossing a world border ought to exempt travellers from some taxes that non-travellers are topic to. This was a questionable wheeze even when European airports lobbied for it within the Nineteen Fifties. Now it’s untenable. Modern tax codes sometimes search to dampen inequality, however duty-free purchasing palms most advantages to the well-heeled who incessantly journey overseas. Taxes may usefully nudge individuals to be greener. Duty rebates overwhelmingly fall into the pockets of people that fly and pollute. One purpose of excise tariffs is to curb the dangerous use of tobacco and alcohol, however airport purchasing is explicitly designed to avoid them. As duty-free purchasing has ballooned, what was as soon as a wrinkle has swelled right into a tax-avoidance scheme for jet-setters.
Duty-free’s boosters argue that the revenue from retailers is crucial to maintain airports, which could in any other case want extra taxpayer funding. Retail revenue, not all of which is exempt of duties, is certainly their largest supply of money after charges paid by airways. The determine is inflated by the astronomical rents that airports can cost retailers, skimming off as much as 40% of their gross sales. But it’s a textbook case of permitting an exorbitant privilege to generate unjustified income that are then shared round opaquely. If airports want state assist, particularly after the pandemic, it must be paid transparently, not via tax dodges that distort financial incentives.
The pandemic will most likely push the duty-free trade into much more doubtful territory. Its enterprise mannequin is evolving because it seeks to money in on its particular standing. You can more and more purchase duty-free items on-line effectively forward of a visit, then decide them up the subsequent time you occur to be flying, with tax conveniently prevented. Once confined to airports, the precept that some individuals don’t must pay value-added taxes has unfold in lots of locations to vacationer retailers downtown. Shoppers usually sidestep taxes on clothes, residence electronics and smartphones, in addition to bottles of oak-aged cognac and selection Cohiba cigars.
That is unfair to different retailers and to the non-travelling public. It is why Britain has eradicated most duty-free benefits and tax rebates for foreigners who store there. Doom-ridden trade predictions about imploding enterprise fashions and a collapse in retail revenues are harking back to the shrill warnings when EU nations ended duty-free looking for these travelling inside the single market in 1999. In truth, there was not a collapse in European cross-border journey—which has thrived.
Closing the duty-free loophole doesn’t imply airports will cease behaving like purchasing centres with departure gates tacked on. Weary flyers will nonetheless be condemned to choose their means via a maze of fragrance spritzers as they emerge from safety checks. Airports will proceed to announce flight-departure gates ever later as a way to encourage passengers to linger within the retailers even longer. Bored travellers with hours to kill hardly want the motivation of a tax backhander to prime up on chocolate or purchase these noise-cancelling headphones. It is previous time to name time on duty-free. ■
This article appeared within the Leaders part of the print version beneath the headline “Call of obligation”