Air Passenger Duty: 'Stinging us for everything we've got'
IT IS automatically added to every flight out of the UK, but when The Voice spoke to Caribbean-bound travellers at Gatwick Airport, some had never even heard of air passenger duty (APD).
The travel tax has been rising year-on-year making billions in revenues for the government, but pricing out ordinary people from travelling to the tropical region.
As a result, fewer people are able to visit destinations like Jamaica, Barbados and St Lucia to visit friends or relatives without paying excessively as a result of the tax that is added to the cost of airline tickets.
The issue is this: APD is divided into different price bands based on the distance between the UK starting point, and the capital city of the country to which you are travelling. It means taxes on flights to the US, even if it is to Hawaii, are based on the distance to Washington.
It replaced a two-tier pricing system placing European destinations in one bracket and all other destinations in another.
The Voice, in support of its readers, has been backing a campaign to convince the government into reducing the punitive travel tax and taking on board the concerns of Britain's Caribbean communities.
Airlines and Caribbean tourism authorities have also been vocal in opposing the levy which is having a crippling effect on the tourism industry, a major GDP contributor to the economies of Caribbean countries.
The tax is expected to generate up to £3.8 billion in revenues for the government by 2017/18, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
As of April 1, holidaymakers to the Caribbean have seen the tax on economy-class flights rise from £2 per person to £83 for an adult or child, while premium class fares have jumped from £4 to £166 per person.
Further increases will come into play from April 1, 2014, pushing economy and premium class APD tax to £85 and £170, respectively.
A family of four travelling in economy class to any island in the Caribbean will pay an astonishing £332 before the ticket price, surcharges and other taxes are added.
Comparatively, a plane journey to Orlando would cost about £280.
Since APD was introduced in 2009, the number of British visitors to the Caribbean has fallen by 12 per cent, generally, and up to 25 per cent to some islands, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation.
Despite more than half a million Britons being defined as having a Caribbean background, travel to the region to visit friends and family has been reduced by a fifth since 2009, figures show.
However, the government contends that it has made a serious effort to limit the rise of the APD while tackling the deficit.
A Treasury spokesman said: "Since June 2010, despite the challenge of the budget deficit that we inherited, the government has limited the rises in air passenger duty to inflation.
"The Budget last month confirmed that rates from April this year will again only rise in line with inflation, and the same will happen in April 2014. This means that the level of APD is staying flat in real terms.
"We know that times are hard for people up and down the country," he said.
HARD TO VISIT FAMILY
Pensioner Wilfred Smith, 66, from Tottenham, said the travel tax rises would make it harder for him to visit family back home and ease his health.
He said: "I have breathing problems and travel to my birthplace St Lucia to recover from the hustle and bustle of life in London.
"The clean air and calm atmosphere seems to have a positive effect on me. Also, it's a great opportunity to see my relatives."
Additionally, Smith stated that he will now find it incredibly hard to continue to travel four times a year to Castries [St Lucia's capital], without financial help from his family.
"The tax is not good for me. I am a retired man on a small budget and every penny added [to the price] affects my pocket," the north Londoner added.
"If the price goes up anymore, I might not be able to go."
Spencer Herbert, 43, a tradesman from Croydon, said the APD rises were an "injustice" as travelling to the Caribbean was not a holiday for him but a "necessity".
"It's terrible really. I need to get to Jamaica to check on my sick relatives. "They can't travel over here and I must see them, it's a necessity," he complained.
"If it keeps rising, then I might not be able to go at short notice," he lamented, adding that "if anything was to happen to my family, and I wasn't there, I'd be very upset."
Justin Simpson, 27, a cashier from Stonebridge, said: "This is my first-ever trip to Barbados and the Caribbean in general, and I was really surprised by the price.
"My ticket costs quite a bit more than going to say, Los Angeles or Las Vegas, which is quite mind-blowing."
According to the young traveller, "a few of my friends weren't able to come over with me, but I reckon if the prices were lower, then they would have been up for it."
He emphasised that "if APD continues to push up ticket prices, the West Indies may struggle to attract as many casual travellers with no previous ties to the islands."
As well as affecting elder members of the community, many third-generation African-Caribbeans hoping to visit their roots may be forced to think otherwise.
Many of the travellers The Voice spoke to were incredibly worried that continued increases would eventually lead to travel to the Caribbean becoming impossible.