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Travel and You

Cost of Coming Home

April 27, 1986|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Coming home is going to cost us all a little more as soon as President Reagan activates a new law passed to him for signature by Congress.

Soon, probably within three months, travelers returning from distant foreign lands will have to pay a $5 fee to offset the cost of the customs inspection. Talk about rubbing salt in a wound.

The customs charge has been talked about for a long time. It's been proposed, discussed and rejected two or three times over.

This time, though, Congress has decided to let it stick, even though it was vigorously opposed by most people in the travel business.

The airlines and cruise lines, whose customers will be the ones most affected by the levy, were among the most vocal opponents of the measure. They argued that there were already too many taxes working to the detriment of travel.

Same Kind of Argument

Retail travel agents and tour operators weighed in with the same kind of argument.

But the truth is that it wasn't so much the actual money involved that offended them. When you consider the hundreds, or thousands, of dollars that are spent on each and every foreign trip, $5 doesn't seem so hefty.

What they were mainly concerned about was the mountain of paper work, the administrative chore, certain to be created for whoever has to track, collect and remit the customs fee. Guess who has to do it. That's right--travel agents and the suppliers of travel services, including the airlines and the cruise companies.

Travel agents and airlines, of course, already collect two other special charges imposed on passengers--the 8% domestic ticket tax and the $3 international departure tax. Now they'll have one more to worry about.

Exemptions Noted

Please note that the new customs fee applies only to those (U.S. and foreign nationals) arriving from "distant" countries. It exempts those on their way here from Canada and Mexico.

Also excluded are U.S. possessions, and the adjacent islands of the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Bahamas.

While government sources scoff at suggestions that the $5 tax will depress travel demand to the United States, nevertheless they decline to impose it on returnees from countries in the Caribbean basin. Could that be for any reason other than the wish not to discourage trade and travel between those places and the United States?

The question is moot. The law is the law, or at least it will be 90 days after President Reagan signs it. For a guaranteed three years, as stipulated in the legislation, we just have to live with it. Or maybe we won't even get the chance to live with it. There may be more.

Pressure on Congress

The U.S. Customs Service is not content with the $5-a-head rate. It has pressed Congress to allow it to charge more than that, and from more people, for its services.

There is no reason to believe the customs officials will take what they've been given and be satisfied. Chances are, they will continue to urge legislation that would bump our travel bills up even higher.

If you would like to avoid paying the new tax fee, get your ticket before it takes effect. Those booked and paid before the effective date need not pay the fee.

Some potential loopholes appear to exist. One concerns the practice of buying an outbound ticket in the United States and the return portion abroad. It sometimes works out cheaper that way.

Who collects the new customs fee in such cases? Not the airline or travel agent who sells the outbound leg. There's no customs inspection involved in that segment. And not the airline or agent abroad. The United States has no authority to impose such a condition anywhere but in this country.

However, the U.S. Customs Service, it seems to me, has proved itself quite adept at getting what's coming to it.

I've got the receipts to prove it.

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