A recent White House proposal seeks to impose a $1 surcharge on international travel costs to fund the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration (USTTA), which "sells" this country to prospective visitors abroad.
Just a few months ago I bemoaned the tendency of lawmakers to tack a buck or two or five onto ticket prices to raise money for all kinds of needs.
An earlier proposed surcharge of $2 a head to pay for Department of Agriculture inspections of those returning from overseas has yet to be approved, and already lawmakers are trying to add a new one.
This one is designed to raise $24 million to finance the activities of U.S. tourism promotional activities abroad. Quite apart from the fact that I don't like hitting up travelers for new taxes, something else bothers me: The numbers don't add up.
Looking at the Budget
The USTTA is budgeted at $11.5 million this year and $12 million for fiscal 1988. There are no plans to increase the budget beyond that mark, yet the administration wants to raise $24 million from the surcharge, the surplus from which will go into the general accounting fund.
I think we are entitled to ask, "Why?"
Just don't expect an answer. The official line is that "the door is open for USTTA to request additional funding."
Sure it is. Just as the door is open for us to expect the money in the aviation trust fund, meant to upgrade our airports and air traffic support, and financed out of an 8% tax on domestic tickets, to be spent for that purpose.
Billions of dollars are locked up in the general coffers, rather than in the aviation trust fund, and nobody seems to be able to spring them loose so that we can make a real start on improving air safety.
A Lot of Mail
After my earlier plea for an end to this willingness of the government, not to mention the airlines and the airport authorities, to tax the customer, I got letters taking me to task.
Several readers didn't understand why I didn't see the logic in making users foot the bill. One or two argued that since they don't fly or use the airport, why should they be expected to help pay--through their general taxes--for airport upkeep or services such as immigration and customs?
There seems to me to be a basic flaw in that argument.
Airports and air transportation services do not serve only those who fly. They serve everybody.
You who never go on vacation and haven't been on an airplane in years, do you ever write to a loved one on another coast? Much of your food and many of the newspapers and magazines you read came into town through the airport. Your mail travels vast distances by air.
Troops, medical personnel, emergency supplies and material would come through the airport.
You may not fly, but chances are that the people who run your company do, in order that you can continue to be employed. This country could not function without a strong, efficient air transportation system.
That system does not exist only for the benefit of direct users. It is a form of public utility on which all of us depend.
As such, it should be funded out of public funds, our general tax revenues. It is unfair, even discriminatory, to keep asking direct users to shell out while allowing others, equal beneficiaries, to escape these additional levies.
When a drug smuggler gets arrested at the airport by customs officials, aren't we all a lot better off, not just those of us who happen to travel? When somebody who means the country harm, such as a terrorist, gets picked up by immigration inspectors upon arrival, isn't that in the interest of all of us, even those who stay home?
But travelers are the ones who have to pay a little extra for those services. That's what I find unfair.
As for this latest proposed surcharge: If adopted, it will raise the money required to maintain our tourism promotional efforts abroad.
These efforts will result in millions of foreigners coming to the United States on vacation. They will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in restaurants, hotels, cabs, sightseeing attractions and theme parks. They will leave behind millions more in local, state and federal taxes which will--in theory at any rate--be spent on roads, schools, health services and the rest.
Their visits will benefit everybody. Now why should I, just because I travel abroad occasionally, have to pay to make all of that happen when somebody who sits at home doesn't, even though he or she gets as much out of the process as I do?
Getting Out of Hand
I'm not anti-government and I'm not anti-taxes. Some services justify user-related charges more than others. But things are getting out of hand.
When you travel across the Atlantic you would pay a $3 international departure tax, plus a $5 immigration fee and a $5 customs inspection fee. If you travel on certain transatlantic carriers--Pan Am, American, TWA and Northwest, for instance--you'd pay another $5 as a security fee.
And we haven't even begun to add in the arrival and departure taxes imposed by some countries.
In the offing are a $2 surcharge for the Department of Agriculture and $1 surcharge for the Travel and Tourism Administration. Where will it end?
Before somebody points out that the USTTA surcharge is to be levied on the airlines (and the cruise lines), not on the passenger, do you honestly believe that it isn't going to be passed on to the consumer?
Of course it is. It's just the latest example of how travelers are being soaked for services that rightly ought to be funded across a broader base.