Afloat on a sea of alcohol, the booze cruisers bid last farewell to duty-free

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THE CASUAL observer on P&O Stena's Dover to Calais run yesterday could have been forgiven to think there was some kind of European exodus taking place. Motoring organisations warned of jams on coastal routes while ferries and hovercrafts, many of which were booked solid, warned potential passengers "not to set out unless they had tickets".

They did not reckon for the British affection for duty-free shopping. From midnight on Wednesday, this holiday institution will be confined to the same memory box as big black passports and painting headlights yellow, sacrificed on the altar of Euro-rationalisation.

But on the 10.45am ferry to Calais yesterday the wake had a distinctly cheerful atmosphere as travellers took their last weekend opportunity to do a "booze cruise".

While the sun-bathed decks held the usual sightseers, linking arms as they leant over the railings, the real action was inside. The tills were busy in the duty-free shop before the outgoing sailing had even left port, and shelves were cleared of some popular lines before it got to Calais.

David Mather with his wife and friends from Stoke-on-Trent were among the many making a special trip for the purpose. "It's outrageous, scandalous," said Mr Mather, 38, as his group commandeered a corner of the passenger deck with 24-can cartons of beer stacked high. "We're here to get as much as we can carry both now and on the way back."

He held out a litre bottle of Smirnoff Vodka, another purchase, which was made in Warrington and which, he said, would soon be available cheap only in a European country where duty rates were lower.

"It's the same with Scotch whisky. How can it be that you produce something in your own country and have to go abroad to buy it?" he said. "Are we in Europe or aren't we? If we are in we should be in for the full chop and chips."

While originally expressed, those are the kind of issues occupying Eurocrats in Brussels since the aim of abolishing duty-free goods was first floated in 1992. With only days to go before its implementation, the answer to the questions about what will happen next are still being worked out at meetings between airlines, ferry operators and British Customs & Excise.

For this is a particularly British problem. Given that until the advent of the Channel Tunnel, the fact that Britons had to cross water to get to continental Europe meant that they embraced the duty-free shopping culture more than anyone else. Of the total European duty-free goods market of more than pounds 5bn a year, Britons contribute 25 per cent.

Britons spend just under pounds 1bn a year on duty-free goods bought between European countries.

One immediate response from ferry companies, including P&O Stena, will be to sell duty-paid goods at French or Belgian rates on crossings. But maritime legislation is such that this will be possible only when their ships are on the continental side of the Channel. On the Dover to Calais route, this means that the shop will only be open for 45 minutes of the trip. And as the only limit on what can be bought is that it has to be for personal consumption, it is easy to imagine the resulting scrums at check-outs.

At Hoverspeed, where the theoretical shopping time available could be only 15 minutes, the company has taken the different route of opening its own duty-paid warehouses in Boulogne and Ostend. A new store will open next month at Dieppe, and there are rumours that the ferry companies will go the same way.

But this will bring them into conflict with the established duty-paid businesses that have carved a healthy niche for themselves in selling cheap alcoholic drink and tobacco over the past 15 years. The first and most famous of these is EastEnders, with outlets in Calais and Zeebrugge, which sellsgoods at prices which compete with and are sometimes cheaper than their duty-free rivals.

David Mather and his friends were among hundreds topping up at the Calais branch as part of their "booze cruise". Here the objective was wine which, with French duty at only 2p a litre as opposed to the British rate of 31p, makes it something of a wine tippler's heaven.

This is a no-frills operation that takes the "stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap" maxim to the extreme. But this kind of store is going to be the future for British booze cruises.

Yesterday large queues ofpeople edged industrial-sized trolleys laden with cases of wine and beer towards the check-out at the warehouse entrance, where harassed employees ran back and forth with plastic cards and cash to a glass cabin in the corner. Sitting there, with his ageing dog and master of all he surveyed, was Dave West, owner and founder of the company.

Last year the company turned over more than pounds 109m and Mr West is prepared to fight the ferry companies in order to hang on to what he has built.

"Whatever they get up to to try and continue to monopolise passengers, I will counteract them in the courts if necessary," he said. Having helped to invent this business, he said, the ferries will now be playing on his turf and are about to lose the large profits that they have traditionally taken from duty-free sales.

"I have heard that P&O earned pounds 280m out of duty-free. But selling duty- paid stuff they will lucky to earn pounds 1m," he said. "As they will carry the same operating costs I think they won't make any money at all."

On the return journey across the Channel, P&O passengers were still making hay while the sun continued to shine, emerging from the duty-free shop with bulging carrier bags that will soon be of nostalgic interest only. Whatever happens next, however, it seems certain that one way or another the cheap booze will continue to cross the Channel.