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News & Advice

Simon Calder: Pack extra pounds if you're off to the sun

The man who pays his way

January sometimes seems to stretch on forever, particularly for those of us who have resolved not to drink during the first month of 2014. Naturally, the bleaker and more wintry the days, the more appealing the prospect of far-off shores and warm sunshine. The fact that the summer holidays begin in six months is of little consolation. The fastest way to increase daylight, not to mention ambient warmth, is to head south – possibly with a bit of eastness or westness thrown in.

But the outlook for travellers planning a short-notice, long-haul escape is not entirely sunny, as governments around the world bring in new taxes or increase existing levies. From the point of view of a finance ministers, foreign tourists are ideal targets, because they don't vote and, by local standards, are reasonably well off and can afford to pay more.

The bad news began on New Year's Day, when prices for transport and accommodation rose in Mexico. The government in Mexico City is seeking to balance its books by taxing stuff that was hitherto tax-free, notably transport. It has also ended concessions that allowed tourist enclaves such as the Mayan riviera and Baja California to charge a lower rate of VAT. So buses, rental cars and domestic flights have risen by 16 per cent, while hotel bills in tourist areas are up by 4.5 per cent.

Holidaymakers who have already booked and paid in full probably won't be asked to pay extra, but independent travellers face higher costs.

Thailand is both politically and financially confusing, with no certainty about who will lead the nation – nor whether a threatened new tourist tax will be imposed this month. We know, though, how much is planned: a tax of 500 baht (£10) – not a fortune, but a faff at the end of a 12-hour flight. The authorities say it is to cover the cost of tourists who skip the country without paying their medical bills. For good measure, a rise of the equivalent of £2 in airport departure tax has gone ahead. It appears to be part of a plan to move Thailand upmarket and attract a better class of tourist – or at least a richer class.

Departure tax rise for long-haul flights

And who's this imposing an increase on long-haul departure taxes? Ah, the Chancellor. On 1 April, Air Passenger Duty rises by more than the rate of inflation for all but short-haul flights. The cost of boarding a flight to New York rises from £67 to £69; to Delhi, from £83 to £85; and to Singapore from £94 to £97 – meaning a family of four flying to Australia will pay that nice George Osborne almost £400 just to step aboard a plane. When APD was invented in 1995, the equivalent was £40.

The attraction of a tax that is fabulously easy to collect, impossible to evade, and is paid by millions who don't vote, seems irresistible. (Anyone flying from the UK after 1 April who has booked a ticket will already have paid for the increase, which is always wrapped into air fares.) As the date for the additional APD approaches, the usual arguments against the increase will be trotted out. A survey will no doubt find that millions of Brits would take a short-haul flight to Paris or Amsterdam in order to avoid long-haul APD, even though I have not seen a shred of evidence that this is worthwhile; Britain's air fares are still the lowest in Europe despite the tax. And the story of how Holland abandoned its departure tax because of the way it put off passengers cannot go unchallenged; the Netherlands is a small, compact country with other airports a short drive away in Germany and Belgium. Britain is not.

The only surprise is that the rest of the world has been slow in catching on. But it's starting: the Moroccans are copying the idea with a new €9 departure tax that will take effect on All Fools' Day. Like our Air Passenger Duty, it will be included in the quoted fare. But if you're going business class, beware: the rate increases four-fold, to €36. Add that to APD, which doubles for those in the posh seats, and a family of four will pay £200 for that trip to Agadir or Marrakech. The Moroccan authorities want to spend the money on attracting more tourists from "emerging markets" such as Brazil. The principle of getting current travellers to foot the bill for luring future holidaymakers seems intrinsically wrong: while you can understand a nation wanting to encourage future visitors, the impact of the Moroccan decision is to make the nation less attractive to people who have committed to a holiday there.

Shrewd governments may wish to promote themselves as being cheap and welcoming, and make a point of not adding taxes. Perhaps Morocco's rival, Tunisia, might like to try.

US on the right track

The opposite of contributing to your destination's coffers is to avail yourself of subsidies – and probably the best place to do that is on an American train. Hardly anyone outside the north-east US and southern California ever catches a train. Yet the American network preserves the identity of a nation united by the railroad. One train, the Hoosier State, connects Chicago with Indianapolis. Each departure carries an average of 120 passengers. The cost of the operation per person is $130 – but the majority of that is underwritten by the US taxpayer. Passengers typically pay only $25 for a journey of nearly 200 miles. But don't try it at this time of year – I travelled to Indianapolis by train in January a few years back, and the train arrived six hours late because of heavy snow.