Tourists at Tocumen Airport. ATP photo.
“Make the foreigners pay:” a way around Cortizo’s austerity, and then some
by Eric Jackson
Want to get cynical about any proposal coming up in the current National Assembly? Then look at it structurally, for which funds and jobs are created and who is likely to have inside tracks on these. And look at it in terms of who gets to bear the burden.
President Cortizo has a few new spending initiatives that he’s unfolding in the first year of his presidency, but mainly he’s slashing the public budget. Local officials asking for discretionary funds to spend in their bailiwicks got a curt “no.” It’s dawning on some of the legislators that the money for the games that they have been playing in recent years probably won’t be there.
So PRD deputy Roberto Ayala has proposed to add a $25 surcharge to the purchase of a tourist visa. This would be divided with half going to the Seguro Social retirement, disability and survivors’ fund and the rest split between the tourism authority and nutrition programs. For the Panama Tourism Authority to do what? Might it be for advertising, perhaps by the PRD-connected publicity firms that are already on the legislature’s gravy train promoting a “Yes” vote on a constitutional referendum to come? And nutritional programs, as in holiday ham and turkey giveaways? Neither of these latter two things are stated in detail.
Meanwhile, San Miguelito PRD deputy Raúl Peneda has a more complex proposal, Bill 150. He has a bunch of co-sponsors, crossing party lines. That bit of legislation would charge airline passengers just passing through Tocumen Airport as an air hub but not getting off here $5 a head. It’s called an “open skies” law, supposedly as an “incentive” for airlines. It would create various taxes and incentive payments for airport-related businesses and establish two funds, an Airlines Incentive Fund and a Marketing Fund. The latter would not be related to the tourism authority, which already has such a thing, but would create a new outfit that would be part of the civil aviation authority. As in two new batches of political patronage jobs, contracts and benefits.
A mere five bucks? The last year for which we have full statistics, some 15 million passenger passed through Tocumen Airport, 11 million of them just passing through the hub and not going through customs or immigration but going on to other destinations. Bill 150 would purportedly encourage more of these to stay — through an ad campaign and a series of kickbacks to airlines that bring tourists who pass through into Panama to enjoy our attractions.
The airline industry is aghast. For one thing, the main competing air hubs for our parts of the Americas — Miami, Mexico City, San Salvador, Bogota — don’t charge people just passing through. For another, the industry estimates that Panamanian tourism declined by about 10 percent from 2017 to 2018. The hotel industry is also up in arms about any extra costs that might affect the decisions of visitors.
The social media trolls are dismissing the criticism often in very crude terms by attacking the Motta family, who control Copa Airlines, the principal user of Tocumen as an international aviation hub. Pineda puts a nationalistic spin on it: “The initiative seeks to do justice to the Panamanian tourist, as when Panamanians travel they pay $50 in taxes, however .., those millions of tourists who pass through Panama don’t pay a penny.”
But think about the two new funds and who might collect some of those pennies. Surely somebody has.
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