New Customs Check-out Fee

By NEIL HARTNELL Tribune Business Editor nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

New Customs “check-out” processes have created “another obstacle to encourage boaters not to visit”, the Association of Bahamas Marinas (ABM) chief blasted yesterday. Peter Maury told Tribune Business he had already received complaints from visiting boats and yachts after Customs implemented regulatory changes mandating that all vessels departing The Bahamas first obtain a “certificate of clearance” from the agency. The ABM president, arguing that it created further unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy, also challenged why Customs was imposing fees on exiting boaters for this certificate and associated vessel inspections when this was not provided for in the Customs Management (Amendment) Regulations 2020. Lamenting the government’s failure to consult the private sector, Mr Maury questioned whether the new procedure would aid The Bahamas’ battle against drug and firearms trafficking plus illegal fisheries poaching given that criminals were unlikely to willingly present themselves to Customs before departing this nation’s waters. He argued that The Bahamas was effectively “penalising the law abiding and failing to catch the lawbreakers” through a procedure that took effect from July 1, which was just before the US Independence holiday weekend that is traditionally one of the busiest times for local marinas.

Marlon Johnson, the Ministry of Finance’s acting financial secretary, told this newspaper that the “certificate of clearance” was designed to ensure all pleasure craft entering The Bahamas’ waters paid due cruising permit fees. Given that these are based on the time a vessel remains here, he argued that the procedure – passed by the House of Assembly as part of the recent budget debate – would enable the government to accurately determine and levy the appropriate fee.

Mr Maury, meanwhile, said Bahamian marinas over the weekend generally appeared to have received “50-60 percent” of the US Independence holiday business volumes generated pre-COVID-19. While acknowledging that “it’s by no means going to save the country”, the association president added that “at least it’s better than zero” – which was what the sector and entire country had to endure at the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown. While marinas will “not take profits to the bank”, Mr Maury said the weekend’s performance had been enough to suggest The Bahamas may enjoy an extended summer season (hurricane depending) with marinas able to earn sufficient to meet their obligations and stay in business until the peak season resumes in late November. Although “the flow of traffic has been good”, Mr Maury told Tribune Business: “We had a lot of complaints about the about the new Customs policies. Customs wants the boats to check-out with them to see if they have illegal ammunition and under-sized fish on board. “My point to the Customs officer was: ‘I’ve been alive for 50 years, The Bahamas has been here for 400 years. How many people have checked out with you with drugs, illegal crawfish, ammunition and alcohol on board?’ The answer was: None. “It’s not supposed to be a fee, but it’s a way for Customs to get money from them [boaters]. This is just another obstacle to encourage boaters not to come to our country. Stupid,” he added. “They don’t consult with the private sector. We have the answer under the ABM through the entry portal that they fill out, and Customs can get all that information, but they have to come back and check out with Customs. It’s another way for Customs to bill them.” Mr Maury said he “already has boats being charged” a fee for the certificate of clearance, and added: “It’s happening now. One officer said they’re not going to inspect the boat for free. It’s amazing. “I asked them what’s the point, and they said it’s to watch out for things like illegal guns, ammunition and fish. I said: ‘You really think the guys poaching are going to be checking in with you?’ “They’re penalising the people that are not breaking the law but are not catching those who are breaking the law. We’re making the law-abiding come in, check in and pay more. That is going to cause them to go to the Caribbean and other countries that are welcoming them instead of us,” the Association president continued. “Our slogan should be: Welcome to The Bahamas; we’ll make your life horrible’. That’s Customs’ way to solve the country’s ammunition and border problems. They’re going to bill Customs fees, get overtime and do whatever else they do. People have already had to pay but it doesn’t say anything about fees. “I asked an officer why he was charging them when no fee is mentioned. He replied that it was free for locals only. When I asked how much non-Bahamians pay, they replied that it depends on the officer.”

The Customs Management Act’s newly-altered regulations mandate that boats entering The Bahamas on a temporary cruising permit “shall not depart” without the vessel applying to Customs for a “certificate of clearance”. Failing to comply can result in a maximum $5,000 fine upon conviction. The vessel is required to declare any firearms and ammunition present, along with all imported goods and the duty paid on them. Details on the boat are also required.

Mr Johnson said Customs “has full rights” to board and inspect any vessel in Bahamian waters, and added: “The legislation was updated to require persons leaving The Bahamas to report when they do so. It requires a vessel to clear The Bahamas on departure and apply for a certificate of clearance. “I know one of the reasons for this is that the pleasure craft fee depends on time spent in The Bahamas. For us to adjudicate that properly, and keep track of their movements, they need to declare that and bring it up with Customs.” Mr Johnson said he was unaware of any fee being charged, adding that the implementation and operational details were left to Customs. Dr Geanine Moss, the Customs comptroller, did not return this newspaper’s e-mail seeking comment before press time last night.

Mr Maury, meanwhile, said the marina industry had been sufficiently encouraged by the US Independence weekend to believe it can ride out the remainder of 2020 even though many boats came in briefly to pick up guests and provisions before heading out to sea. “It wasn’t massive; we might have been at 50-60 percent for most marinas. At least is was half of what it was in previous years,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s by no means going to save the country but in the same instance it’s nice that there’s some business happening. It makes you feel better after three months of nothing. It’s not near where we’ve been in past years, but at least it’s better than zero. If the weather stays good and we have no hurricanes, the season could extend into some of the hurricane months, which is badly needed. “This sure means we can keep our heads above water; we have a good chance of that. We’re not going to bank anything or take profits to the bank, but we will be able to pay our utility bills, bank bills and employee bills and ride through.”

Mr Maury voiced optimism that The Bahamas’ boating market will gain more confidence to travel if the country stays storm-free and avoids any resurgence of COVID-19 infections. Acknowledging that the surge in new Florida cases was “alarming”, he added: “I’m hoping we keep our borders open and protocols in place. If there’s a steady flow for the next couple of months I think we’ll be OK until the end of the year.”

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