Saturday, 29 September 2007

Reflections on International Travel and Duty Free Shopping

The trip from Australia to England was my first international flight since childhood. It was easier than I expected, there was substantially more leg room than I am used to in domestic flights, so I was able to move my legs around enough to try and keep the dreaded DVT away (the doctors’ have warned me that if I get a second one I’ll probably be on rat poison for the rest of my life—which I can’t say features all that highly in my preferred futures). However, the thing that struck me most was the Duty Free Shopping. I had had some sense that this was a feature of international travel, and, given our limited budget for the next few years, was hoping to acquire some small advantage through some careful Duty Free purchases.

It was a bit of a fizzle. For the most part Duty Free (in Sydney, Bangkok, and Heathrow) seemed to focus on four main areas: alcohol, chocolate, make up, and perfumes (and tobacco, but I’m less knowledgeable about that). The savings in these areas did seem to be everything people had made them out to be. However, other areas with a bit more ‘substance’ to them, such as electronics, seemed to offer only nominal savings. Thus, the Duty Free shopping that is part of the international travel package seems to cater to those shoppers who are interested in purchasing luxuries. If you’re looking for basics: groceries, semi-permanent items to set up one’s home, and the like, then there’s no real Duty Free savings (or even market from what I could see) there for you.

Now, I suspect that there might be a set of good economic reasons why things work this way—governments probably tax these areas far more highly than other areas (luxury taxes and so forth), and no doubt there’s some good legal/economic reason why an item bought in one country for personal use in another country avoids taxes in both countries. Nonetheless, something about this system of giving those already wealthy enough to indulge in international travel tax breaks on their indulgences seems a bit misguided.

Such sentiments could just be my inherited sense of ‘fair play’ and soft commitment to a social welfare state that my parents bequeathed me. However, at least part of my concern comes from a strand of Scriptures that sit uneasily with such phenomenal discounting of luxuries:

James 5:5 You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. (NASB)

Revelation 18:11-18 11 "And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn over her, because no one buys their cargoes any more; 12 cargoes of gold and silver and precious stones and pearls and fine linen and purple and silk and scarlet, and every kind of citron wood and every article of ivory and every article made from very costly wood and bronze and iron and marble, 13 and cinnamon and spice and incense and perfume and frankincense and wine and olive oil and fine flour and wheat and cattle and sheep, and cargoes of horses and chariots and slaves and human lives. 14 "And the fruit you long for has gone from you, and all things that were luxurious and splendid have passed away from you and men will no longer find them. 15 "The merchants of these things, who became rich from her, will stand at a distance because of the fear of her torment, weeping and mourning, 16 saying, 'Woe, woe, the great city, she who was clothed in fine linen and purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls; 17 for in one hour such great wealth has been laid waste!' And every shipmaster and every passenger and sailor, and as many as make their living by the sea, stood at a distance, 18 and were crying out as they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, 'What city is like the great city?' (NASB)

Both these passages are statements of eschatological judgement upon the wealthy. In both cases one of the reasons highlighted for the coming judgement is the way in which the life of the (typical) rich is given over to enjoying their wealth, to trying to maximise their pleasure by filling their life with luxury. The Bible seems fairly open eyed that a significant amount of trade revolves around the luxuries market, not so much the buying and selling of necessities.

Now, I’m hardly an aesthete. I enjoy nice music, computer games, dvds, good food, alcohol (in fairly small and very occasional doses, nothing like the standard drink per day that is the current medical wisdom for extending one’s life), most of the kinds of things that one would associate with a Western Gen Xer. I think God gave us the world and everything in it so that we would receive it with thanksgiving, and obtain enjoyment from its use—that’s just part of God’s goodness and generosity to the human race.

Nonetheless, as well as the Bible’s warnings against greed, which I regularly hear acknowledged, there also seems to be this extra note of judgement on luxurious living, on living for pleasure, and sensate pleasure in particular. I really don’t know what the parameters of this principle are, and I’m sure there would be those who think I am also in breach of these Scriptures. (In my experience people are considered to be guilty of greed or overweening luxury if they have a bit more than the person making the judgement, or a bit more than what the judge aspires to).

Even with those caveats, I still think there’s a fairly blatant disconnect between the Bible’s judgement and this economic structure. If the Bible’s strictures against luxurious living mean anything, they would go against giving the ‘leisure classes’ big discounts on luxury items. So, I think I am in principle opposed to Duty Free shopping.