Top story of 2014: Wedding dress duty fee sparks Customs controversy

The Cayman Islands Economic and Statistics Office records $774 million in imports in 2013, more than the annual budget. The significant sum – and the importance of duty fees to the territory – are highlighted by events that happened overseas in 2013. 

News reports at the time were a bit sketchy, but they made clear that revenues from customs duties – or the avoidance thereof – are both vital and enormous, nearly beggaring the imagination. 

In early 2013, prosecutors in Stockholm issued arrest warrants for two Britons accused of smuggling garlic into the country, avoiding nearly US$13.1 million in import duties. 

The circumstances of the particular case – for the pair had been doing it for years – were that the Britons imported nearly 1.2 million tons of Chinese garlic into Norway by boat, entering the country duty-free because it was “in transit.” Subsequently, police said, the two drove the vegetable to Sweden, avoiding customs checks. 

Presumably, the Stockholm warrants quickly broke up that particular smuggling ring, but the commonplace nature and relative obscurity of the smuggled goods – and the whopping sums of money involved – place Cayman’s woes into perspective.  

In May 2014, local customs officers seized a wedding dress at the airport, seeking $500 from the groom, Scott McLean of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and leaving his mother in tears after their flight. 

In the end, Mr. McLean, previously a nine-year resident of Cayman, paid only a refundable-upon-departure $67 deposit on the dress, but the incident set off a storm of controversy that lasted an entire month, sparking a review of policies affecting Cayman’s enormous wedding-destination industry. 

Collector of Customs Samantha Bennett pointed to the long-standing Customs Tariff Law, mandating a 30 percent deposit on wedding dresses and other imports – if remaining on-island. Less clear, however, was where – and by whom – the lines are drawn. The questions, largely unanswered, rapidly arose: Is bathing attire dutiable? Party clothes? Laptops, iPads, mobile telephones? Watches and jewelry? And if not, why not? All are available in Grand Cayman. 

Finally, in late May, the controversy landed on the desk of Minister of Tourism Moses Kirkconnell, who promised a review of the policies. 

Quickly, customs officials rescinded the wedding dress duties. Minister Kirkconnell announced on May 27 that duty charges on “new and used wedding apparel” would no longer be imposed. Ms. Bennett agreed the policy was outdated, announcing discretionary fees would henceforth include no fee at all. 

Only two months later, however, the controversy spilled over into a discussion about electronic goods. The 30-year-old regulations require departing residents to complete a “Registration for Articles Taken Abroad” form, listing electronic goods they were carrying if they wished to avoid 22 percent import duties when they returned. 

Thirty years ago, the first fax machines appeared; in 2014, travel is unthinkable without laptops, notebooks, tablets and a variety of hand-held devices. 

Weighing in again, Ms. Bennett said, “Customs has always encouraged the completion of this form for passengers upon return to the island for a smoother transition of clearing customs … 

“It is the passenger’s responsibility to satisfy the officer that duties are not applicable when bringing the item back into the country,” she said. While agents rarely request the list from returning passengers, and the regulations appear increasingly impractical, they remain in place. 


Import duties collected by Customs, whose headquarters in George Town are shown here, contribute significantly to the Cayman Islands’ economy.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now