Cruising the high seas has become an increasingly popular way to travel, with over 14 million Americans cruising in 2010. Cruise fans love the convenience of unpacking just once and letting a floating resort take them from one glamorous destination to another. Cruise critics cringe at the stereotypical cheesy Vegas-style shows, ’round-the-clock buffets, and abbreviated shore excursions to the same chain retailers they can visit at their local mall. But all of us were thoroughly disgusted by this month’s sordid tale of the Carnival Triumph, the mega-ship that lost power in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Four-hour waits for onion sandwiches sound bad enough from a ship that prides itself on a reputation for all you can eat. But just imagine 4,200 passengers and crew lining up to use 12 working toilets, and you’ll immediately understand why observers dubbed the ship a “floating petri dish.”

Carnival’s spinmeisters clearly recognize a PR disaster when they see a towboat dragging it past them at 5 knots. They’ve agreed to give passengers a full refund for cruise and transportation costs, plus $500 in cash, plus a credit for a free future cruise. (Wonder how many will take them up on that offer?) That didn’t stop passengers from suing, however, with the first action filed mere hours after the boat finally docked in Mobile harbor.

But it turns out the Triumph’s passengers aren’t the only ones who are less-than-delighted with Carnival. Would it surprise you to learn that our friends at the IRS aren’t fans either? Carnival takes a lot of help from the government. As the New York Times reports:

“The Carnival Corporation wouldn’t have much of a business without help from various branches of the government. The United States Coast Guard keeps the seas safe for Carnival’s cruise ships. Customs officers make it possible for Carnival cruises to travel to other countries. State and local governments have built roads and bridges leading up to the ports where Carnival’s ships dock.”

Those government subsidies have helped Carnival become the biggest cruise line in the world, based on passengers carried, annual revenue, and total number of ships. The company’s “fun ships” earned $11.3 billion in profit over the last five years. So, how much did the IRS get in exchange for all that government help? Well, Carnival’s total “cash taxes paid,” including federal, state, local, and even foreign taxes, add up to a miserly 1.1%.

How does Carnival do it? Mainly through “offshoring,” a popular strategy for corporations in industries as diverse as technology, pharmaceuticals, and even online advertising. Carnival’s executives work out of offices in Miami, and the holding company’s stock trades on the New York Stock Exchange. But the operating company is incorporated in Panama, and the actual ships are “flagged” in Panama or the Bahamas.

Offshoring has been so successful that Carnival’s founder Ted Arison offshored himself – he renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved back to his native Israel to avoid U.S. estate tax back in 1990. Arison was one of the world’s richest men at his death, with an estimated net worth of $5.6 billion. Unfortunately, at least for his heirs, he died nine months before achieving the 10-year absence from the U.S. that was necessary to avoid the tax.

Carnival is hardly the only U.S. corporation to use perfectly legal strategies to cut its tax. The Times reports that over the last five years, Boeing has paid just 4.5% (in part by making outsized contributions to its pension fund and taking advantage of tax breaks for research and development on new planes); Southwest Airlines paid 6.3% (in part through accelerated and bonus depreciation on new plane purchases); and Yahoo paid 7% (in part through net operating losses the company racked up in previous years). But Carnival’s planning just seems more shrewd than most.

We can’t imagine anything much worse than spending five days in the open sea with no power for lights, air conditioning, or hot water. But paying more tax then you legally have to is no boatload of fun, either. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend days adrift at sea to accomplish that. You just need a plan. And we’re here to get you shipshape. So call us when you’re ready to pay less! 

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