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US Court Of Appeals Decision

Online travel companies win federal appellate court victory in hotel occupancy tax case

eTN Staff Writer  Jan 16, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC - The Interactive Travel Services Association announced today that a federal appellate court has affirmed the dismissal of a suit brought by Pitt County, North Carolina, which claimed that online travel companies, including, Expedia,, Orbitz, and Travelocity are responsible for paying the county's hotel occupancy tax.

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit's decision rejecting Pitt County's tax claims is the first appellate decision by any federal or state court nationwide on the merits of the occupancy tax issue. In rejecting Pitt County's appeal, the court ruled that under the clear language of the county's occupancy tax ordinance and North Carolina's state sales tax statute (G.S. 105-164.4), the online travel companies are not lodging "retailers" subject to the tax.

The court concluded: "The online companies, as the allegations in the county's complaint recognize, have no role in the day-to-day operation or management of the hotels." As a result, the court held that "they cannot be said to operate the hotels." The court also rejected the argument that online travel companies were "similar type businesses" to hotels and thus could be considered "retailers." The court held that "A business that arranges for the rental of hotel rooms over the internet, but that does not physically provide the rooms, is not a business that is of a similar type to a hotel, motel, or tourist camp" and thus is not subject to the Pitt County occupancy tax.

Citing a long-standing legal principle, the court held that it "may not expand the [tax] statute's reach beyond what its plain language will bear." The court further concluded that even if there were ambiguity in the ordinance's language, tax law requires that the ambiguity be resolved strictly against the taxing authority.

"We are pleased that the Court of Appeals recognized what we have maintained all along - that the county's tax ordinance by its terms simply does not apply to online travel companies," said Art Sackler. "Online travel companies work hard to bring visitors and tourism dollars to cities and hotels around the country. Since they do not manage or operate hotels, motels, or other lodging establishments, the online travel companies are not liable for occupancy taxes on the reservation services they provide to the local tourism industries."

Online travel companies win federal appellate court victory in hotel occupancy tax case
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