According to several sites, the first duty-free shop opened at Shannon Airport in Ireland in 1947, since when duty-free shopping has become an enormous international business even though some airlines have discontinued sales on flights.

Finding references to duty-free shops on passenger ships has proved much more difficult, though. According to these (un-referenced) Quora posts, there was no duty-free shop on the Titanic (but one of the answers gets the date and place of the first duty-free shop wrong).

The only other information I have is from childhood: I remember duty-free shops on the DFDS ships MS Winston Churchill and MS England on the Harwich (England) - Esbjerg (Denmark) route in the early 1970s. While I was plundering the liquorice supplies, my parents were stocking up on more 'standard' duty-free items (alcohol, cigars / cigarettes, perfume). MS England's last round trip on this route was in July 1974, but I can't say how long before that there was a duty-free shop.

This article, 70 years of achievement in duty free and travel retail, provides some interesting background information about duty-free sales before the jet age, stating that

personal hygiene requirements in the crowded space of a small ship or horse-drawn coach were probably the origin of today’s allowances for perfume. But even when duty free sales started to become more formal, the progress from “sustenance” towards the idea of “personal export” was a slow one.

To clarify, I'm not interested in diplomatic or military special privileges mentioned in the article above, but in duty-free shops for ordinary people looking for some of the aforementioned "personal export" while en route from one country to another.

In anticipation that the line between "sustenance" and "personal export" might be a little blurred, information on the former would also be of interest.

  • 3
    Two thoughts: Didn't on board purchases that happened to go untaxed because the enforcement wasn't there predate formally duty-free shops? And when did jurisdictions establish the arrival allowances that made such shops meaningful? Aug 20, 2018 at 18:24
  • This may be related to border controls which, according Wikipedia, were only sporadically implemented prior to WWI. I'm fairly sure I've seen scenes in 1950s (maybe 1940s) films where passengers have to go through customs on arrival. Aug 21, 2018 at 12:35
  • @LarsBosteen: The comparison for pre-World War Two should be to arrivals for cruise ships, not air travel. Think Ellis Island for tourists. Just for disease control I am sure there would have been substantial Customs and Immigration control by the end of World War One at least. Also most economies were extremely protectionist prior to WW2, as Customs and associated tariff collection was the primary source of Federal revenues at the time. Aug 22, 2018 at 2:51
  • @PieterGeerkens Agreed, but it's hard job finding anything on cruise ships. The films I mentioned in my comment relate to arrivals on channel crossings (ships). Aug 22, 2018 at 12:27
  • You must distinguish between customs and passport controls that took place at the border. Customs control was very common before WW1, wheras passport (other than Russia) was almost non existent. Jul 24, 2019 at 13:36

1 Answer 1


Brendon O'Regan's idea for airport duty-free shops came from one on the S.S. America.

sailing on a return voyage from the U.S to Ireland aboard the ocean liner S.S.America. “I discovered that I could buy duty–free goods aboard the ship. I thought: Wouldn’t this be an excellent idea if we could idea if we could implement such a duty-free service at Shannon Airport.” Upon his return O’Regan secured the enabling legislation establishing a no-man’s land tax zone at the airport and the world’s first duty-free shop opened in 1947.

I don't know if there was anything before this but I thought this might be of interest. I don't even know for sure what the date for Brendan O’Regan's trip was but it was obviously before 1947, maybe 1946 after it was returned to civilian service after WW2 (see Wikipedia S.S. America).

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