Josaia Rayawa, Savusavu
Questions have arisen over the relevance of the environmental tax of six per cent. For me, I do not question the relevance, but I do question the validity in applying it solely on the tourism industry at a level of six per cent. Where is the rest of Fiji on this? Much of the environmental degradation in this country is caused by the people of this country. Yes, I said it - from our school children, families to communities, from local businesses to transport, mining and manufacturers. We are all the major contributors to the detriment of our environment and the lack of respect we show it, by the way we live and conduct our business. Why aren’t other local industries being levied for the direct negative impact their industries is having on the environment too? Who is responsible for their clean-up? Will the tourism industry’s six per cent levy be responsible for the cleanup of environmental misdemeanours of the rest of the country? Who are being called to account for it? How effective are these laws in terms of enforcement?
If no one is going to say it outright, then I want to. The impact of the current tax format is already affecting the tourism industry and its ability to remain competitive and the costbenefit analysis suggest the cost in Fiji is outweighing the benefits, not to mention, value. The front room reality is that we could and may well be out-pricing ourselves, already. I had a guest who articulated to me the experience of his seven-day holiday in Fiji. He said: “I came off your plane (referring to the national airline), and I took your taxi spouting black smoke (referring to a taxi that came by the airport), I ate your food, I drank your beer, I slept in your hotels, I had a swim at a nearby beach, I was asked not to go on the coral area and I respected the notion behind it. But I saw other locals enjoying themselves at their reef, I went fishing on your boat (referring to a local hire he made). All of these, I paid for with the relevant taxes applied. Then you want me to pay a six per cent tax on top of it just because I used the environment where these local businesses ran?” His frustration, along with the mild sarcasm, was telling, but point, well taken nonetheless. In all seriousness, however, how does one respond honestly to that? It’s tough wanting to maintain the tax laws of the country and trying to ensure we don’t lose customers at the same time. It’s a balancing act that many people who are not in the industry, fully appreciate. I just want the Government of my beloved country to create an open business environment, amenable to all.
The addition of the six per cent tax is likened to ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ and hope it will work itself out. There just seem to be no proper thought process and dialogue put behind it. All it creates is confusion. I know, businesses are not going to be upfront about it. No-one wants to be seen as not being ‘part of the team’. My view is that we need to be upfront about it to help contribute to making a difference. Because if we don’t, someone is getting the proverbial boot ‘up you know where’. If it’s not the taxpayer; it’s the visitor, for sure. I am grateful to the visitors who express their views because it is good for us to know. What is sad is that there are many thousands of visitors who will come to our country and most probably will not say a thing, but will most likely never return. The tourism industry and Government already spend millions to attract visitors to create collective millions of dollars in revenue to this country. On top of that we tax them again for just ‘soiling their feet’ on our piece of earth. That is the backroom perception out there. Meanwhile, day in and day out, Fijian consumers are totally oblivious to their daily bad habit that is, having a direct negative impact on our environment. Government should not be responsible for environment clean-ups. The citizens of the country ought to be. The corporates who muck up ought to be. Shame on us for not taking note of the seriousness of this matter!
If we can just grasp the full length of our responsibilities as citizens, then there is no reason for Government to issue an environmental tax at such a level or to one specific industry, for that matter. Already, this sends a wrong signal to industry stakeholders suggesting the tourism industry is solely responsible for the environment. If anyone understands the importance of the environment, it is the tourism industry stakeholders and visitors. I have heard many times over in my 27 years of experience in the industry from visitors and tourism trade partners who sell Fiji overseas, on why we, as Fijians, are not as responsible enough about our own environment. It is a real shame. Everyone needs to take care of their own mess. You pay for your own mess. That’s where Government policy ought to focus more on and strongly enforce the policy. Just as LTA is responsible for fining those who break the law pertaining to vehicles and roads, an Environmental Police unit could be established for example to monitor and fine people and businesses who fail to uphold the environmental law and hit them hard. Issue 10-15-30 day notices to clean their mess or pick up a major fine. Don’t take it again to the courts, I say. Do seriously consider this and call up a thinktank of experts who can volunteer their time and intellectual property to design a policy that has teeth and will be a deterrent. I understand the importance of taxes in running a government machinery. It is unavoidable, but that does not mean it cannot be exercised with some degree of wisdom.
I pray this will be food for thought for our leaders as they debate the national budget for the new year. If we don’t exercise wisdom in the management of our environment, then the “Happiness” brand will simply fizzle out and it will be the death of our long-standing tourism reputation.
Reputation is everything in this global business. Josaia Rayawa will receive a pen from the Fiji Sun as our Letter of the Week winner.