Fiji Sun - - Comment -

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.

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