Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Qoliqoli Bill - Hoteliers Told Not To Be Greedy

Political Editor - 06 September 2006

The threat by the Fiji Islands Hotel Association (FIHA) I must admit is totally against the bid by government to help resource owners. It is a fact that this threat is linked to efforts to destabilise the nation. In its submission to the joint parliamentary sector committee (JPSC) on Natural Resources, FIHA chairman Dick Smith and president, Senator Dixon Seeto, said the Bill if passed would make foreign investors in the hotel industry leave the country.
“Foreign investors in the hotel industry would be the first to seize investment and services top the country should the Bill in its present form come into effect,” Mr Smith said. In fact FIHA was making a threat not only to the resource owners but the nation as a whole. Hoteliers have gained millions of dollars and have enjoyed and taken advantage of the open heartedness and friendliness of the indigenous people who are the resource owners.
It is a fact that these people had been victimised for so long and it is time that they are paid their dues. The Laisenia Qarase-led multi party government sees the Qoliqoli Bill as an avenue where qoliqoli owners will be paid their dues. The threat by the FIHA does not go well with the Prime Minister and he had given a stern warning to the hoteliers“Stop making threats and give landowners what is due to them,” a disturbed Prime Minister said.
Surely there is a group that is campaigning against the Bill here and abroad.“We should all be disturbed by the determined and almost fanatical efforts by a very small group of misguided individuals to stop the Qoliqoli Bill. In their view, the legislation is evil and a threat to security. Yes, that is how they describe this sincere, legitimate and responsible attempt to correct something that has been unresolved for all these long years.” the Prime Minister said in one of his addresses to the business community on the Bill.
“I have reason to believe that money, with a foreign connection, was provided to buy political support for the defeat of the legislation. Watch the election campaign carefully for signs of this influence at work. We must all be united against these attempts to obstruct the just fulfillment of the wishes of the Fijian chiefs and people on this issue.”
Ownership of qoliqoli, which for centuries had belonged to the chiefs and people, was transferred to the State by the colonial authorities. The desire for this to be corrected was raised on numerous occasions. No final resolution was reached. There was some progress in 1941 when it was decided to inquire into and establish boundaries and ownerships of customary fishing areas.
In May 1978, the Council of Chiefs appointed a committee to consider the issue. It recommended that the Government be requested to produce new legislation to declare definitively that the reefs and the foreshores belonged to the Fijians on a proprietary basis. In 1982, the GCC concluded again that the existing laws were not in line with the undertakings given to the Fijians. It decided to ask the Government to amend and enact legislation.
Under the present laws, the Fijians only have rights of usage. This does not entitle them to receive the full benefit from qoliqoli, at a time when there is increasing commercial use of them by others. It is the view of the government of the day that the Qoliqoli Bill will strengthen the investment climate by removing misunderstanding and improving co-operation between qoliqoli owners and other groups, especially tourism operators. It of course, it will honour the wishes of the Fijian chiefs and people.
The Bill follows the call of the constitution for a more equitable sharing of economic and commercial power. It fulfils the constitution’s requirements for parliament to have regard to the customs, traditions, usages, values and aspirations of the indigenous people. According to Turtle Island Resort owner, Richard Evanson, “The Qoliqoli Bill is seen by some as a piece of legislation - if passed - as beneficial only to certain landowners.”
He made his opposition known at last week’s Fijian Indigenous Business Council meeting. Mr Evanson said the Bill would be a disastrous piece of legislation for the indigenous Fijians.“Right now there are 410 qoliqoli owners in Fiji and only 50 of them that have tourism development so that means the vast majority - 360 of the 410 - receive no potential benefit whatsoever on this Bill. Under the government’s proposed Bill - even if it’s proven to be constitutional - which I don’t think it is - I think the Bill is unconstitutional - because what its doing is taking a national asset and giving it to one group of the population”.
Hoteliers should be reminded that their interests are protected in the Bill. The Minister for Fijian Affairs, Turaga Bale na Tui Cakau Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu when tabling the Bill in parliament said government was aware there were some, especially from the tourism industry, who were concerned that the commercial benefits they had derived in the past from unlimited use of foreshores would be adversely affected by the new legislation. The extremists amongst these are even threatening to challenge the Bill in court if it is enacted on the ground that they have invested a lot of capital into their business ventures relying on the unlimited use of the foreshores around their project sites. The restrictions imposed by the Bill will unjustly erode their right to rely on those beneficial effects of unlimited use of the foreshores.
However, it is heartening to see that there is also a significant group in the tourism sector who are keen to arrive at an agreement under the framework of the Bill, which will be of mutual benefit to them, and the Qoliqoli owners. The view that the Bill completely removes the rights of tourism operators is false because under Clause 20[1] of the Bill, the Native Land Trust Board may approve a commercial operation including a hotelier the use of a qoliqoli provided that it shall consult with the Commission, and the Qoliqoli owners.
Clause 20(6) also allows them to negotiate with Qoliqoli owners to agree to specific restrictions or otherwise on there Qoliqoli rights. Therefore, through mutual understanding, trust and goodwill, the Bill provides for establishing a mutually agreed framework between commercial operators including hoteliers and the Qoliqoli owners and the Commission. Such arrangements should also foster better relationships between the Qoliqoli owners and hoteliers. The Minister said hoteliers should give the support to the Bill as they also benefit from it.
The onus gives the freedom to the commercial operations including hoteliers and the Qoliqoli owners to negotiate and reach agreement on the terms and conditions including compensation for the use of the qoliqoli. The Tavarua Island Lease Resort, Momi Bay Development to name a few; are some examples where the Qoliqoli and the Resort owners have reached an amicable agreement on the use of the Qoliqoli.
The Bill is not only for qoliqoli areas affecting the Tourism Industry, which totals about 14per cent of the total area of over 17,000 square miles of recognized qoliqoli areas in Fiji. It is a fact that the hoteliers are divided on the Bill and the threat posed by Mr Smith is actually from only a few. It is a fact that new hotel investors are coming into the country and are to work with the landowners who are also the qoliqoli owners.
The tourism industry has continued grow. Rooms and Beds available for Quarter 1, 2006 increased by 6.1per cent and 0.9per cent respectively compared to quarter 1 2005. Room Occupancy rate and Bed Occupancy rate decreased by 4.8 percentage points and 2.9 percentage points when compared to quarter 1 2005. Takings from Accommodation, sale of food, liquor, telephone and other miscellaneous charges recorded an increase of 0.5% bringing the total hotel turnover to $FJ100.1 million for Quarter 1 2006. Paid employment in the hotel sector also increased by 8.8per cent when compared to quarter 1 2005. Rooms and Beds available for Quarter 1, 2006 increased by 6.1per cent and 0.9per cent respectively compared to quarter 1 2005.

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