TONGA WHALE WATCHING OPERATORS IRKED BY RULES

admin's picture

By Pesi Fonua

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Oct. 3) - A Tonga government policy restricting the number of whale watching boats to two boats per licensed Whale Watching operator is causing frustration among some of Tonga's pioneer whale watching operators in Vava'u, who say that the policy is unfair and restricts their growth, while allowing in amateurs.

Ongo Kaihea of the Sailing Safaris, the biggest whale-watching operator in Vava'u, said that the decision restricted the growth of his operation and he wondered if the decision-makers knew what they were doing.

He said that during the past 13 years he had been building up his business, and now with the growth in the popularity of whale watching he had bought a new barge early this year, "Sailing Safaris now has two barges and two speed boats".

Then in June just before the start of the 2006 whale watching season, Ongo said he received a letter from the Tonga Visitors' Bureau informing him that an operator could have only two whale watching boats.

Ongo thinks that the decision was ad hoc. "The timing was wrong, it was introduced in June at the beginning of the whale watching season. Our operation for the whole three months, July to September was pre-booked and we had just brought in a new TOP200,000 [US$98,000] barge to cope with the demand!" he said.

Ongo said that the new policy disregarded people who had been building up the whale watching industry over the years, and now that their business had grown government was trying to restrict their growth, "instead of reducing the number of licenses they are issuing, they are stopping us from growing."

There are 13 licensed whaling watching operators in Vava'u and Dr Taniela Fusimalohi from the Tonga Visitors' Bureau said that studies had been carried out to determined how regulate the industry. "The last study was carried out by SPREP and their recommendation was to limit the number of operators to 13, then restrict the number of boats per operator to only two. Even with two boats per operator it is too many to be all in one area at a time."

A Whale Watching Licence costs TOP800 [US$392], but Ongo said that with extra additional fees they are paying about TOP2,000 [US$980] to the government per season.

"They have to cut down on the number of licenses issued, there are license holders with one rubber boat or on a yacht. What is happening now is that instead of us attracting the whales we are chasing them away. We even have people who are doing research on whales by firing a shot at the whale and taking a sample of their flesh. The whales get so scared and run away, and that is not good for the industry."

Ongo said there are more whales coming to the Vava'u waters but the problem now is that there are too many operators chasing them around.

Annually, an estimated 4,000 people visit Vava'u to watch and swim with the whales. "Our biggest and growing market is the Japanese, and despite the Japanese government campaigning to lift the ban on whaling, many Japanese are against whaling," he said.

Meanwhile, Taniela said that the Sailing Safaris was warned because they used a boat that was not licensed for whaling watching, "but we have accepted their excuse because their licensed boat broke down and they had to bring into service another boat." Taniela said that such a situation was not taken into consideration and he would discuss the matter with whale watching operators.

October 4, 2006

Matangi Tonga: www.matangitonga.to/nav.html

Rate this article: 
No votes yet

Add new comment