The 2019 appointment of Hon. ‘Akosita Havili Lavulavu as the Minister of Tourism provided firm leadership for Tonga’s aspirations to develop a greener and bluer whale watching and swimming industry. An industry that will not only protect the whales, but also benefit the people of Tonga today and in future generations.
The Ministry of Tourism therefore responds to the claims of former Minister for Tourism, Semisi Sika, and whale watching operator, Brenda Cox, regarding whale watching licences.
The number of whale watching licences issued in 2015 was 30, then 33 in both 2016 and 2017. In 2018 the number jumped to 40 under former Minister Sika. Concerns were raised in scientific reports, by locals, and even operators and tourists, about the increasing levels. The Ministry noted Sika’s claim that His Majesty the King was also concerned about the situation of increasing levels of licencing. This reinforces and strengthens the Ministry’s resolve to limit licences.
In 2020, in a historical but difficult move, the new incoming Minister for Tourism, Hon. ‘Akosita Havili Lavulavu, limited the whale watching licences by Gazette Order. The Ministerial Order
was necessary for the management, protection and conservation of the whales, and to sustain the economic viability of the whale watching and swimming industry in the Kingdom of Tonga.
Minister Lavulavu has issued only 34 licences for 2020. This is a significant reduction and took licence numbers back down to 2016 levels. The claims that Lavulavu increased licences is not correct.
The Ministry also corrects the false and misleading statements made by Brenda Cox, one of whale watching operators in Vava’u who complained about being affected by the limits.
Cox claims she and six operators (representing 9 boats) in Vava’u were not given a licence, while six new “inexperienced” operators (representing 12 boats) were granted licences. This is not correct. Only three new operators were granted licences (representing 3 boats). Therefore the number of boats were actually decreased.
The Ministry also denies Cox’s allegation that the Ministry granted licences to “inexperienced” new operators. Tonga’s whale watching industry has historically been dominated by foreign operators. The three new operators granted licences in Vava’u are Tongan nationals who have been able to invest in the required boats, staff and equipment. Their applications complied with the strict vetting process required by the law. Their staff will all be local Tongans who have gained experience working on Vava’u’s whale watching boats.