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April 2000 Vol. 15, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Thumbs Down — Divers Get Taboo Treatment from Fiji's Taveuni Island Resort

from the April, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Thumbs Down — Divers Get Taboo Treatment from Fiji's Taveuni Island ResortConfusion reigned in Fiji’s dive industry early last November upon the death of Taveuni’s Paramount Chief or Tui Cakau, Ratu Glanville Lalabalavu. Upon the death of a chief, Fijian custom calls for the imposition of a “tabu” or moratorium on fishing in his ceremonial fishing grounds — which in this case included the Somosomo Strait’s Rainbow Reef. Normally fishing is the only activity affected, but during the seaside burial of Tui Cakau several large sharks — so highly revered on Taveuni that powerful ancestors are believed to be reincarnated in that form — were seen patrolling the beach. This seemed such a powerful sign that the tribal council responded by banning all water activities, including diving, for the 100-night tabu period. A tabu is considered absolute (violators risk calling a shark attack down upon themselves, not to mention the social repercussions of violating cultural mores in a society that has one foot firmly planted in its traditional tribal system), so while dive operators promptly began working through official channels to have the ban lifted, no one considered defying it.

It was just another political power struggle half a world away — unless you were one of Fiji’s dive operators or a diver whose scheduled trip just happened to fall in the wake of the chief’s passing. In that case, it was disaster that hit right in the pocketbook. (The Associated Press reported “a number of cancelled bookings.”) Among those impacted were Ridlon and Carin Kiphart of Global Dive Expeditions, whose dive tour group — worse luck — was scheduled to transfer to Taveuni Island Resort the morning after the imposition of the ban. Late in the afternoon they report receiving a call from Lorna Cammick of Taveuni Island Resort to inform them of the bad news and that, according to the Kipharts, “diving would not be permitted during our stay.” On this much Cammick agrees, since her own letter to the Kipharts states that “prior to your arrival we dutifully informed you that there was not going to be any diving during your stay due to the ocean ban.”

It was no way to begin a vacation, and the Kipharts say they told Cammick as much, mentioning, by the by, that diving was the reason they were in Fiji in the first place and that they would have to make other arrangements. According to Carin Kiphart, Cammick said, “I understand, that’s why I called you.” The Kipharts found another resort and moved their group — not what their divers had planned on and paid for, but diving nonetheless.

The Kipharts requested a refund and got back half their payments. In regard to the remaining $3,954 US, they were told that, “as [they] were no doubt aware, the contract that Dive Taveuni Resort and Global Dive Expeditions signed stated in the cancellation policy that between 21 days and day of arrival a fee of two nights accommodation per person would be charged.” Cammick didn’t bother to mention one of the contract’s other provisions — language that explicitly stated “Dive Taveuni will provide SCUBA diving to GDE guests on ... November 14 -16, 1999.”

In its letter to us, Taveuni Island Resort noted that “the ‘Tabu' was totally out of our control,” but did not address the question of why, if the resort was unable to perform its contractual obligation to take the Kipharts diving, this should not also relieve the Kipharts of their obligations under the contract — in this case, their obligation to pay for services they didn’t receive.

Taveuni Island Resort obviously believes that the contract was binding despite the dive ban — or at least, they believe the Kipharts were bound by it. They certainly don’t see their notifying the Kipharts that they wouldn’t take them diving as a breach of contract. The lawyer the Kipharts consulted saw it differently. He also saw, however, that the Kipharts collecting their due from a dive operation in Fiji was a difficult prospect that wasn’t likely to be cost-effective. Maybe the Cammicks made the same observation. Maybe that’s why, as the Kipharts report, “they have refused to deal with us on the subject.”

The Kipharts contacted us to see if we could iron things out with Taveuni Island Resort, but the resort insists that the Kipharts were just no shows unhappy “to learn that the cancellation policy was effected.” We suggested the situation was closer to ordering a car from the factory, paying for it, and then having the plant go on strike. Most buyers would agree that the strike was totally out of the factory’s control. But how many of them, we asked, would think that meant that the car company got to keep their money?

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