Sun | Jul 21, 2019

Lennie Little-White | JHTA ‘bad-mind’ - Lobby for tax on Airbnbs rooted in bias for ‘the big man’

Published:Sunday | July 14, 2019 | 12:19 AM
Omar Robinson, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Board. FILE
Edmund Bartlett, minister of tourism, has backtracked on his initial commitment to not taxing Airbnb operators in Jamaica.
File Tourist rafting on the Rio Grande in Portland. The low-cost nature of Airbnbs have opened up the hospitality market to virtually anyone with four walls.
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It is no secret that while tourism provides tangible economic benefits for Jamaica, its importance has never been quite understood by the man in the street. Historically, tourism has been viewed as a palette for them versus us, the natives.

The average person can be a gardener, a waiter, a housekeeper, taxi driver, chef, a resident manager, but very rarely an owner. Ownership has been the protected territory of a few of a lighter hue from home and abroad, while the natives do the hands-on work for a liveable wage plus tips or gratuities.

As a country, we have done everything to give incentives and tax breaks to the ‘big man’ who builds concrete monstrosities on our finest beaches while limiting access to the natives. While it has fattened government coffers and some pockets of foreign and local investors, dedicated and long-suffering line staff are still waiting for a pension scheme.

Game-changer

Along comes the game-changing Airbnb -— an alternative tourism booking agent that caters to the grass-roots entrepreneur. For the first time at last, the ‘small man’ can have a piece of the tourism pie. Instead of celebrating this broadening of the tourism-ownership landscape, the well-endowed Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) has climbed its self-righteous pulpit to demand that Airbnb proceeds be taxed.

If this is implemented, the backlash will be like a tsunami that any government cannot withstand. The ordinary man and woman can finally aspire to become an owner in his or her own way and become tomorrow’s Butch Stewart, Lee Issa or Kevin Hendrickson, who are the indigenous Goliaths among Jamaican hospitality ownership. But no! Keep them on the tourism plantation as hewers of wood and carriers of water.

The JHTA – the industry union — does not want to give the small man or woman credence as new owners of a piece of the tourism industry unless they are prepared to pay a tax.

The JHTA wants to kill them in their infancy to protect all the local and foreign investors who continue to surround the country with concrete barricades that destroy the real Jamaican landscape. Which government would be foolish enough to place a tax on small Jamaican Airbnb properties while the big multinational investors in tourism continue to cream off thetop by repatriating their profits, plus taking excessive management fees to their foreign homelands while enjoying extended tax holidays and duty-free importation of goods and services?

Back weh wid dat, JHTA! You too bad-mind and grudgeful. Time to give the small investor their piece of the tourism pie.

Mr Minister, you had better not allow them to co-opt you in this act of Shylock.

The moniker Brand Jamaica has become more than a trite marketing cliché that relates only to goods and services. Under the international microscope, Brand Jamaica is much more than rum, reggae and jerk chicken. The red, green and gold of Rastafari is also Brand Jamaica. Jimmy Cliff, Usain Bolt and Alia Atkinson are also Brand Jamaica. Red Stripe and Sandals are also Brand Jamaica, and the list goes on.

This primary list is just frippery in the social weave of Brand Jamaica. I contend that Brand Jamaica is an umbrella that emanates from the belly and psyche of every Jamaican man and woman. It is not just about selling Jamaican products in CARICOM or export markets further afield.

Given the fragmentation of our current Jamaican persona, now is the time for Government, Opposition and appropriate state agencies to seize the opportunity to energise our people with a national Brand Jamaica message that runs second only to the national anthem. This should be a national effort that bubbles up across all 14 parishes and not just trickles down from Jamaica House or Gordon House.

Let Brand Jamaica be a psychological call to energise every man, woman and child to celebrate our history, our productivity, and our achievements. If handled with sensitivity and without political biases, Brand Jamaica can be a national calling card that is much more than ‘irie’ or ‘One Love’.

THE MEDIA IS THE MESSAGE

When Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan popularised the phrase “the medium is the message” in 1967, ‘media’ was little more than press, radio, television, print and their tangential linkages. The evolution of social media has created a multiheaded dragon on the people’s landscape.

On ‘The Rock’, we cannot pretend that our people are not affected by the ongoing mushrooming of media that impacts all our lives. No longer just a highway to transmit information, today, the media is the new messiah.

We do not have to look beyond the Facebook juggernaut to understand and accept that Mark Zuckerberg is the new ‘earth-god’ that controls our lives.

We, among the small schools of fish in the sea, are no match or concern for the sharks and whales that control what happens in the wide, open ocean. But we cannot just tread water without being cognisant of the changing media landscape.

This is an issue that must occupy the minds of the Government and state agencies if we are not to be left stranded on a rural dirt road. Who is making a conscious effort to use today’s media to not only educate and entertain but to harness the potential to leave our Jamaican footprint on the international landscape? Do not underrate the importance of immediate action versus procrastination and long chat.

There was a time when rickety pickups with cone-shaped RCA speakers mounted on top and driven around constituencies were the main medium to curry-favour voters and party delegates. The RCA speakers have become passé now that the preferred means of communication is the electronic media.

All tools of electronic and social media are the main instruments being used in the campaigns of both contenders in the current PNP presidential race – tangible evidence that “the media is the message’.

Lennie Little-White, CD, MA, is a Jamaican filmmaker and writer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and lennielittle.white@gmail.com.