Tourism Talanoa: Can Tourism Pivot?

Tourism Talanoa: Can Tourism Pivot?

FHTA, 28 May 2020 – The global tourism sector’s troubles are well-publicized as is the oft-quoted fact that tourism’s multiplier effect makes it the largest contributor both directly and indirectly to global job creation and even more importantly, its ability to promote economic recovery.

But the longer it takes to get things going, the harder it is for businesses to remain operational and viable. After all, a business exists to not only supply-demand but to make a profit and this, in turn, pays dividends to its shareholders, promotes product and service improvement as well as enabling further growth and development.

So if closing the business to wait it out is the only option because of the pandemic’s uncertainty,  is not just your building that gets shut to your customers; operations and machinery must get packed away as well to wait it out.

So what happens to our employees during this time? Employees that have been loyally with you for many years, that have been trained and upskilled at your cost, exposed to your business’s specific needs through hands-on and professional training and experience gained through years of growing with the demands of your customers. You need them as much as they need you for their livelihoods but you have no customers so there is no demand. What to do?

In amidst the uncertainty of doing business in a COVID-19 climate, tourism operators, owners and managers around the country are struggling to address the HR challenges and trying to make the right decisions.

Fiji is ranked 13th in the world according to a World Travel & Tourism Council 2018 report on economies most reliant on travel and tourism based on the percentage share of GDP. 2018’s 39.3 percent share of our GDP increased to 42 percent for 2019 and Fiji’s tourism industry was looking to build on that for 2020.

As the most directly affected sector of our economy due to border closures, the Tourism sector is having its fair share of HR challenges. From the outset, workers first had their wages or hours reduced based on available work, allowed to use up accrued leave or offered leave without pay options and now because of the continued uncertainty, employers are having to consider longer-term solutions to save the business and be able to come back again later. This might mean that redundancies or terminations become very real options as the uncertainties continue.

Understanding this current challenge, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) worked with Tourism Fiji to secure constructive and informative meetings with the Ministry of Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations that was then followed by a webinar to allow 140 employers from around Fiji who could not attend the face-to-face time, to also attend and have their specific issues discussed as well.

As terminations hit the headlines earlier this week, it may have been only the private sector that was the least surprised. A series of redundancies and terminations have been announced over the last 5 weeks that already totalled approximately 1,100 employees which does not include smaller businesses letting staff go without any such announcements.

What makes Fiji’s situation so much more difficult is that each employee has a family of at least 5 people depending on them and as a developing country our unemployment support alternatives are limited.

The emerging human tragedy of the pandemic is not just taking a toll on people’s health and even their lives. It is taking a toll on people’s livelihoods and their access to work as well as how, where and when they work.

So perhaps we should be focusing on opportunities behind the hard decisions being made. The crisis provides a chance to re-evaluate and re-imagine our collective futures whether we were ready to do this or not. The pandemic has inadvertently crashed our communities into what the sociologist Karl Jaspers calls a “liminal space” – a between-time in which the old ways of living and thinking are no longer relevant, but where new ways have yet to emerge to replace them.

More pragmatic people might simply say “when one door closes, another one opens”. We must, as business owners, employees and an island nation decide quickly what our new normal is going to look like, stop wishing for things to go back to where they were and get moving quickly towards making it work.

A similar situation took place after 9/11 and in tourism and the aviation sector specifically forced us to pivot. Once we stopped whining about the new security requirements, the costs, the inconvenience and the many changes we had to make just to travel again; we all eventually accepted that as our new normal and made it work.

It may be time to hit that reset button again and see what we must change to get tourism back on track and get our employees their jobs back. We have always been able to adjust our sails to navigate changing wind directions, pick ourselves up after natural and man-made disasters, test new markets and develop new products based on changing customer demands.

With some clearer indication of what is needed to meet the new normal for keeping our employees and customers safe, tourism businesses have indicated their readiness to move quickly into whatever this new phase will be. The faster we move into this change, the quicker we get more people employed again.

There is no question that Fiji needs tourism to drive the economic opportunities these provide by default. At the same time, it has also needed more innovative entrepreneurs, a more developed agricultural sector, increased exports to balance the high imports, better use of thousands of acres of available land, affordable housing developments, improved seafood and livestock production and the list goes on.

Changing our business processes to get tourism jobs back quickly is definitely achievable in the short term. It simply needs a more concerted effort by everyone to develop and roll out the new rules.

Changing our long-term economic focus to ensure we have more diversity in our foreign exchange earnings, however, will need a deeper pivot.

Both objectives require us to start now.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 28 May 2020