Tourism Talanoa: Taking Change Seriously

Tourism Talanoa: Taking Change Seriously

FHTA, 6 May 2021 – As the global economy tries to get back on its feet despite the pandemic, Fiji’s national financial system is no doubt struggling as well.

The tourism industry was knocked over in 2020 due to the border closures and absence of international travel. The resultant $3billion in lost revenue is not the only contributing factor to the struggle.

The RBF’s April Economic Review made for some tough reading with declines noted in visitor arrivals and mahogany production, investment and consumption activity remaining weak, a decline in job recruitment advertisements with the resultant net fall in compulsory FNPF membership and private sector credit falling for the ninth consecutive month.

Global crude oil prices fell due to reduced demand, although we did not see that reflected in Fiji, and liquidity increased to over $1billion with lending and deposit rates down as a consequence, but again not reflected in increased credit access if anecdotal information is anything to go by.

As our government and economists try to wade through the murky waters on the road back to economic survival, Fiji can take small comfort in knowing it is not alone in burgeoning debt levels and very little light at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel.

Countries around the world are grappling with the consequences of the pandemic, and the devastating socioeconomic impacts are apparent as governments struggle to protect the health and well-being of citizens and respond effectively to rising unemployment and drastic economic downturns.

COVID-19 and its many variants are raging their battles with devastating second and third waves exploding infection and death numbers compounding the many vaccines on offer that appear to be sabotaging the catch-up efforts for herd immunity strategies.

And for the most part, we humans appear to be winning, although that may depend on where you are in the world at any given time.

But at the end of this, the price paid to achieve success will be deemed exorbitant as globally, there have been 152,534,452 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 3,198,528 deaths, reported to the World Health Organisation.

As of 1 May 2021, a total of 1,045,850,203 vaccine doses have been administered and while this looks like a large number, it is sadly only 13 percent of the world’s total population.

While that puts things into perspective for many of us, it should also make all Fijians grateful for the far more positive vaccine opportunities that we have been provided here, thanks in no small part to donor agencies and international partners working closely with the Government.

But more importantly, perhaps we do not collectively appreciate the fragility of our tiny economy and its dependence on winning “the war”, as the good doctor called this current fight against the virus.

The toll on global industries, while heavy, was largely expected, but the toll on human populations has been less believable, probably due in no small part to us taking our existence for granted.

Fiji, despite her ability to punch well above her weight, is still only a small island state with limited resources at her disposal, unable to respond as quickly, recover adequately or safeguard her population without coordinated, international support.

World economies have been advised that the demand for change to our daily lives because of the pandemic and the adverse impact on global economic systems, requires a reciprocal and fundamental shift in development finance ecosystems as well.

Fiji and indeed, many Pacific Island Countries (PICs) may not be able to survive and recover from this crisis in the absence of adequate, timely, development finance support.

The Fiji Bureau of Statistics recently released a report on a survey conducted between January and February this year dealing with the challenges that businesses in Fiji were facing.

The respondents of the survey accounted for 70% of Fiji’s Total Gross output in the economy. Survey questions requested responses on business operations, changes in working hours and employment, revenue, capital investment and confirmation of business closures.

The survey’s results were sobering but not unexpected and indicated that 94% of the businesses interviewed were adversely affected by COVID-19.

It also showed that 87% of the businesses reported declines in business income with reported declines between $1 million – $5 million and 32% more than $5 million.

To ensure survival and manage business expenditures during the pandemic, the most reported measures undertaken included having to prioritise payments, renegotiation of building rentals, deferment of loan repayments and reduction in wages and salaries.

59% of the businesses surveyed had placed their staff on temporarily reduced working hours – implying that in every 10 businesses in Fiji, 6 businesses placed their staff on reduced hours during the pandemic.

Tourism businesses surveyed indicated an inability to cope in the early days of the border closures due to drastically reduced international customer demand and then subsequently moving to reduced staffing numbers and reviewing operational needs downwards.

Look no further than the tourism industry for examples of restrategising, the new normal, downsizing or rightsizing and multi-faceted operational budgets that change between non-operational weekdays and all-hands-on-deck weekends and holidays.

Building resilience as part of the building back better recommendations must be a serious consideration for Fiji. Going back to ‘business as usual’ would expose us to further shocks.

Governments and other public stakeholders must collaborate with the private sector to identify the best way forward. We need to be able to recognise and prioritise opportunities that will firmly set us on a path back to a more resilient recovery.

Not just recovery for recovery’s sake.

There must also be the willingness to identify how the private sector can support this course of action so that we will be able to attract the investments we need as a country and to create an economy that will be more stable, inclusive and sustainable in the long term.

The United Nations report on Socio-Economic Impacts of COVID-19 notes that the recovery from the crisis must lead to a “different global economy”, with a call to action that “countries must not only unite to beat the virus but also to tackle its profound consequences”.

And exactly how do we do this?

By “designing fiscal and monetary policies able to support the direct provision of resources to support workers and households, the provision of health and unemployment insurance, scaled-up social protection, and support to businesses to prevent bankruptcies and massive job losses”.

We must first survive before we can effectively move into recovery mode and this will mean we acknowledge that we need a hand to get back up again.

But more significantly, it means we must also acknowledge that we need to change what we do when we get back up again, as we inevitably will, and prepare to change key policies that support becoming a more resilient economy.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 6 May 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Stay Home to Save Lives

Tourism Talanoa: Stay Home to Save Lives

FHTA, 30 April 2021 – As the authorities conduct their contact tracing for this current spike of COVID infections, one can only be both fascinated and wary of the journey that the virus has taken.

From the border quarantine facility to our suburban areas, the contagion has silently but surely latched itself on to unsuspecting hosts.

While some had called for a complete lockdown of Viti Levu from the earliest case, it is still a case of ‘better late than never.’ What many do not realise, however, is that for many in our population, a complete lockdown might also mean going without a meal and that while not often seen or experienced by the more fortunate, is a stark reality.

Many of us do not appreciate how difficult the work is for those on the medical teams doing testing or screening. Nor do we show our appreciation or acknowledge that they are helping to save our lives and those we love.

Instead, we are quick to criticize, poke fun at and ridicule what we do not understand or goes against what our preferred social media platform has led us to believe without facts.

Yet if we simply listened to the explanations, really listened; we can hear or read the information being provided that uses science to detail why we must follow the advised protocols.

There are countries around the world where the virus has exploded and killed hundreds of thousands. Yet, we know people amongst us who continue to deny there is a virus, will not get vaccinated or refuse to wear a mask.

Masks and other PPEs are the order of the day for now and maybe even into the foreseeable future, depending on how long we continue to keep the virus alive amongst us by disregarding the advice on what to do to ”Stop the Spread.”

We still have 1,043 people who have arrived from overseas and undergoing mandatory 14-day quarantine in government-supervised border quarantine facilities in Nadi. And we agree that just like other countries around the world, turning away your citizens is not an option.

Many countries including Australia and New Zealand have had to deal with many breaches, quite a few times over. Many cities in those countries got locked down, opened up then locked down again, putting far larger populations than ours at a commercial and personal disadvantage.

That we managed to go a whole year without a breach is commendable and almost unbelievable. But we can do so again if we all agree to work together to “Stop the Spread”

According to the MoHMS, a total of 43,487 COVID-19 laboratory tests have been conducted, with a daily average of 252 tests per day over the last 7 days, and a weekly average of 1,892 tests per week over the last 2 weeks. This has been ramped up with the new cases that were found in the Nasinu area recently.

Before the containment of the various regions, there had been an amazing response from locals becoming domestic tourists. And we know many have had to cancel planned weekends for Mother’s Day or the school holidays.

As we navigate our way slowly through this current lockdown, we have to keep the goal line insight and that is the reopening of borders. Naysayers may wish them closed for longer but economic experts will say that this just isn’t feasible in the long term.

FHTA is working with other stakeholders towards getting a sturdy framework for reopening drafted and implemented and a significant portion of this framework will depend on the complete vaccinations of all our tourism workers to keep them, their families and their communities safe. This means getting both injections of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that is already here.

This week is especially relevant for those in Fiji working to immunise the communities and the members of the public who are willing recipients. With the theme ‘Vaccines bring us closer’, World Immunization Week 2021 (April 24th-30th) aims to show how vaccination programmes connect us to the people, goals and moments that matter to us most, helping improve the health of everyone, everywhere throughout life

And while it also means that while health experts acknowledge that there is still insufficient vaccine supplies to cover the whole world, that we get used to the fact that any WHO-approved vaccine is acceptable to us in Fiji.

And while we are working towards getting our COVID-contained status back for Fiji, as Fijians we must also work on being better people, better neighbours and better communities by refusing to be part of those groups that seek to vilify people who work with those who have become infected.

Leave the medical people to deal with addressing any breaches because that is their expertise. Instead, we can treat those who have become unwittingly infected with the respect and dignity we would wish if they were our family members.

The hotel workers where the breach took place are not to blame and should not be treated any different to how we would wish to be treated, because they continue to work to keep returning Fijians feel safe and welcomed until they too can return to their own families.

If the current situation teaches us anything as Fijians, it is that we are still not practising our hand washing or sanitizing often enough. We are not worried about being in large crowds and we are still sharing cigarettes, kava bowls and other items that can pass the virus from one person to another.

We must not get complacent about our roles in keeping the spread of the virus to a minimum so that those with underlying conditions and our elderly are protected. If we looked around us, in our homes, offices, churches and communities, we all know someone who is living with diabetes, heart disease, kidney or liver disease, cancer or some other health issue.

These are the people we could potentially lose first. They must be the reason we heed the warning to stay at home and practice the COVID-safe guidelines.

It has been said that COVID-19 will never truly be eradicated and that we will have to learn to live with the virus. But we can try our best to make the best of the situation and that comes back to getting vaccinated and making sure that those in your family are vaccinated as well.

We completed a whole year before seeing positive cases in our communities so we know we can do it again.

The question is, can we reopen our borders and keep our communities safe at the same time? Yes, we definitely can. If you think about it, we have been doing exactly this all along with the repatriation of our citizens from overseas. It was simply on a much smaller scale.

Practice social distancing. Wash your hands frequently. Use your mask in public. Do not share things that are frequently touched. If you cannot afford sanitiser or disinfectants, use bleach diluted in water as our mothers and grandmothers did.

And stay home. We will get there faster if we all do the right thing.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 30 April 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: No Time for Complacency

Tourism Talanoa: No Time for Complacency

FHTA, 22 April 2021 – No sooner had Fiji celebrated a full year of being without a community transmitted case of COVID-19, we find ourselves in a situation very similar to the early days of our pandemic response.

The greater Nadi, as well as the greater Lautoka areas, have been locked down with no entry in or out and several relaxed restrictions have returned in full force.

This would be worrying for some but for the majority, many of us in the tourism industry, believe even a Fiji-wide, shorter-term but harsher restriction could have been enforced for a more rapid and sweeping response.

Because the one thing that we have now, that wasn’t available in 2020, is experience.

When our borders first closed and the curfew hours were longer and more limiting, there was understandable outrage and desperation from those affected.

We had numerous community cases in various locations and this added to the fear in the populace.

But it was primarily down to the swift response of the relevant authorities and disciplined forces that ensured that the fallout from our first wave was kept to a minimum.

We washed our hands more; we wore masks in public spaces and we bumped elbows to greet people. Generally, we took the advised risks as warranting appropriate, mitigative actioning, and we continued to practice the trained, new normal ways of working.

Just as the tourism industry was making inroads into getting the necessary planning and framework done towards borders reopening, today we find ourselves in similar waters.

Mobile fever clinics and situational command centres have been reactivated. Large gatherings are prohibited and only essential travel is recommended. Customer capacity has been reduced to 50% and high-risk businesses must now close for 14 days.

We have been maintaining the need to avoid complacency in all forms, with the advice to continue the trained discipline for washing hands frequently, using hand sanitisers whenever provided, social distancing and enhanced cleaning for high touch points and public areas. Added to this was the recently included promotion of the importance of getting vaccinated.

It is important, however, to point out at this stage that human nature being what it is, can be very difficult to take seriously, the real risks of getting COVID-19 infections spread in our communities.

Fiji has been so isolated from the global hot spots for mass COVID-19 related sickness, the hospitalisations of hundreds of thousands of people and so many related deaths that mass burials had to be organised quickly.

We must not forget our new COVID-safe guidelines and standard operating procedures.

We must not disregard the rules put in place by our Ministry of Health & Medical Services (MoHMS) and by the COVID Risk Mitigation Taskforce.

We cannot afford to get too comfortable with our roles as the country’s first line of defence against this deadly virus and its many variants.

Too many lives are at risk if we do. Too many livelihoods are at stake and our country and its economy will eventually bear the brunt of our collective non-compliance.

The world has changed too much for the ‘sega na leqa’ attitude to prevail in health-based settings where a breach could shut the country down or result in people dying.

Tourism Fiji’s Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) initiative that includes FHTA’s COVID Safe Guidelines are in place to ensure that our members are prepped and ready for (international) visitors is now more important than ever.

As we fight this invisible threat, we must continue to claw our way back to our initial plans. Because we must.

Our economy is struggling and there is increased unemployment.

Businesses and industries are finding it difficult to break even and breathe easy.

Fijians must be fully supportive of the efforts in place to practice enhanced hygiene protocols, acceptive of border control health checks as the “new normal” and understand the importance of why these are in place. These are all practices to keep our businesses, our communities, and our country safe.

Fiji’s vaccination programmes kicked off slowly but in typical Fijian fashion, the ‘last-minute’ rush was evident as impressive crowds gathered at vaccination stations for free inoculation.

Tourism operators supported the vaccine roll-out by ensuring their staff were aware of the correct information, got registered, were able to access the vaccination spots and offered their own support for transport, venues, accommodation and meals where required.

As we wait for the right time to open our borders or be included in recently launched travel bubbles, we are continuing to emphasise the importance for all our members to become fully CFC compliant and to have all their staff fully vaccinated.
We received more vaccines this week and FHTA is sure that these vaccines will be used up in no time as the MoHMS continues its great work in vaccinating the country.

But we cannot be undoing the good work being done by many with the ignorant or complacent attitude of others. Mistakes in high-risk situations like COVID can cost anything from lost economic productivity, education, business and worse – lives.

It has been a long twelve months and we find ourselves back at square one. But this time we know what is required of us and what we should and should not do. These are scary times and teamwork makes the dream work.

As difficult as it is, let’s ignore the naysayers and the misinformed and let’s strive to bring Fiji back. It is now more than a cliché. We really do need to work together to get our lives back.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 22 April 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: The Fragility of Bubbles

Tourism Talanoa: The Fragility of Bubbles

FHTA, 16 April 2021 – The phrase ‘travel bubble’ gets thrown around a lot these days. It has been in circulation since mid-2020 when global tourism and tourism-dependent economies started sitting down to plan recovery programmes following the pandemic fallout.

Closer to home, the long-awaited trans-Tasman travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia has now been announced amidst some eager anticipation by the Tasman neighbours and watchful interest from the rest of us in the Pacific. In this bubble, as of Monday, April 19, travellers from Australia will be able to arrive in New Zealand without having to serve the usual 14-day quarantine.

These bubbles have had their fair share of ups and downs. Initially planned for October 2020, it eventually turned into a one-way bubble when new COVID cases hit Australia. This allowed New Zealanders to travel to Australia but not the other way around.

There have been other bubbles planned in the region that also never eventuated because the pandemic situation was constantly evolving. New Zealand had agreed to open a bubble with the Cook Islands but despite several “almost there” discussions, this did not eventuate.

Fiji had announced its own earlier plans to have a “Bula Bubble” with our regional neighbours, but this too has yet to be formalized.

Hong Kong and Singapore discussed opening up a bubble last November, but this got called off only 24 hours before the actual commencement because of a sudden rise in cases in Hong Kong at the time.

Bubbles can be very fragile and need often complicated conditions agreed to, in place and well managed by the agreeing parties.

While the trans-Tasman travel bubble is a long time coming for both nations, it teeters on a razor’s edge with the confirmation of several new cases of COVID-19 at an Auckland quarantine facility, with New Zealand warning that flights to and from some Australian states could still be suspended in the event of local outbreaks.

Like Fiji, tourism was New Zealand’s biggest export earner, contributing $17.5 billion or 20.1% of New Zealand’s foreign exchange earnings for the year ended March 2020.

With over 5 million in population, it is estimated that 13.6% of the total number of people employed in New Zealand worked directly or indirectly in tourism. That means around 384,186 people were working in the travel and service industry.

It is therefore obvious that they need this travel bubble to go ahead and in Fiji, we can relate.

We also value our health and the safety of our people and we too are proud of our COVID-contained status, but we also recognise that we need to urgently get the economy rolling again. To do so safely is a complicated, mega pronged arrangement,

fraught with risks doubling for every agency included and involved in the border management process.

Therein lies the need for countries entering into any bubble arrangements requiring the confidence to keep each other’s citizens safe.

So, while they commence their travel bubble arrangements, we can observe from afar and note areas for improvement when our involvement is eventually confirmed.

The worst-case scenario from a travel bubble is a mass community cluster of infections and we just could not risk that, nor do we believe we could recover from it from a tourism perspective.

The risk of the devastating impacts from sickness and death on society and the heavy toll on our medical systems aside, risking our reputation as a safe destination is an extremely difficult place to come back from.

Understanding those risks and realizing where we need to focus as an industry, has been what we have been involving ourselves in over the last 12 months.

Initially working on survival strategies, looking for other avenues to support workers as well as manage expenses without the usual revenue streams through international visitors; tourism operators have struggled as an industry to keep going and remain positive.

There has been an amazing response from locals becoming domestic tourists who have been locked in, just as international visitors have been locked out, who have used the opportunity to experience some of the holiday offerings around Fiji.

The domestic tourism impact has been positive, albeit intermittent with occupancies going from 70% to 100% over the 4-day Easter weekend to either closed or a 10% occupancy the following weekend.

Unfortunately, those feast or famine situations only take place in only 40% of Fiji’s total tourism product offerings.

In the last year, we have worked closely with many government agencies to come to an understanding or enter into arrangements that consider tourism’s reduced revenue streams and the struggle to maintain compliance requirements, so long as mandatory safety requirements are met.

We are working closely with the Ministry of Health & Medical Services to safeguard our workers by encouraging our members to register their staff and support the provision of venues and transport to enable vaccinations.

Last year the introduction, training and implementation of the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) took place and industry stakeholder numbers continue to increase as Tourism Fiji maintains their vigilant monitoring to ensure all operators get their approvals.

We are currently working to complete a framework for the initial Safe Travel Corridor in Fiji that may well be our first step to welcoming back visitors to our shores within specific zones. CFC compliance and vaccinations will be just some of the obligatory requirements.

We saw 146,905 arrivals into Fiji last year and most of these included repatriated citizens and residents having to isolate safely. Their quarantine stay was covered by Government then so there was very limited revenue coming into the economy as a result of this.

It makes sense, to us at least, that quarantine stays should be based on a “pay own way” basis now.

In 2019, tourism brought in FJ $2.065B and was the strongest in the third quarter of that year, with over FJ$1B in taxes also paid on top of that. A year later, it only brought in FJ $314.9M mostly due to the opening quarter before COVID, and we have no doubt many are starting to feel that shortage in revenue now across the country.

Fiji also plays an important regional role as medical supplies are warehoused in Fiji and we are often used as a hub for Pacific Humanitarian Pathway flights, which are part of the global COVID-19 supply chain system on their way to our Pacific Island neighbours.

We cannot stop now, having started with support for the vaccination roll-out, pushing out and extending the communication efforts on the vaccine through sharing the FAQs and other factual and positive information through tourism networks.

And we happily noted the positive uptake and eventual turning of that short-lived negative tide of anti-vaccination discussions on social media.

Our people will be ready – optimistic, vaccinated and ready to welcome visitors from Australia and New Zealand once we have convinced them we are ready to be included in their bubbles.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 16 April 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: An example of public/private sectors working together

Tourism Talanoa: An example of public/private sectors working together

FHTA, 8 April 2021 – This past Easter weekend was a great indication of how lucrative, in various patches, our Domestic Tourism market can be.

While it might not be at the previous levels of international visitor numbers, it was still a godsend for our members who welcomed these local guests with more staff on duty to ensure a great time was had by all.

Properties were buzzing with the influx of local visitors who sought to spend the anticipated four-day weekend away from their familiar surroundings.

Many hotel staff were on deck to tend to guests’ needs and this was the being experienced in Denarau, the greater Nadi area, the Mamanuca’s, the North and all along from the Coral Coast to the Sun Coast.

Domestic tourism and the added benefits from those in-country through the VIP and Blue Lanes, comforted workers who were happier to be working longer hours and being engaged in a range of activities across Fiji’s tourism’s holiday choices.

The response, therefore, has been wonderful particularly with families taking advantage of the specials that were promoted.

We also noted that many families who would normally have taken the time to join their overseas families used the opportunity to take a local holiday instead. This internal spending will circulate in the economy and bring smiles to suppliers and other tourism stakeholders who have all been ravaged by the year-long stagnation of international tourism.

Domestic tourism, as well as other initiatives like the VIP and Blue Lanes, is contributing to more employment and assisting operators to add to dwindling cash reserves that, in turn, pay bills and banks.

There is no doubt it is making a difference, but these holidays are intermittent and we still need to focus much stronger efforts to register and get vaccinated.

This is how everyone can help get Fiji’s borders to reopen safely.

The COVID virus is not going away, so our only hope is to add that extra layer of security by getting vaccinated against it. In our last Tourism Talanoa article, we stressed the importance of all (or most) of the nation being inoculated against COVID-19.

This week and into the following week, tourism staff are getting registered with the assistance of their employers and in consultation with the Ministry of Health and the RFMF COVID Response Unit, are preparing to get vaccinated.

Around 3,000 more tourism workers will be vaccinated to add to those in the airports, airlines and quarantine facilities that had already been first in line for the vaccines.

Tourism operators are working closely with the medical teams to complete registrations, facilitate venues, support transport requirements and ensure that their workers are provided with that added layer of safety.

This cannot be emphasized enough.

Frontliners in the industry are in direct contact with both international visitors and repatriated Fijians arriving in the country.

New COVID-safe guidelines have been implemented for their safety and this is coupled with strict arrival protocols in full personal protective equipment (PPE), depending on where in the tourism chain they are working.

When the industry opens up to wider groups of international guests, via specifically indicated safe travel zones initially and then eventually through fully opened borders, we do not expect our tourism operators or their suppliers to be using PPE’s because this will not be practical in the long term.

Along with Tourism Fiji, tourism stakeholders have supported the Ministry of Health’s communication efforts and provided updates and information on the vaccines that have included FAQs. We believe we can do more to support the wider roll-out of the vaccines to the general public by sharing our experiences on social media as well as our international communication platforms.

We are working on sharing vernacular translations of the FAQ’s widely and keeping the medical teams updated on our progress to ensure we can further support an efficient roll-out. But we’re not stopping there, because there is far too much still at stake.

As news breaks of a Trans-Tasman Bubble taking shape, Fiji too should be able to confirm the success of its COVID-contained status and vaccination uptake and be included in the bubble eventually.

Australia and New Zealand are not just key markets for Fiji’s international visitors. They are also where many of our families and friends live; many of whom we have been unable to visit or see physically. Those are also the countries we do more commercial business with and business travel has been replaced by Zoom calls for too long.

There is no denying that our economy is heavily dependent on tourism. So much so that tourism contributed 46% to Fiji’s annual GDP in 2019 and numbers 100,000+ in direct and indirect employment.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji estimates that tourism contributed around $1billion in government tax revenue and $2billion in foreign exchange earnings.

So, until our economy can diversify its reliance on a particular industry, we need international visitors back on our shores. As quickly and as safely as we can.

Ensuring we vaccinate the majority of our population will mitigate the risk of infections once borders are reopened.
But we need to do so with a clear, safe pathway to that reopening.

We hope that by working with the agencies tasked with Fiji’s health, security and safety, that we are not only doing as much as we can proactively to get the borders reopened quickly but that we are showing how the private sector can effectively work with the public sector to coordinate and address an urgent commitment to keeping Fiji safe.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 8 April 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Tourism – One Year On

Tourism Talanoa: Tourism – One Year On

FHTA, 25 March 2021 – Twelve months can seem like a lifetime or it can fly by in an instant.

For Fiji’s tourism sector, it has certainly been the former. And we are not out of the woods yet.

This week marked a full year since the COVID pandemic forced the world into a lockdown and Fiji herself closed her borders.

Initially, there was great fear – of the unknown and the effects on people’s health and businesses, worsened weekly by the hibernating of many tourism businesses and the consequent shedding of jobs. This was replaced by months of uncertainty that continued as reports of illness and death escalated around the world.

An initial estimate of border closures being in place in Fiji for a month was revised to three months. The unpredictability of the new disease no-one had heard of before increased the already strange atmosphere that was permeating the larger global economies, while our small island states watched from afar, hoping they knew what they were doing.

After all, these were more progressive economies with vast budgets at their disposal with far larger populations who had access to the most advanced technologies and cutting edge scientific and medical knowledge. But we appeared to be collectively finding out more and more about the COVID-19 virus together, and it soon became evident that even the most advanced countries were not prepared and would make the most extraordinary mistakes in misjudging its threat and the consequent impact it would have on global economies and the freedom of movement and travel we all took for granted.

The race to find a vaccine rose in urgency as global death tolls rose and the speed with which it needed to be tested, approved and then manufactured for dissemination will probably go down in history as the most extraordinary and astounding narrative this century.

At home, thousands of people were made redundant or put on leave without pay pending the ability of their employer to once again be able to provide the relevant work. To provide that work, employers needed to be able to access their usual revenue streams that were effectively stopped when the borders were closed. Subsequently, that lack of revenue injection through receipts, taxes, wages and thus spending into the economy took its toll and our GDP dipped to record lows.

Fixed expenses remained and borrowers were finding it difficult to make loan payments due to a drastic reduction in, or no more income.

A curfew was imposed at the end of March to keep the COVID transmissions down and this curfew has remained to this day with many forgetting the reasons for it. In contrast, countries without curfews that failed to restrict people moving about unnecessarily found out the hard way that infections multiplied, and deaths increased.

It is also worth noting that it has been 336 days since our last community transmitted case and the recognition for what this means and how this positive outcome was achieved is rarely recognised as an excellent example of our medical authorities understanding very quickly what needed to be done and ensuring it was actioned quickly.

In the throes of the community transmitted cases, the cities of Lautoka and then Suva were effectively put on lockdown and cut-off from the rest of the country. This was a strange new concept to our younger generation and was also an extremely scary time for the older members of society.

The government was in the process of working out their new National Budget during the beginning of the border closures and the pandemic forced an adjustment of figures and the welcome introduction of some stop-gap solutions.

Workers were able to access their superannuation funds as income relief and while not considered very much, it was welcomed then and is still being appreciated now in the absence of more globally practised wage support schemes.

The tourism industry also welcomed some timely relief in terms of tax breaks that had been part of previous years lobbying efforts, as well as the much-awaited reduction in duty for many items that would assist in reducing various costs in food and beverage areas.

As a key tourism body, the Association has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that our members understood the constantly changing environment while working with all the relevant Government bodies to clarify, update or request support to enable tourism businesses to survive until the reopening of borders became tenable.

Many Fijians stuck outside our bubble after the border closure who were desperate to return home were finally allowed to do so after the implementation of new procedures allowed repatriation flights to commence that required a mandatory stay in quarantine facilities for a fortnight on arrival.

Employers raised their labour issues brought about by the pandemic with the amendment included in the Employment Relations Act recognizing it as an ‘Act of God’ providing some respite.

As face-to-face meetings decreased and events involving people gathering in numbers disappeared, there was a tremendous spike in digital meeting platforms. So much so that CEOs to first graders turned to on-line options like Zoom to stay connected, continue training or education and “Zoom” graduated to its current verb-status, replacing “hop on a video call.”

A year later, we are still grappling with ensuring our SME’s can continue to survive because a business must first survive to be in any position to be able to welcome international visitors back when borders do open. Those same businesses, as well as every other operator who is directly involved in tourism or involved as part of the industry’s large supply chain network, must also be prepared with its refreshed and updated product or service ready to go.

Our economy might be struggling, and we acknowledge there is increased unemployment and an extremely difficult time for most businesses and nearly every industry. But there are positives we must also acknowledge, appreciate, and not take for granted in contrast to other countries around the world.

We can still enjoy moving around freely without having to wear masks and in relatively socially distanced and acceptable crowd sizes. We can have a meal in a restaurant, play in a park or be a spectator at a game of rugby, soccer or cricket. Even movie theatres are open and events of various sizes are taking place.

These are all possible because we have been fully supportive of the efforts in place to practice enhanced hygiene protocols, acceptive of the border control health checks as the “new normal” and understand the importance of why these are in place. These are all practices to keep our businesses, our communities, and our country safe.

The Blue Lanes where yachts can arrive in Fiji and the Vacation in Paradise (VIP) Lanes, where international visitors can come in and use their isolated quarantine stay as part of their holiday, have been quietly successful tourism programs that have been in place for some time now.

Again, their success is a combination of how professionally managed the border security is between the border personnel and medical staff, as well as the tourism operator’s compliance with the very stringent requirements in place.

The arrival of the vaccines and their subsequent roll-out adds a further, important safety layer. While we wait for the most at-risk population to get vaccinated and the roll-out to eventually reach critical mass, we will continue doing whatever is necessary to prepare ourselves for when planes fly again, and the first international visitors touch down at Nadi Airport as part of our eventual recovery.

It has been a long twelve months. Often challenging, sometimes scary when first navigating areas differently from the rest of the world, but always positively.

As difficult as it is has always been, ignoring the negativity and focusing on the ability to survive, then revive, so we can all eventually thrive, remains tourism’s focus.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 25 March 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Don’t Hesitate to Vaccinate

Tourism Talanoa: Don’t Hesitate to Vaccinate

FHTA, 18 March 2021 – Last week Fiji `made history as it joined the many countries that have begun vaccination programmes for their people and became one of the first few Pacific Island nations to do so.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) welcomed the news that the first dose of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines is being administered to our frontline workers who include medical staff, disciplined forces involved in maintaining border security and COVID-safe operations, and relevant airline, airport, transport and quarantine hotel staff.

These frontliners have continuously put themselves at risk since the onset of border closures by being the first line of contact for repatriated citizens and residents and we commend them for their service in keeping Fiji safe. The country must also acknowledge with deep appreciation the many medical staff who have also been managing the successful, continued containment of border cases as and when they are confirmed, within the 14 days of their quarantine period.

The vaccine has been brought into the country as part of the COVAX facility initiative to distribute the vaccines to countries like Fiji and there is expected to be over 100,000 vaccine doses in total brought in-country, with more expected to be accessed to sufficiently cover our adult population.

This news has been greeted with and being discussed with much enthusiasm by tourism stakeholders.

The anticipation that vaccines would be eventually available was always going to be a game-changer for travel and tourism around the world.

For Fiji, an effective rollout will be critical for everyone’s health and safety, the revival of the tourism industry and thousands of people getting their jobs back.

FHTA has reiterated industry stakeholders’ support offered earlier to the Ministry of Health & Medical Services with the logistics of rolling out the vaccines and any other support including transport and communications.

After several lead-up meetings and the recent launch in Nadi of the first of several Tourism Talanoas expected to take place that will continue industry consultation forums; the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Health officials were appraised of the type of support available that could enhance efficiencies, reduce costs and provide innovative solutions to accessing remote communities.

Let it be known that the Fiji tourism industry has been, and is ready to assist, and understands how critical it is to maintain Fiji’s COVID containment status and to continue to be recognised as a “safe destination.

The pace of recovery for the tourism sector will be directly linked to how quickly the majority of our population gets vaccinated and we acknowledge that this may take some time.

Countries around the world including New Zealand and Australia are now progressing their vaccination programs as quickly as they can, along with reviewing border reopening conditions and timeframes.

Anyone waiting for the economy to gear up, hoping to get their jobs back, or trying to get their business off the backburner should understand the need to support efforts to successfully access the balance of vaccine doses urgently needed for Fiji to stay aligned with vaccination programs taking place around the world.

This may be the one time that Fiji cannot afford to be different from the rest of the world. The COVID-19 virus is not leaving anytime soon, so we would be best prepared by being vaccinated against it.

In the 1950s and earlier. Polio was a feared, life-threatening disease. The Polio vaccine is now given to young children and over decades of continued vaccinations, the disease has been almost wiped out in countries around the world.

In Fiji, it is part of the list of vaccinations we ensure our children receive that are included in their health cards which are checked when reaching school entry age. We consider the list of required vaccines part of growing up safely in Fiji. They are not new, have become part of our lives so people do not turn to social media to question it.

So, recent fear-mongering on social media regarding the vaccine for a recently discovered disease that spreads very similarly to other airborne viruses damages the good that is being done to protect our population. Some of the false information being circulated has been somewhat disingenuous as well as cynical or it may be simply a fear of needles or the unknown, spurring the spreading of false information.

It must be noted that side-effects are always expected for any vaccine. Some of us carry the scars on our upper arms for vaccinations in high school while others had no reactions. Most of us laughed at those poor kids who fainted at the sight of the needle. Some became feverish later, but most did not and certainly, no-one ever died.

FHTA has continued to work closely with our members to ensure that they are always kept abreast of the recent relevant updates that affect or impact the tourism industry including the vaccination programme, with the widespread response from the industry indicating readiness, even impatience, to be next in line to get vaccinated.

However, while the vaccine adds another, deeper layer of protection, it is not a magic bullet that will allow us to go back to how things were pre-COVID. It has been widely accepted that it is highly unlikely things will ever go back to pre-COVID times. Too much has changed and the enforced pause on our daily lives and businesses has caused a re-evaluation of how we do almost everything.

We will therefore have to continue observing the COVID-safe guidelines of reduced crowding, protective masks, hand washing and sanitizing. At least until we can get confirmation that we have eliminated the virus. Which will never happen unless we are all vaccinated. And continuing with border closures for years to come is not an option for this industry. Or for Fiji’s economic recovery.

So, this is our new normal. Fiji can and will be on-par with the world in terms of keeping our people safe and being ready to confirm our COVID-contained, soon-to-be vaccinated status and nearly ready for international travel again.

And we simply cannot wait for that happier, safer day!

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 18 March 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Balancing The Management Scales

Tourism Talanoa: Balancing The Management Scales

FHTA, 12 March 2021 – Earlier this week, the world commemorated International Women’s Day with its theme of “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” which celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and highlights the gaps that remain.

For the tourism sector as well, we highlight the immense contribution of women to the industry.

Let us begin with some acknowledgements. Did you know that in most regions of the world, women make up the majority of the tourism workforces, but tend to be concentrated in the lower-paid and informal jobs in tourism?

In a 2018 Global Report on Women in Tourism, it was noted that 95% of the people employed in tourism around the world were women, yet they tended to be relegated to the lower-level positions and earned comparatively less than men.

As we continue to develop policies to enhance our economic development, we must not hesitate to empower women to participate fully in economic life.

This is essential to building strong economies; creating more stable and just societies; achieving internationally agreed goals for development, sustainability, and human rights; and improving the quality of life for women, and consequently, that of communities and countries they are part of.

For the tourism sector, the impact of greater gender equality and women’s empowerment would be highly beneficial, for the well-known reason that diverse and gender-equitable organizations usually perform better.

As one of the largest employers of women and young people in Fiji, tourism’s overall imbalance of gender representation in management positions is being addressed at all levels.

Part of the recognised reason for this imbalance comes from the very nature of tourism as an industry. To be a business player in this environment requires being open every day of the week, working long hours and managing teams that must deliver consistently great service. Or risk losing your competitive edge and eventually your customers.

Add to this the challenges of ensuring a holiday or special event can still take place despite adverse weather like cyclones, flooding or storm surges and the ensuing impact of these on power or water shutdowns, transportation links cut off and medical emergencies, and you get a sense of the strength of character and leadership qualities tourism managers are expected to have in spades.

And if you can do all this as well as repair a boat engine in time to get your guests out on the last flight before the borders shut, there is no doubt you can get a job with this industry tomorrow. Or, when it eventually opens.

That is not to say there aren’t already some formidable examples of female leadership in this space, only that there simply aren’t as many as there could be, probably because many women choose employment that allows them to continue to be closer to or more closely support their families. Choices, therefore, are more difficult for women.

But it isn’t just tourism that is lagging in its gender balance in management roles. However, tourism can be the leader in changing this as the world resets after the pandemic shutdowns and closures. So, as we have done before, we will continue to highlight in future Talanoa’s, some of our very experienced women leaders who have chosen this tough industry.

While it might be true that with the often 7-days-a-week job requirements, long hours and industry-related challenges; local women have had a more difficult time moving up the proverbial ladder, that’s not to say that it cannot or has not been done.

Women have ascended to top-level jobs in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The instances, however, are too far in between to be considered a revolution. Yet.

It has been said often enough before, that we should hire for attitude and train for skill.

To develop the tourism industry into a workforce of more inspiring local leaders, our ambitious youth must be encouraged to embrace positive, “can do” attitudes if they are serious about being in an industry that can throw the most experienced, or highly qualified manager unexpected curveballs, with a crisis seemingly always just around the corner.

Developing skills that only require sitting with a laptop accessing free wifi is not going to move Fiji from a developing island state into the transformative, progressive society Fiji is aspiring to become.

We need innovative young people to have the energy and will to contribute meaningfully to our development goals and be encouraged to do so in an inclusive environment that celebrates diversity.

The Global Report on Women in Tourism goes on to note that targeted interventions by public, private and civil society actors that include promoting equal pay, tackle sexual harassment and encourage recruitment of women into high-level employment helps to promote decent work for women.

Gender-sensitive policies at the national level increase women’s economic empowerment that is then more effectively implemented into sectors like tourism. While investment in skills training for women can lead to greater outcomes for gender equality.

As a progressive industry, albeit in a holding pattern currently, these issues are already in play and being seriously addressed at several different levels.

So, while in a said holding pattern, we welcome news of the first dose of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines into the country as part of the COVAX facility initiative to distribute the vaccines to countries like Fiji.

The first batch of vaccines has been earmarked for our frontline workers including medical staff, disciplined forces involved in maintaining border security and COVID-safe operations, and relevant airline, airport and transport staff. This was rolled out yesterday with several frontliners getting the first of two jabs.

There is expected to be over 100,000 vaccine doses in total brought in-country via the COVAX facility and we know that once again, the vast majority of the hard-working medical staff tasked with ensuring Fiji’s population is safely administered the required doses that will provide us with another important layer of safety against the virus, will be women.

Women who will be working long hours, managing anxious and often difficult crowds, while staying away from families and friends until their work is completed.

A measure of one’s passion for their work is often simply noting their time in that industry and their approach to each challenge that comes their way.

The tourism industry may not have much in common with health workers except for the high number of women employed in both sectors. They will therefore find kindred spirits who can match any need to keep going until the job is done.
Persevering, supporting and ready to make any changes needed once the pandemic dust settles. So, onwards and upwards, all women working towards personal, organizational and national goals.

We acknowledge you and everyone else that is hanging in there doing the best they can to preserve and prepare our side of paradise.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 12 March 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Letting Go and Starting Again

Tourism Talanoa: Letting Go and Starting Again

FHTA, 4 March 2021 – A recent local article repeated a statement that around 2000 tourism workers, who have been on leave without pay due to the economic downturn in 2020, were expected to be made redundant soon.

While this was always been a strong possibility due to the safety measures Fiji put in place by shutting borders against the pandemic early last year, the consequent drying up of international visitors resulted in no work being able to be provided by many business operators.

Putting the overall challenges into perspective, the IMF Departmental Paper “Tourism in the Post-Pandemic World Economic -Challenges and Opportunities for Asia-Pacific and the Western Hemisphere” notes that the COVID-19 pandemic, is a global crisis like no other in modern history, that has led to a sudden stop in travel and a collapse in economic activity worldwide.

It further says, “As a major economic driver, tourism accounts for more than 10 percent of the global economy and in many countries a large share of exports and foreign exchange earnings. The industry is also highly interconnected; multiple sectors are dependent on its performance. The pandemic has had severe repercussions on the complex global tourism supply chain, putting millions of tourism jobs at risk. Informal and migrant workers, particularly women and youth, have suffered disproportionately from diminished employment opportunities and lack of access to social safety nets, leading to increased poverty and slowing progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals”.

The impact on tourism businesses and Fiji’s economy has meant that the more than $2b revenue-earning and tax income generation capacity has been severely curtailed. This has taken a huge financial toll on the tourism industry, and Fiji, as it has on every other country and economy with a heavy reliance on this industry.

Since April 2020, all operational requirements have had to be reviewed to ensure businesses could survive the drawn-out impact of the COVID-19 induced crisis for which no-one around the world could predict (and to a certain extent, still cannot) correctly predict its eventual end.

Like any crisis, every business has had to re-evaluate strategies, change direction, review costs and consider how it must survive the crisis to enable it to reemerge eventually in a relatively strong position to continue to operate when and if circumstances allowed it to operate again.

Where work could not be provided because a business was forced to close, employees had to be let go. Where work was able to be provided intermittently, work hours for employees had to be redistributed. Whether businesses were hovering between closure and specifically timed openings, deciding to focus on scheduled refurbishing or extensions or changing their usual operational focus; all have had to drastically reduce workforce numbers.

The Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association members have been provided guidance and advice to ensure correctly complied with the Employment Relations Act (ERA) regulations. The Association has worked diligently with its members and the Ministry of Employment to apply as far as possible, that fair and transparent options were offered to employees as part of the critically required business restructuring environment that the industry was forced to implement.

Of the approximately 110,000 employees we believe were affected, at least 40% of the total number were provided with reduced hours or rotational shift options based on drastically slashed room inventory being made available, intermittent transport services and other activities that had to be reduced by up to 80% initially.

Employee support from tourism operators has been provided without publicity for the most part throughout the country and initially commenced with care packages at the beginning of the crisis. Other support that included soft loans, accommodation until ferry services restarted, cash and food assistance during the many cyclones experienced and going out of their way to contact staff who had been let go earlier so they could access the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) assistance, reflect the deep roots the industry has with the communities it operates from within.

With the eventual marketing of domestic tourism offering reduced rates to encourage local travel, the industry reached out, often with great difficulty, to reemploy a further 10% of employees for the weekends and holidays that are preferred.

By late 2020, the bulk of tourism employees had returned to their original homes. Many returned to farming available land, fishing or taking up home-based micro-businesses to support their families where alternative employment opportunities could not be found.

With a fortnightly FNPF payment to rely on and perhaps the support of new business ventures or family support, many tourism employees chose not to return to work for weekend-only work and reduced hours based on the currently limited demand. And continue to do so.

There are therefore fewer options available for an employer who has released his staff he currently does not need because he has insufficient or no work for them. What options are available if they have agreed to be on Leave Without Pay and choose not to return to work for the few hours a day they may be needed, and they represent a skill still required? Do you hire someone else to fix the plumbing, maintain the generator or keep the boat engine in working order?

Many tourism employers are scratching their heads considering it might have been a simpler option to have made all their staff redundant earlier, but they may have chosen not to do so initially due to staff loyalty, deep connections with the communities nearby from where their staff generally come from or simply because they know with certainty that they will need those same staff back again.

After all, he has provided the historical training, they understand the business operations and he cannot afford to start from scratch when the borders reopen as they inevitably will.

Yet businesses that took the bold and often painful option of mass redundancies earlier were heavily criticized with very little understanding of the background or reasoning behind this.

It is a vexing situation that no employment legislation or human resource expert could have foreseen or had simple answers for even 12 months into the crisis. Certainly, there are no precedents to fall back on. Each situation requires its own analysis that takes into consideration every aspect of the business needs, its location and organizational structure.

There are so many varying scenarios that MBA students would have hundreds of examples for which to apply their analytical problem-solving skills and still not come up with a generic solution that would be deemed acceptable to all concerned.
There are just as many stories of positivity and goodwill. As there are of the consequence of released tourism employees into other sectors. Chefs from hotels and resorts are making a remarkable difference around Fiji in the restaurants they have joined or personally opened.
Customer service, marketing and event management skills are being improved in many businesses. So, if you have been surprised lately with the friendly face or voice, the tastier food or food options, you might be experiencing the services of an ex-tourism worker who is grateful to have employment.

Human resourcing issues aside, the industry continues to dig deep to not just be able to remain in business but to ensure it can also stay compliant, safe and emerge still as strong and vibrant an industry as it was when it was forced into hibernation.
Fiji has a small population and despite its 300 plus islands, is a small country in comparison to its larger neighbours navigating the vaccination rollout. We, therefore, believe that the right vaccination strategy once implemented and successful, could be the impetus of a faster process to get back on our feet.

Herd immunity will be able to be achieved earlier than, for example, our tourism competitors in South East Asia who have more populous tourism-dependent economies.

This vision is feasible because our key tourism markets of Australia and New Zealand have begun their vaccination programmes and that bodes well for our tourism sector’s successful Blue Lanes and VIP lanes initiative.

As we make our way to maximizing vaccination across our population, we are also aware that several Pacific island states have not had any community transmissions of the virus, with many others having gone several hundred days without a local case.

So, the concept of a travel bubble with some regional neighbours, where quarantine-free travel between those with low or no incidence of COVID-19, could be closer to implementation as well.

For now, we continue to plan, adjust, look for amicable solutions with our mainly furloughed workforce and amend strategies so that when the opportunity arises, we are ready for whatever scenario we are faced with.

We know staying safe first is a priority and planning for our next steps comes a close second.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 4 March 2021)

Fiji Immigration: Clarification on Permits

  1. Work Permit extensions should be applied for a minimum of 1 month prior to its expiry to ensure a faster turnaround. Permit processing turnaround has improved tremendously, but we need to do our part as well.
  2. Work Permit holders do not need to leave the country to get an extension
  3. Extensions cover family members/dependents as well
  4. Where a contract with the original organisation is ending and the work permit is still valid, a new work permit must be applied for if a new contract is confirmed with another organisation
  5. Where a work permit is expiring along with the work contract and the permit holder is unable to leave due to closed borders, a “special purpose COVID extension” may be applied for that provides an extension for 6 months, plus a further 6 months after that. No employment is allowed under this extension.
  6. If you have a contracted work permit holder that is currently out of the country & the permit has expired, you can apply for an extension to that permit based on the need for that person’s skills and your expectation that they can return to work after the required 14 day quarantine period on arrival.
  7. The 14-day Business Visa is being replaced with a Visitor Permit that allows business – this can be between 4 months & 12 months and allows multiple entries into Fiji (and reduces the need for extensions and new applications). This and other changes to the Immigration Act will be updated once the approved regulations are released. This permit must be applied for by the hiring organisation.
  8. Special Purpose Permits – covers Yachties (that have yacht permits for 18 months extendable for 6 months or more). These must be applied through recognised Yacht Agents. The permits are also applicable for Pacific Island Country citizens on medical grounds. No employment is allowed under this permit.
  9. Tourist visa holders who have been unable to leave Fiji can apply for multiple extensions, but also cannot take up formal employment. A person on a tourist visa who has not been able to return home and is currently on an extended permit, and has been offered employment, must apply for a work permit through the employer that is contracting them.
  10. Changes are also being implemented with the Investment Fiji Act. Businesses operating with an Investment Certificate will be expected to register their businesses with the Registrar of Companies (ROC). Check FHTA’s information on ROC requirements here.

Tourism Talanoa: The Change Expected or the Change Forced

Tourism Talanoa: The Change Expected or the Change Forced

FHTA, 26 February 2021 – “How many human beings have to die before some people understand the gravity of the situation?” The plea from British author Wayne Gerard Trotman is succinct but weighty.

That age-old belief that things will worsen before they improve rings true too as in a December 2020 briefing by the World Health Organization, that the ‘destiny’ of COVID-19 is for it to become endemic, rather than to disappear as many are hoping.
Simply put, that means that COVID becomes a part of our lives that will have to be adapted to a level that will be eventually considered ‘normal’.

Think back to post 9/11 airport protocols that when first imposed we vehemently opposed and criticised. Believe it or not, that was twenty (20) years ago and we have been observing travel protocols at airports and in aircraft and airlines that relate to the safety requirements that were put into place as a result. These are now considered normal.

So as Fiji endeavours to maintain its ‘COVID-contained’ status amid a sprinkling of confirmed cases at border quarantine facilities, we need to adopt the mindset that the changes that will have to be imposed for future travel as well as into our daily lives will be changing to protect our lives, our livelihoods and consequently our economy.

The United States reported this week that their total COVID-19 deaths have surpassed 500,000 and that is out of their confirmed cases of 27 million. That death toll figure is a sombre one especially for a small island nation like Fiji where that would translate to about 56% of our population.

WHO’s tally of the global death toll is at 2,462,911 out of a total of 111,102,016 confirmed cases. So, if one thing is certain in these most uncertain of times, it is that the virus is slowly but assuredly making its slow trek around the globe. Hitting some countries twice and even three times in devastating and waves that bring entire cities to a complete halt.

With COVID-19 recognised as a new coronavirus, there has not been sufficiently solid research or enough experience with its infection rates until now.

Around mid-2020, whilst the world was in the throes of the pandemic, Fiji was struggling with an outbreak of dengue and leptospirosis. At that time, we only recorded one COVID-related fatality, but there were four from dengue and 10 from leptospirosis.

So, while we are well aware of the issues that the world is currently facing, sometimes it is the lesser-known issues that relate the most to us in Fiji as a developing island economy.

We have done well to remain COVID contained, but the impacts of COVID on our economy has now been well-documented.
It is therefore heartening to see and often be part of support being offered for a range of people and businesses from all walks of life.

Initially support poured in that targeted tourism workers who had lost their jobs. Donors, development agencies, NGO’s and multinational organisations have looked for practical ways to provide guidance, funding, training and support to both industry-affected businesses and their employees.

Many initiatives have provided direct support as well as facilitating partnerships that create opportunities that benefit individual, groups and communities. These provide access to training, upskilling, direct financial assistance or financial literacy programs.

Connecting small businesses owners to tools, support networks and mentors is helping provide survival options. Thousands of unemployed Fijians are being assisted to look for alternative revenue channels, understand basic business principles in their new ventures or learn new skills.

People who were employed in the creative arts that relied on tourism are tapping into technical advice provided by a recent partnership of ILO and Market Development Facility (MDF) that provided support for Business Development Services.

It is not generally appreciated that dancers, entertainers including meke groups, singers, craftspeople like carvers, weavers and jewellery makers, children’s nannies and activities or fitness staff rely on tourism for employment but can get left out of formal Government support because they are part of the informal sector.

Several initiatives are now available in Fiji which supports sustainable economic development by targeting the unemployed sectors (both formal and informal), women’s groups, communities, SME’s, entrepreneurs and even first-time farmers.

Whatever we were doing before COVID hit, must be reevaluated to first survive the crisis – because we do not know how long it will last, and then tweaked first to determine whether that product or service is needed now for the market that has changed as a result of the crisis, and then reviewed again for the post-COVID timeframe when that market may again shift and change as a result of borders reopening eventually.

This is a key basic message that is being discussed and delivered during these support programs and training sessions.
Change is hard but survival is key for anyone considering being around in business for the years ahead that are expected to be extremely positive, especially for travel in the post COVID world.

So, while we remain protected with our borders still closed and the worst of the virus still far away, we know the floodgates could open once travel resumes. We are working hard behind the scenes to provide guidance, communication avenues and support where needed, and with the relevant agencies to survive the crisis and stay safe.

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently predicted that most low-income countries would not ‘have wide access to a vaccine before 2022–23”. While that paints a grim picture for small island nations’ immunization efforts, Fiji and her Pacific Island neighbours appear to have had better luck in accessing at least the first shipments of vaccines being made available through friendly larger neighbours and better networks.

Ben Franklin said “When you’ve finished changing, you’re finished” and he wasn’t even an entrepreneur or businessman.
Fijian tourism is evolving into its next stage, involuntarily as it has been from COVID. Fiji as a young country is also evolving, forced as well by the dynamics of COVID.

How we embrace the changes will determine our eventual success.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 26 February 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Keeping Fiji Safe is Everyone’s Business

Tourism Talanoa: Keeping Fiji Safe is Everyone’s Business

FHTA, 18 February 2021 – Preparing to restart business at some stage this year from the imposed hibernation of the past year will be a challenge for many in tourism industries around the world.

In Fiji, this planning might not have started quite so urgently, but there is still much to do to ensure businesses survive for the next few months to thrive in what is expected to be high demand for international travel when borders eventually do open up,
As the nation gears up to this eventual opening of borders that many are hopeful will be later in the year, our tourism family continues to estimate the continued closure timeframes against their dwindling cash flows.

Some resorts have been able to open for a variety of reasons and under various conditions. These include providing quarantine facilities for Government for use by residents and permit holders returning on repatriation flights for 14 days each.

They also include offering residents the opportunity to experience a taste of our famous Fijian hospitality in beautiful surroundings at a fraction of the usual rates. Others are offering boutique holiday experiences to small groups of international visitors using the Vacation in Paradise (VIP) Lanes or Blue Lane corridors which require that 14 days be part of the journey that makes up their isolated quarantine confinement period.

The success of these available options has been defined by the adoption and adherence of the new COVID safe protocols and collaborating closely with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Tourism to coordinate arrivals, transfers and monitoring of testing requirements.

Confirmed COVID positive cases have generally been border quarantine cases, meaning they have arrived into the country and whilst in quarantine have been confirmed as positive through the required testing processes, so would have contracted the virus whilst overseas or on their way home.

There has been very little media coverage in Fiji and even around the world on the condition of people with COVID once confirmed as positive, what contributed to patients’ eventual recovery and how families have dealt with this.
Information is sparse at best and often speculative or through highly questionable social media sources.

While the devastation it caused to families and communities in Italy where extended families with inter-generational family structures are similar to Fiji, and initially in the US provided glimpses into how terrifying the virus could make life for entire countries, Fiji’s relative isolation has cushioned our understanding to a “not likely to happen to us” type scenario.

Perhaps that is why we are so complacent with learning to live with the expected new hygiene requirements and why many are often shocked to hear that we must learn to live with this virus despite the planned vaccination program rollouts here and world-wide.

Far more effective public awareness campaigns must be carried out to make keeping Fiji safe everyone’s business and not just be about hand-washing and coughing into elbows.

Many of us do not know what to expect if someone we lived with contracted the virus and have no understanding of how dangerous it could be if several family members got infected as a result.

In businesses and across entire industries, many have returned to pre-COVID conditions with handwashing not so strictly observed (the water is there but there is no soap in the dispenser), sanitiser gels have disappeared off counters and social distancing has become too hard to do.

Additionally, the initial registration of people entering buildings and getting their temperatures taken has started to disappear with only hotels, Nadi Airport and Fiji Airways demanding proof of the downloaded Care Fiji App to assist with contact tracing efforts.

In tourism businesses, however, these are practised diligently, reminded, trained and monitored. Face masks are expected to be worn and full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is donned in quarantine hotels, airport areas, transport and laundry handling facilities.

Passenger boats, transfer vehicles, airport architecture, aircraft interiors and hotel rooms and surroundings are being cleaned with specific virus-neutralizing cleaning equipment and disinfectants.

Will this be replicated across retail shops, restaurants, public transport, banks and other offices around Fiji? It must if these same businesses expect international visitors to use their services or expect local tourism workers who will come into contact with the visitors to use their services.

The extra precautions mean additional costs but are necessary so must be borne to maintain the practice until advised otherwise.

Fiji’s image is being meticulously rebuilt to add another layer of safety, security and preparedness for when borders reopen.
Destination Fiji continues to put in the hard work to ensure that Fiji remains an attractive destination that is planning its eventual safe reopening.

Marketing Fiji and competing with the rest of the world has never been simple, but marketing in the post COVID world has taken this to new complicated heights.

We must remain a vibrant, exciting holiday destination that can still appeal to our core markets and quintessential family segments while staying abreast of new trends and changing travel habits.

Adapting to understand and deliver conservational sustainability options, adventure and experiential travel while ensuring we can still deliver the expectations of younger travellers who will demand seamless connectivity, must now be integrated with
stronger messages of safety and security from an invisible virus that has the potential to kill thousands. It is a huge task for Tourism Fiji.

There is still much to do in terms of preparedness which is why a whole lot of consultation and discussion has been taking place between tourism stakeholders, Government bodies and agencies, non-government organisations and training institutions.

Safety first as always, with all the connotations of safety our new post COVID world demands before we are ready to meet and greet a whole new, changed world of travellers.

Helping one another achieve a higher level of safety and preparation should be everyone’s business. The tourism industry is collaborating closely with relevant Ministries to offer support in the logistics for the vaccine roll out if required.

Moving over 800,000 people around Fiji requires organisation, project and event management skills, access to transportation and communication services. We just happen to have that exact experience and those very skills in our toolkit.

And we know how to do this safely too.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 18 February 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Our Sustainability

Tourism Talanoa: Our Sustainability

FHTA, 11 February 2021 – Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

And so, change we must, and we shall.

The human toll on the environment has come into focus in recent times thanks to the current health situation around the world. The comes as improvements in air quality and pollution have been observed while the world has been on pause, from blue skies in Delhi to clear waterways in Venice.

The global lockdown caused a decline in transport use, electricity demand, and industry activity, in turn leading to an 8% forecast reduction in CO2 emissions in 2020, the largest fall since the Second World War.

Moreover, for the first time in history, US oil prices went negative in April 2020; with global oil demand forecast to drop by 9% with consumption at 2012 levels. During its nationwide quarantine, China experienced a 40% year on year drop in nitrogen dioxide in January and February, equating to removing 190,000 cars; as well as an 11.4% increase in “good air quality days across 337 cities.

Yet, despite the clear skies and clean air, the negative impacts of having travel come to a standstill cannot be underestimated. Indeed, there have been devastating social, economic, and environmental impacts resulting from the absence of visitors during COVID-19.

For instance, there has been an increase in illegal fishing and poaching in reserves as people are trying to survive and provide for their families have lost their livelihoods. In effect, sustainable tourism plays a key role in sustaining and preserving natural habitats and protected areas, with research suggesting that wildlife tourism contributed $344 billion to the global economy in 2018.

A renewed interest in environmentally conscious travel, especially in eco-tourism areas, is expected to be the main driving force for the travellers of the near-future. These same visitors will also emphasize holidays and destinations to reduce their environmental footprint and that includes the use of water and energy. It will also include the reduction of waste creation and its responsible disposal.

According to a Publicis Sapient survey, 58% of respondents said they are thinking more about the environment and sustainability now compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic began. As travellers increasingly demand the greening of tourism and an alignment with their values, there is an opportunity to recognise companies and destinations on their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance.

A recent study from hotel room offer platform Hoo found that 50% of people surveyed would opt for a destination with better air quality, even if it meant travelling for longer. More notable is that 48% of the total respondents stated that they would pay more money to travel to that destination.

Would that apply to even our little island paradise Fiji, in the middle of the South Pacific?

Yes, indeed. If these travellers act on their intentions when borders open, we could use our clean air quality as a selling point to guests from these faraway lands.

Everyone has seen how the tourism sector around the world has been severely impacted, seemingly overnight. Many of our tourism businesses were forced to close temporarily, often, unfortunately, escalating into permanent closures.

Sustainability also involves economic growth and whether it can remain viable, continue to grow or decline because the industries the economy relied on were not themselves resilient enough to survive a major crisis like COVID.

To recover faster, experience has shown the importance of a globally coordinated approach with public-private cooperation, the need to enhance the current seamless travel experience, enacting global protocols for health & hygiene, to rebuild the trust of travellers and embracing the acceleration of technological transformations.

Fiji’s tourism industry is making use of this opportunity to come together and enhance our collective approach to ensure the sustainability of the industry, with all the experience, garnered over the past year.

While some resilient businesses remained open, they still only saw limited activity and even this was experienced in sporadic bursts over long weekends, school and national holidays.

Fiji’s Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) has now gained recognition from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and it is, therefore, pleasing to see that the combined efforts of Tourism Fiji and the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA), that this recognition now means that our tourism operators who have made the Care Fiji Commitment are now able to access both the CFC branding tools and the globally recognised WTTC ‘Safe Travels’ stamp.

While FHTA’s assistance and support of the CFC have been usually in the background, it has been critical to ensuring that industry practices were correctly aligned to the Fijian Government’s COVID-19 Safe Guidelines for tourism businesses and that the Action Plans developed were applicable, practical and enforceable.

For tourism businesses to participate in the programme, they must nominate a Wellness Ambassador, undertake extensive training on COVID-19 safe best practices and develop a comprehensive action plan that gets tested to confirm alignment.
There is clearly a collective commitment from the industry to protect our tourism staff, our communities, as well as build the confidence and safety of our visitors when they return.

Simultaneously, the industry is also actively pursuing its own sustainability and survival because it will not be sufficient to simply survive the COVID crisis.

It is equally critical that the industry emerges out of it ready to embrace the new normal in terms of safety protocols and to remain at its highest standards for compliance, service, and worldwide competitiveness. Additionally, it must also survive to be marketable as a visitor attraction, accommodation, activity, service provider and destination.

Consider therefore that many affected businesses having reviewed its cost structure at minimal operational status, reduced its workforce, limited its outsourcing, ensured it is incorporating what reduced tax incentives have been offered and reduced its rates to be attractive to the domestic market; must still pay all the annually required licencing, registration and regulatory compliance fees if they want to remain in business legally.

Because there are no across the board discounts for fees and licenses, FHTA and the Society of Travel Associates in Fiji (SOFTA) are meeting with government agencies to share information on the status of the industry and its need to remain sustainable, fully compliant and primed and ready for when borders reopen.

To be ready to meet the pent-up demand for international travel to destinations like Fiji that offer many of the sustainable tourism focused activities, community living, accommodation options and pristine environments that go hand in hand with cleaner air and healthy marine ecosystems; the industry needs support now to stay alive and in prime condition.

While only a few of our hotel properties are franchise-based, they collectively make up the larger inventory holders and usually employ larger numbers. However, far more are locally owned and are part of Fiji’s usually vibrant SME landscape that has been effectively hibernated for now, pending the restart of international travel.

The collective impact on small businesses that emerge because of tourism’s demand, the creation of wide-ranging entrepreneurship, increased supply lines and the resulting opportunities for women, youth and informal workers cannot be ignored and will quite naturally come back again.

In effect, women account for 54% of employment in the sector, compared to 39% for the global economy, and employs almost twice as many youths as in other sectors. Our tourism sector also contributes significantly to local surrounding communities, supporting employment and income generation, local resource preservation and access to quality infrastructure.

A sustainable and balanced industry can give 100,000 people their jobs back and a substantially slowed economy a much-needed kick start.

To really appreciate the impact, keep in mind that 100,000 people each have at least 5 people they in turn support.

We must support the industry now to be able to survive these next few months, even as we have dodged, ducked and waded through the last four storms and counting.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 11 February 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Confusing the New Reality

Tourism Talanoa: Confusing the New Reality

FHTA, 4 February 2021 – Is 2021 the year that travel rebounds?

Travel experts say there is increasing confidence for international travel in the second half of the year, but that “COVID continues to confuse the reality”.

The 2021 observations about travellers and their appetite for travel by experts are of significant interest from our perspective.
Leading world travel website TripAdvisor recently released a survey report that reveals the increased intent in international travel and dining behaviours in 2021 and identified five travel trends that they believe will be key.

These include: Travellers are planning to travel abroad in the second half of the year, but won’t actually wait to make plans; Vaccinations will be a game-changer for traveller confidence; Domestic travel remains high on the wish list for 2021; The joy of travel planning will be stronger than ever as consumers spend more time researching trips; and that consumers can’t wait to dine out again, but their taste for takeout will still endure.

On the first point, it is no surprise that nearly two thirds (65%) of leisure travellers surveyed say they did not travel internationally at all in 2020. It is anticipated that there will be a reversal of this behaviour in 2021. Nearly half (47%) of all respondents globally say they are planning to travel internationally in 2021, with less than a third (30%) of travellers saying they do not expect to travel internationally at all this year.

Other travel reports based on feedback and recent surveys add to the research information that is being intently studied by industry stakeholders worldwide.

A recent webinar by hotel management analytics firm Smith Travel Research (STR) revealed that in the Asia Pacific region, our neighbours and key markets Australia and New Zealand, have reported increases in their overall hotel room occupancy. Australia is holding steady at just under 60% and New Zealand is hovering around the 50% mark and this is mainly due to their domestic tourism market with a smaller impact from repatriated travellers in quarantine.

So, based on their successful domestic marketing strategies, there should be some understanding of why they do not have to rush to open their borders just yet. Travel safe bubble requirements aside.

While Europeans and Americans may still be grounded due to the recent lockdowns in those regions, it is anticipated that there will be significant recovery for tourism around the Northern Hemisphere summer months from June to September.

Several of Fiji’s open resorts have confirmed holding bookings or receiving booking enquiries for the second half of the year, which is also an early indicator that travellers are feeling confident that they will be able to travel in 2021, albeit later in the year.

Secondly, it is generally expected that the quicker governments administer COVID-19 vaccinations as part of safer travel requirements, the faster leisure travel rebounds in 2021. Globally, more than 77% of travellers surveyed say they will be more likely to travel internationally if they receive the vaccine. These vaccination programs are expected to not only impact traveller confidence but also where these travellers will be prepared to go to.

More than 26% of respondents from the TripAdvisor survey indicate their preference for safer travel and would only travel to destinations that require visitors to be vaccinated before travel, so Fiji is in good stead to be one of those destinations based on expectations for the vaccine to be rolled out in the next few months.

Thirdly, one could assume that a boost in international tourism might come at the expense of domestic tourism. Given that most potential international travellers have had to divert their overseas vacations to domestic locations, many markets have carried out intensive marketing campaigns to ensure that their citizens spend their disposable income in-country. Fiji is not the only country looking to its local population to support its travel challenged industry.

There is still a strong desire to travel domestically among those surveyed and this could prove to be difficult for the international tourism industry to compete with. The survey revealed that 74% of travellers surveyed plan to take at least one overnight domestic leisure trip in 2021.

When the time is right for Fiji, will we be able to compete with these domestic campaigns and entice visitors to our shores and will reducing our pricing be all that it takes?

Considering that many travellers have been stuck at home for a large part of 2020, the first big leisure trip of 2021 will be of great significance. Many want to travel to somewhere special and this is evident in how much time potential travellers are spending online researching travel destinations, safety requirements and general ease of travel.

Most evident is the fact that travellers do not want to quarantine in a hotel room for any length of time, opting for domestic travel in their own country as the preferred alternative.

Around 74% of travellers surveyed say they will spend more time choosing a destination this year so there’s definitely room for Destination Fiji to increase their online marketing presence to ensure that Fiji is front and centre in travellers’ minds when they eventually make their bookings.

As we break down the traveller booking window, which is the length of time between when a trip is booked and the trip actually taking place, more than 22% of all accommodation “clicks” on TripAdvisor in the first week of January were for trips taking place after April.

Will Fiji be ready by then? That seems highly unlikely given the current circumstances even though we understand the reasoning behind ensuring we keep our communities, our population and our country safe from COVID-19.

Lastly, due to the sudden uptake overseas in takeaway and delivery services in 2020 because restaurants had to quickly adapt to government mandates restricting in-person dining in most countries, dining at home appears to be a trend likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Surveys like these, while not faultless, offer encouragement to the ailing travel and tourism sectors and provide some understanding of potential customer expectations and changing demands. Businesses might be dormant, in hibernation or only have a fraction of its full potential open, but savvy ones stay alert to ever-changing market demands, shifting expectations and new trends.

As has been commented on often enough before, not since 9/11 has travel had such a forceful impact on travel requirements, safety concerns and the way we travel generally.

It is now accepted that the technological revolution that made travel and tourism easy and affordable, resulting in one billion trips a year, is now quite helpless in halting a virus that has forced us to stay home to remain safe.
COVID has literally flipped all our expectations.

While travel industries around the world remain positive, government-imposed travel restrictions and quarantine requirements remain a major barrier until vaccination programmes become more widespread and we learn how to live with the virus safely.

The Fijian tourism industry and all the businesses, industries, supply chains and employees that are closely related to it, eagerly await news that we are progressing in this direction.

And we sincerely hope that that is soon.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 4 February 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Belief, Relief and Expectations of some Grief

Tourism Talanoa: Belief, Relief and Expectations of some Grief

FHTA, 28 January 2021 – While fear might help us survive, when mixed with uncertainty, it can often lead to anxiety. And anxiety can be contagious.

It is the uncertainty or the unknown likelihood of how an ongoing crisis will evolve over time and in the tourism industry’s case, and all the other related businesses and industries tied to it, that may determine how 2021 will turn out for our economy. This may also ring true for many other Pacific Island economies that are heavily reliant on tourism and the collective belief that the industry will sort its challenges out the way they have always managed to.

We scraped through 2020 by digging deep and applying many of the cost-saving and out of the box thinking that years of resilient business practices have historically kept an industry growth on track despite the impacts of numerous setbacks deemed normal for tourism in Fiji. But the impact has left even deeper scars that are physical, economic, financial, psychological, and social.

Relief came in many forms and in the last 10 months, thousands of unemployed tourism staff have been assisted by donor agencies, civic societies and NGO’s in the form of training, food security support and emergency packages.

Remittances continued to flow in despite expectations to the contrary and even increased, as our overseas families and friends pitched in to provide much needed financial support. Additionally, traditional Pacific Island safety nets kicked in that saw many people share food, shelter and educational support to neighbours and communities.

Similarly, the easy access to arable land and abundant oceans has played a large role in contributing to the many forms of relief that have been part of Fiji’s ability to sustain its unemployed population.

But as the borders have remained closed and the virus continues to wreak its havoc worldwide, and the bulk of international visitors prevented from holidaying, the first signs of extreme stress that may eventuate with the anticipated eventual demise of some small and medium businesses is beginning to be seen.

Fiji’s GDP is expected to contract by 22% and our revenue earning capacity appears to be diminished considerably with the heavy reliance on tourism for its usual GDP growth. While support, capacity building and training for other sectoral growth is being pursued, no-one expects this will see any real impact for a few years which means we may have to review our strategies for a faster way to get our economy bouncing back.

A recent industry survey conducted by Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) has been released in their Pacific Business Monitor for January that noted the top three challenges facing businesses. These were not knowing how long the crisis would last (90% of respondents), the impact of closed international borders (88%) and poor cashflows (86%). These constituted the key factors of why business owners and their staff were worried about what their next step would be.

While visitor confidence in Fiji remains high, indicated by holiday enquiries and consequent bookings still being received, these continue to be postponed until there is clarity around when and how safer travel will be entertained.

The survey findings also indicate that the top four initiatives regional businesses require assistance with include financial support (61%), review of financial positions (40%), diversification of businesses (30%) and access to new markets (30%).

PTI has been recording the negative impacts caused by COVID-19 since tracking began in May last year. Their report has also shown the decline in access to and satisfaction with government support, with business survival confidence reducing and expectations of returning to business as usual in 2021 dropping even lower.

The survey results provide quantitative data to better understand real issues and challenges facing our tourism operators while tracking their progress through each stage from initial lockdown to the current situation almost a year on.

As our government awaits the COVAX facility vaccine to arrive and works on the complicated logistics of getting it here, stored safely and implementing the vaccination exercise, there is still much to do in ensuring our population will remain safe.

One such practice might be that we communicate our plans to keep everyone safe more effectively and discuss more openly the importance of keeping Fiji COVID contained. This must be everyone’s business and in everyone’s interest and not just the tourism industry’s cross to bear in terms of responsibility once medical staff do their critical work.

Through better understanding, we reduce fear and gain support to practice safely living with a virus that may not disappear for many years yet.

Then we can continue to regain lost ground and start turning our economy around. We can plan to reconstruct a newer tourism industry that is more resilient to global events and far more sustainable for future Fijians.

Fiji can set an example for the world and perhaps give them some inspiration.

We therefore strongly encourage all tourism operators, and all suppliers, regardless of size and activity, to register their expression of interest for the Care Fiji Commitment with Tourism Fiji to ensure that they are not left out when visitors are eventually provided preferred COVID safe businesses to support.

Barring the success and speedy global distribution of a vaccine for COVID-19, the next best step for Fiji is mitigation and working with containment so have to do the best with the cards that COVID has dealt us.

As we continue to focus our efforts on getting international visitors back to our shores, it in no way diminishes the positive effects that domestic tourism has had on the industry.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, show your support and belief in tourism’s ability to bounce back, enjoy the beauty of your surroundings and the facilities provided during your stay and leave it better than how you found it for the next person to enjoy.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 28 January 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: When a Shot in the Arm is What’s Needed

Tourism Talanoa: When a Shot in the Arm is What’s Needed

FHTA, 21 January 2021 – By mid-2020, most economists around the world had predicted that the worst economic impacts would be felt later in the year and that Government imposed lockdowns would ease gradually with the arrival of vaccines and the eventual decline of infection rates and increased capacity in healthcare systems.

But the virus has outsmarted economists, analysts and entire Governments across the world, moving stealthily undetected through humanity, undeterred by borders, climate or technology and even mutating into more harmful strains.

Plans for international bubbles have blown hot and cold in the last 6 months, along with containment confirmations being celebrated then moving back to the start line for the containment countdown process to restart.

While it has been difficult to see what course is being chartered for finding our own way back to happier economic times, it has been far more depressing to read through innumerable predictions of why countries will not be opening up anytime soon that are often based on accounts or perceptions of people who still have the luxury of a full-time job and the added benefits of robust medical systems with limited understanding of the livelihoods of entire communities torn between their health and safety and their need to earn a living.

While being isolated Pacific Island countries have spared us from the spread of infection, this has also exposed our vulnerabilities as small island states that could often punch well above our weight with developed countries.

To continue to compete, trade and grow our industries and economy, we need to access those international borders unless you are a large well-developed, self-sufficient economy that can sustain itself for 2 to 3 years. Apparently, most countries in this category still disagree they could cope with borders remaining closed for this long.

For the pandemic to end, a large share of the world needs to be immune to the virus. The medical experts believe the safest way to achieve this is with mass vaccine programs being rolled out alongside other mitigation efforts that include lockdowns, tracing, masks, social distancing and hygiene protocols.

As the first month of the year rolls through, tourism businesses are moving into the low season when demand is at its traditional lowest. At this stage, imagine if you will, a low tide where what little water was there is now sucked away completely with only the wet sand drying up quickly in the hot sun.

For those businesses that were open; equipment, boats, restaurants and rooms are being packed up, closed up and put away with staff numbers and hours being reduced even further.

As budgets get reviewed and reviewed yet again, it is time to pay suppliers, renew licenses, pay regulatory fees, bank loans and taxes. In a recent consultation, industry stakeholders appealed to Ministry of Health and Ministry of Tourism representatives for their understanding of the dire circumstances of many SME business owners struggling to make ends meet without knowing how long they must plan to stretch their meagre resources, hibernate their businesses or consider closing altogether.

But time is also being spent fine-tuning how they will keep their staff and guests safe when those borders do eventually reopen. Staff training, action plans and tested safety protocols are being put into place by every tourism operator who is keen to ensure their business is recognised locally and internationally with the required Care Fiji Commitment CFC) program that is Fiji’s destination-wide travel safe assurance. There is concern already raised that similar precautionary programs or safe reopening protocols be demanded of retailers, suppliers and anyone else along the tourism supply chain.

Fiji expects its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines in April and is expected to gain access to free vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility, which is intended to maximize the chances for people in participating countries to get access to COVID-19 vaccines as quickly, fairly and safely as possible.

We understand implicitly, the vaccination process is one part of a whole series of actions that must fall into place before we can see our way out of these trying times. There is also the acknowledgement that a failure to do things right could have drastic repercussions for which our economy would have far greater difficulty recovering from.

But unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures and we might just be able to do more to help ourselves if put our heads together and practised a little more talanoa sessions more often.

The next twelve months will be critical for countries around the world to embrace strategies that include how we live with the virus in the long term, how we change our focus from previous practices to ones that put their people’s most urgent needs first while laying the groundwork for boosting other sectors to reduce the reliance on only a few main industries.

In the Pacific and specifically Fiji, the heavy reliance on tourism is taking a heavy toll on our revenue earnings, employment and the consequent impact on supply chains losing their key markets.

Yet the very reason tourism became our key industry by default is the same reason we appear, on the surface at least, to be humming along as if we were simply waiting for something to pass. As we do with cyclones and floods and slowly receding coastlines; our patience, good humour and willingness to share and help one another get through a crisis continues to permeate our everyday lives and society in general.

It is hard to imagine how difficult things really are when the sun shines so brilliantly from out of the bluest skies and the palm trees sway gently in the breeze along shores lapped by rhythmic waves. Harder still when people are still smiling as they always do in Fiji even when the next meal is not guaranteed or it is a struggle to get your children into school or you are one payment away from your home or business being repossessed.

Some erudite individual is quoted to have said, “The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.” He may be right but then he probably never came to Fiji, where it is hard to leave and harder still to leave old habits.

We have become too used to letting things simply lie or waiting ever so patiently for things to get better and perhaps this is why our message that we are hurting so bad is not heard strongly enough by those that can make a difference.

Beneath the surface of a polite smiling people, there are genuine cries for help. People are needing formal counselling services like never before; mental health programs are being researched and religious organisations are having to manage simmering social issues more frequently.

And yet, even as our economic situation begins to move into more desperate territory, we still believe the economists predicting a return to a pre-COVID status not being likely to take place for at least 3 to 5 years, are getting it wrong again.

They too have not been to Fiji, where our resilience as a Pacific Island nation can be as astounding as the never imagined Olympic Gold Medal for our Seven’s Rugby Team. But there it is.

So, let’s get that shot in the arm and call on everyone to work together and we might just provide another example of Fijian resilience at its best.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 21 January 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Strengthening the Tourism Industry

Tourism Talanoa: Strengthening the Tourism Industry

FHTA, 14 January 2021 – With all the lessons we’ve learned over the past 10 or so months, are we, as an industry, prepared for what the year 2021 has in store for us?

Being a small island developing state, Fiji was lucky to be able to identify and isolate the COVID-19 risk once it arrived on our shores.

Following that, we have been successful at containing confirmed cases at our border quarantine facilities.

But just because the virus isn’t present in our communities at the moment, does not mean that we can risk complacency.
And thus, we plan and strategise. We anticipate and research. We modify and we communicate.

All of this to build up a stringent business framework that is more resilient in light of recent global events.

The tourism industry has been meeting and actively discussing the ins and outs of these trying times and how best to move forward as a collective, for the betterment of the industry.

When the Care Fiji Commitment was rolled out, many tourism operators jumped at the chance to adapt to the new normal and adjust their standard operating procedures to the minimum required standard from Government, to stand a chance to welcome visitors back to their properties.

This included more open dialogue with their staff as to the change in hygiene and sanitization of rooms and public access areas. This also contains the implementation of new policies to govern the property at all times and if necessary, should there be an active case of COVID-19 in their midst.

These changes have been successfully tested out on the domestic tourism market who flocked to hotels and resorts during the Love Our Locals campaign instigated by Tourism Fiji.

While hiccups remain, we hope that these are ironed out before the borders are opened and visitors eventually touch back down in Fiji.

Properties will need to plan how they will respond to the prospect of absent employees who may refuse to work in light of the threat of COVID-19. Lack of manpower may adversely affect tourism operators, in particular the larger properties who need many hands to help move their operations along positively.

Supply chains will have to be bolstered in preparation of the border openings. As of late, many suppliers of goods and services have seen a slight improvement in the demand from hotels but it is currently not at the level of pre-COVID-19 times.
There were usually contracts between suppliers and hotels but given the state of the market at the moment, alternatives arrangements might need to be made in ensuring that goods and services are readily available. Dealings with a single supplier may not work as well as before, given the local market.

Modifications to service delivery are not only expected, it will be mandatory. When visitors finally set foot in the country, they will be required to follow the Vacation In Paradise (VIP) lanes which will ensure that contact between tourists and locals is greatly minimised.

This will be the norm until COVID-19 and its variants are eradicated and even then, the VIP lanes may stay for a while as there will always be a risk of infection and transmission.

Tax breaks and payment holidays were quickly implemented at the start of the pandemic but businesses may need more assistance for as long as the status quo remains. Fixed payments like rent and loan repayments haven’t magically disappeared and these will need to be addressed once things change for the better.

In the meantime, Government is sincerely urged to consider more advantageous measures and stimuli to ensure businesses do not wind up in light of the global shutdown.

Tourism will definitely assist in moving the country beyond the pandemic and this is done by bringing people together and promoting unity and trust.

We will stand together to ensure that our communities and our country recovers well from the current situation.

UNWTO estimates that by 2050, 68% of the world population will live in urban areas, while 80% of those currently living in ‘extreme poverty’ live outside of towns and cities.

But with Fiji’s communal living framework, we can work together to ensure that estimation does not happen here.
Tourism is a lifeline, offering workers a chance to earn a living where they live, or get a skill and use it to travel further for a richer experience.

We deserve to be on top of travelers wish lists and it’s up to us to prove to them that they were right to choose us when the time is right.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 14 January 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Our 2021 Wishlist

Tourism Talanoa: Our 2021 Wishlist

FHTA, 7 January 2021 – What a year 2020 was! It pushed the entire world to its economic limits and had entire industries scrambling to survive, adapt or change gears.

For the new year, as we are often reminded, it is time to let go of what has been and gone and be grateful for what remains. Or, if it is easier, to simply toss everything about 2020 into the garbage pile of bad news that 2020 was nearly all about. And with it our collective addiction to the bad news we were constantly reading, or “doomscrolling”.

It has been said that good writing helps us gain perspective and we certainly hope that our Tourism Talanoas in 2020 gave readers a better perspective of what tourism in Fiji is about, our challenges, weaknesses, achievements and aspirations.
For 2021, we look at some positive outcomes we look forward to, are being planned or are of interest to the tourism industry, along with trends we believe will have some impact on our industry and therefore our economy.

Those travel bubbles are still of keen interest to Fiji and its Pacific Island neighbours. Suffice to say that the complicated requirements from bubble sharers are still being discussed with each layer of precautionary measure and procedure far from being confirmed as sufficient to keep the virus out and keep our communities safe.

That might mean we have to review our mid-year hopes of borders reopening, but the recent announcement by the United Nations resident coordinator that they would be assisting with bringing the COVID-19 vaccine to Pacific Island countries is certainly more positive news that depending on how soon the vaccination process can be implemented, would provide a higher degree of confidence for all concerned.

With Qantas announcing in November last year that they would require future international travellers to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 before flying, the initial furore this created has given way to a general acceptance that this may be a safer option for aviation and travel generally. We may yet see countries put this forward as a requirement once their own populations have been vaccinated.

The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the fragility of the tourism sector. Grounded flights, empty hotels and tourism jobs must now make way for innovative ideas on what else we can do to help ourselves until it is safer to travel again.

Over the festive season, with months of learning each other’s needs taking place between a potentially lucrative domestic market that could not leave the country and tourism operators with empty rooms who were only used to catering for international markets, a wonderful time was apparently had by all.

The tourism industry was built based on market demands of international visitors and whilst there have always been “local rates”, these have only been offered based on reduced demand from overseas visitors. Getting to understand what locals wanted on a holiday took a little time because while cheaper rates are part of the demand, so too were package deals, extra beds, meal deals, good value buffets and late check-outs.

Equally important was understanding when demand would rise, how last minute the bookings could be and the importance of reduced drink pricing or happy hour times.

For local visitors, there was an appreciation for confirmed booking timelines, the efforts that go into ensuring reefs, beaches, gardens and landscapes stayed in their pristine conditions, what the international airport looked like without power, visitors and workers and how eerie it could be to see 9 large aircraft sitting silently on the tarmac. It has also been powerfully educational for many to learn what a difference more bookings can mean to the number of staff that get their jobs back.

For the rest of the world, travel trends are also expected to change. Post-pandemic, many travellers want to travel more responsibly and with purpose, engaging with and learning from other cultures and making a positive contribution to the local communities they visit. This personal aspect of travel and the chance to change individual lives will be sought after more than ever by many travellers who have become more conscious of the world around them.

Travellers are also expected to be younger and take shorter holidays more often or choose to work while they are travelling, so wi-fi and good quality connectivity will be an expectation.

For Fiji, there are huge opportunities for small businesses to offer more nature-based, cultural experiences that benefit communities or showcase agri-tourism projects.

For example, we have organically grown cocoa and coffee that is taken all the way through its various processes to be served as exotic flavoured, export quality chocolates, as well as superior coffee served in small, tucked away little cafes. But this information is not widely known, even to locals, or on most tourism information. Yet this is the very type of information being looked for by the more discerning traveller looking for the type of experiential travel that will allow them to see and do more while leaving a smaller carbon footprint in the country.

With the expectation that the current trend of reduced employment is likely to continue into 2022 even after borders reopen, budding entrepreneurs should be looking for opportunities in supply chains. The more self-sufficient we are as a country, the less we need to rely on expensive imports with the consequent benefit of reducing the cost of goods and services. A further economic benefit would be food security if this included improved agricultural outputs.

If we are to be more successful in whatever industry we are part of, then we need to be more resourceful, adapt from the hard-learned lessons from 2020 and be prepared to change from our usual business practices.
Because the world has changed.

Over the last ten months, tourism businesses have continued to re-evaluate their services and products, made changes to comply with the reduced capacity, social distancing and ‘no dancing’ regulations, while operating any events within the guidelines set by Government, as challenging as they often were to incorporate. For that, we are appreciative of their compliance with national regulations.

It will continue to take a collective effort from all sectors to get Fiji back to its perennial position, at least in the Pacific, and we have shown we can work together to get there.

The famous scientist Charles Darwin noted that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Happy New Year and we wish you all a more successful 2021!

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 7 January 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Still in the Fight

Tourism Talanoa: Still in the Fight

FHTA, 10 December 2020 – The self-professed “baddest” man on the planet, Mike Tyson is quoted as saying, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”

And this year has indeed been an uppercut of massive proportions globally, with tourism hitting the floor hard with a roundhouse punch called COVID.

2020 has had its fair share of lifetime firsts but has also showcased our immense resilience and concern for each other. In Fiji, around the Pacific and indeed the world.

From the depths of despair, the industry has picked itself up and constantly reassessed the situation as weeks turned into months and the months have inched slowly to the end of a year most people are keen to put behind them.

At a 2017 United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) conference, the issue of global threats to tourism had been broached and discussed at length.

The participants of the conference were urged to take seriously the threat of pandemics and epidemics based on the declaration of pandemics in 2010 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of discussions on global security issues and a possible Future Global Shock.

It had been observed then that the number of new diseases per decade have increased nearly fourfold over the past 60 years, and since 1980, the number of outbreaks per year has also more than tripled.

Based on these facts, OECD argued that there would be a need for higher political and budgetary prioritization of pandemics to promote human security in the same way other national security risks were usually prioritized.

A 2008 World Bank report found that a prolonged pandemic could trigger a major global recession with economic losses resulting not necessarily from sickness or death but from efforts to avoid infection including reducing air travel, avoiding travel to contagious destinations, and reducing consumption of services such as restaurant dining, tourism, mass transport, and nonessential retail shopping.

Fast-forward to 2020 and we feel like we saw that movie but felt like that might happen to someone else.
The world collectively grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic which is the worst catastrophic event that global tourism has experienced since the Great Depression of 1929.

Due to the combined effects of the pandemic and travel restrictions, 174 million jobs in tourism and travel are at risk while the total economic impact is expected to exceed over 1 trillion dollars.

Despite the daunting challenges, tourism continues to be one of the most resilient segments of the global economy.
While the impact of the pandemic will carry into 2021, most global destinations have been finding ways to adapt and have developed recovery plans to manage the reopening of their tourism industries.

The pace of recovery, however, continues to vary from country to country, based on resources, location, rates of infection, medical standards and most tellingly, cultures.

Fortunately, most of the world is now in a position to identify some of the success factors for reasonably-paced recovery of tourism sectors based on the experiences of specific countries. We are learning from one another’s remarkable achievements as well as our woeful mistakes.

Critically, effective leadership in the industry has been central to making tactical adjustments to business operations in the short term to ensure adaptability during the crisis and survival beyond. As much as longer term sustainability is preferred, this has not always been achievable for everyone and we have noticed with heavy hearts the continued job losses and smaller businesses unable to stay afloat.

There has been therefore, a recognised need for consistent coordination and cooperation not just between the public and private sectors, but within each of these, to ensure that all affected stakeholders have access to timely and accurate information to allow for efficient and optimal decision-making.

Effective, consistent and factual communication has been key to ensuring information is shared widely, data provided where relevant, contacts maintained, and fear minimized.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association has been actively engaged with as many stakeholders from the onset of what was quickly recognised would be an immediate economic downturn, by consistently pursuing updates or seeking to discuss challenges with any sector where better understanding of the overall situation could assist affected businesses to manage their current situation as best they could.

We have met and continue to meet with our Association members, with Government ministries and agencies, tourism partners, non-government organisations, civil society representatives and more, to develop measures, provide perspective, ask for support and look for ways to manage the crisis.

The approach has revolved around ensuring targeted communications, balancing information between warning and assurance, and ensuring cross-sectorial cooperation, while looking for opportunities to share widely.

FHTA has worked tirelessly this year to ensure that the tourism industry is sufficiently geared towards recovering from this setback. We have assisted in the development of the required infrastructure, supported the tireless efforts of the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health and have also been pushing for the retraining of tourism staff in accordance to the Minimum Standards for COVID-Safe Guidelines.

It has been a critical focus to ensure the survival of tourism enterprises and the well-being of displaced workers in the sector. These two goals are crucial to recovery as they are the backbone of the sector.

We have been advocating for teamwork by all concerned parties to ensure that general safety of all Fijians and the recovery of Fiji’s economy is paramount.

A crisis of any sort must first be survived. Our exposure to natural disasters over the years has taught us to be prepared and be resilient. The success to overcome a crisis takes place with sufficient strength, support and belief that we can do so.
We may not be out of the woods yet and we may not have seen our darkest days in this pandemic yet. Like an exhausted boxer after many hard rounds, we must hang in there till we see this through.

There are 915,696 people counting on us as the industry that will revive the Fijian economy.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 10 December 2020)

Tourism Talanoa: Sunny Days

Tourism Talanoa: Sunny Days

FHTA, 2 December 2020 – “If you want to see the sunshine”, the Frank Lane quote goes, “you have to weather the storm”. With that criteria unequivocally ticked off; that may explain why we are indeed blessed with many hours of glorious sunshine for so many days of the year.
That sunshine has been a natural blessing for Fiji and a magnetic drawcard to visitors from around the world in better times.
Our weather plays a vital role in the tourism industry and visitor hotspots have evolved by default of their beautiful locations around the country that exposes them to hours of liquid gold sunshine, along with the other attractive elements that use up the thousands of wonderful descriptions of Fiji seen and heard around the world.
But to all things light and bright there is always a dark and scary side and the weather certainly has its downsides.
The predominant South-East trade winds usually bring cold air and precipitation from the south, which precipitates before or around the mountain ranges in the centre of Viti Levu and therefore rarely reaches many of the sunnier tourism hotspots.
Weather experts tell us that Fiji’s climate varies considerably from year to year due to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which is a natural climate pattern that occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects weather around the world.
There are two extreme phases of the ENSO: El Niño and La Niña.
El Niño events tend to bring dry seasons that are drier and cooler than normal, while La Niña events usually bring wetter than normal conditions. Suva residents know only too well how weeks of rain without respite can make an entire city long for just a few hours of sunshine during these times.
Currently, for the whole Fiji group, the ENSO is in a moderate La-Niña state so we can expect more precipitation going into the festive period. While this information might appear irrelevant to many except for wedding planners and lovo makers, tourism operators usually take note of these factors when planning for special events during the holiday season, while mariners and ship’s captains know it is time to be even more alert than usual.
The La-Niña event is expected to continue through to the March-May 2021 season.
Last year, Fiji continued to record above-average annual temperatures (25.9°C), which is 0.6°C higher than the long-term average.
The periods of January to March and November to December were the warmest months in 2019, which is our region’s cyclone season. To add to that, this past decade (2010-2019) has been the warmest ever on record.
Warmer temperatures along with warmer oceans that have absorbed most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions affect marine species and ecosystems. Rising temperatures also cause coral bleaching and the loss of breeding grounds for all manner of critical marine life.
Those are just about the worst conditions we could expect when considering the long term sustainability of our very diverse marine life and oceans. These in turn sustain many coastal communities and livelihoods, directly impact the fishing, marine, agriculture and tourism industries and affect the delicate balance between the many thriving ecosystems that interact throughout nature.
Much of this we may take for granted growing up and living in Fiji, but we must realise that our future generations may not experience any of this if we do not do more to protect and save it.
The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) has been working with the Fiji Meteorological Service (FMS) and receives their many weather updates and reports which are disseminated to the Association’s members.
These reports include the Ocean and Climate Outlooks, Coral Bleaching Watch, Seasonal Climate Outlook and Sea Surface Temperature and Levels.
At the recent, 2020 Fiji Climate Outlook Forum hosted by FMS through the Disaster Resilience for Pacific Small Island Developing States (RESPAC) program, indications were that climate change continues to adversely affect the planet and that these are extremely worrying times for those meteorological scientists in the country and we expect, around the region and indeed the world, who understand the signs and collectively worry on our behalf.
The major weather-related occurrences that usually cause widespread public strife and undue economic stress here are floods, droughts and cyclones. While we have a special place for pandemics that sneak up on us and hang around for far too long, there is no denying that the longer-term implications of our steadily deteriorating weather patterns and their increasing devastation cannot be ignored any longer and should really be everybody’s collective concern now.
So, what to do?
Basically, being aware, heeding the advice and doing what we can to reduce the activities that are responsible for aggravating or causing these adverse circumstances would help tremendously. Specifically changing our habits and behaviours as communities is becoming the most critical call to action.
For now, we are expecting more rain over the next few months, and for low lying areas in the country, the chances of river flooding is higher now during La Niña events.
We will be relying on FMS using its Flash Flood Guidance System for advice to better prepare ourselves for any emergencies.
On the opposite end of the spectrum and with our last drought recorded in 2010, there are also plans by the National Disaster Management Office for implementing a Drought Early Warning System for the country. This is good news for those of us who have experienced the effects of extended drier periods and have had to cart water out to island resorts and communities over great distances.
The tropical cyclone outlook forecast from FMS as we head into the cyclone season is that while the yearly average of tropical disturbances evolving into cyclones is reducing, the likelihood of increased severity is higher. Definitely not the news we want to hear when so many businesses are already closed or teetering on the brink of closure.
This month, we are expecting more rain over the country as the forecast is for above-normal precipitation that is likely to continue until February.
The increased sighting of black ants activity in buildings around the country certainly supports this scientific prediction.
So, while we prepare for a quieter than usual holiday season because many of our people are unemployed or on reduced wages, we can use the time to prepare better for bad weather hovering on the horizon. Especially now while the sun is still shining.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 3 December 2020)