FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji’s Greatest Assets – Our People

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji’s Greatest Assets – Our People

FHTA, 20 May 2022 – They are the ones with the biggest smiles when you disembark the plane at Nadi International Airport or when you are checking into any of the many accommodation providers across the country.

They are the usually burly porters who lift your bags with ease onto their trolleys with beaming smiles and booming welcomes, and they are the housekeeping staff with flowers tucked behind ears who sing as they clean and refresh your rooms or move around the many resort functions areas.

They are the shy support staff wiping down tables and chairs when guests leave to make way for the next lot of guests and they are the ones happily calling out their “bula” while tending to general maintenance or trimming trees & gardens when you walk past.

They are Fiji and tourism’s greatest resource. They are our valuable and important tourism workers.

When the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns gripped Fiji, we shared the anxiety and suffering of our workers as a consequence, and as tourism now moves from a slow but steady reopening to fully operational in the next few months; ensuring worker rights and conditions are recognized as a key element in the industry’s return is more important than many might appreciate.

Hence the consistent efforts by the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) to continue with discussions commenced many years ago to recognize the importance of genuine good faith bargaining and providing a standard Collective Agreement (CA) as a minimum baseline for the tourism industry.

Earlier this week the FHTA HR/IR Sub Committee was thrilled to finally have such a document agreed to with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed off with the main workers union.

This marked the culmination of years of lengthy discussions, the collation of ongoing changes to employment legislation and the reviewing of many separate appendices and addendums being finally included into a single document that would provide a template and guideline for management staff and workers in hotels and resorts, regardless of size, with the first homogenous document of hospitality-specific positions, employment terms and conditions.

The milestone event is not just a benefit for FHTA members.

It provides a more widely accepted understanding of employee working conditions and provides clearer progression or career pathways for employees in the industry to aspire to.

As well, it recognizes the many different levels within employee categories that are usually only relevant to accommodation providers that are invariably further differentiated by property size, location and even whether they are an island, remote or mainland based.

It has been an extremely long and complicated process that required working with the Union representatives, the Ministry of Employment, law firms for legal opinions and FHTA’s many members to gain all their respective insights.

Wage rates, benefits and additional conditions may be further negotiated by individual employers over and above the document’s guidelines and it is hoped that in sharing this agreement widely, improved employment conditions and rising productivity levels become preferred by-products that in turn lift the industry’s product and service offerings.

As the Fijian economy recovers lost ground and the industry moves back into its usual frenetic pace with visitor arrivals moving surprisingly quickly into pre-COVID levels, the signing of the MOU comes at an opportune time for recognizing the importance of our people and the central role they play in this industry.

With the many segments that exist within the industry to cater for the wide product offering Destination Fiji offers, the accommodation providers have the lion’s share of employees in an industry that employs 130,000 people both directly and indirectly

And while we cannot treat all businesses in a specific sector as similar, equally profitable and therefore equally capable of providing the standard annual pay rises; we know the agreement provides much-needed clarity on previously ambiguous clauses and an improved understanding and recognition of intake and skill levels for the more appropriate remuneration.

A collective agreement can articulate work conditions, annual leave, working hours, overtime rates, holiday and evening work, etc, within the scope of, but pay scales and increases are left to individual hotels to remunerate workers fairly and according to skill sets, job descriptions and years of service amongst other role-specific, additional benefits.

We need the industry to develop and grow and are committed to fostering a climate conducive to this in return for great working conditions, higher wages and career paths, we know many employers want commitment, efficiency and productivity.

It might not always be easy to make everyone happy all the time, but if happy workers equal happy visitors in our business, then we believe we’re on the right track.

And we are nothing but happy for every single one of them who turns up to work with their biggest Bula smile.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 20 May 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tourism is Back, But…

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tourism is Back, But…

FHTA, 13 May 2022 – At the height of the pandemic and at a time when the video meeting tools had seemingly taken over, businesses were learning to adapt to the new way of doing things.

No more international trips to conduct workshops, attend conferences, or participate in expos, let alone visiting families or taking a tourism excursion.

People were resigning themselves to the fact that this new coronavirus had done the unimaginable and pinned everyone down and that face-to-face meetings of any sort were over and done with.

But such is the unity and tenacity of the global population that as restrictions get consistently rolled back in step with vaccine uptake and efficacy, we’re moving with increasing speed towards business as usual, but with the added precautionary measures to contain the viral spread. Pushed along no doubt by economic pressures, especially in countries like Fiji that are heavily reliant on tourism.

Well into 6 months since the opening of Fiji’s international borders, visitors have slowly but surely flocked over in droves to once again experience the magic of Fiji.

But don’t let the increased tourism busyness of more frequent flights, transportation of visitors to and from airports and hotels and the outward swirling eddies of flurry and hubbub in activities associated with the industry lull us into a false sense of security.

We are not at 2019 levels of tourism yet by no means, if we are still using that as a benchmark.

And we are way off having every one of our tourism operators – accommodation, activities providers or suppliers back in operation.

The Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) is still tracking many of its members and non-members in their journey back from the brink and is acutely aware of how many are either still struggling to get back up again or have closed “till further notice”.

As well, we continue to engage closely with the industry to understand the specific challenges of the many segments within tourism that often require a deeper understanding of the intricate issues that shape those segments.

Marine related businesses for example are still struggling to get compliance requirements in place for their boat captains and crew, what with tourism spread throughout the maritime islands and the regulatory body unable to cope with training needs unless you are in Suva.

Hotels and resorts have spent the last 12 months training staff to replace skill gaps in every department, and have seen the added challenge of trained staff leaving for perceived greener pastures in Australia as part of the Pacific Labour Scheme and other labour recruitment programs.

We don’t deny these are wonderful opportunities for our people to get exposure and more money overseas, but more often than not, our skilled hospitality staff are recruited to work in lower positions, farms or abattoirs thus will not necessarily be benefitting through any upgrading of their skill sets that on returning to Fiji, could be considered a benefit for the industries they may return to.

And in the meantime, an industry still in the fledgling state of recovery is further hampered by increasing gaps in skilled labour with the option to access this from overseas, often a long and intensive process.

Employment opportunities in Fiji therefore will continue to be available and be frequently advertised, although this does not necessarily mean more businesses are opening or expanding as they might generally be taken to mean.

Keep in mind that as part of an employer’s criteria for overseas recruitment for a position they cannot fill locally, they must advertise locally first.

The circular nature of labour (skills moving overseas, some skills becoming redundant and demand for other skills) compounded by the impact of COVID is doing just that – moving people back to their pastoral farms and villages or luring them to jobs overseas promising financial rewards that could support needy families.

And who is still struggling to reopen even 6 months down the line you might ask? Well actually, a whole lot more businesses than you might realise.

The smaller your business is, the further away from the mainland you are located and the more reliant you are on certain specific skills that are no longer available; the more likely that business has either not survived or is still floundering in the wake of COVID.

So while we welcome back the many domestic and international conferences and meetings that ensure business is back for most hotels all the way to Suva, and also welcome back the many families and new visitors around the country, we are aware of our smaller members still doing it hard.

Timely therefore for Tourism Fiji’s “Fijian Tourism Expo” (FTE) being held this week in Nadi.

The FTE is Fiji’s premier tourism industry event that brings international trade, media and local tourism suppliers into one location to showcase the variety of tourism products available in Fiji.

It involves a combination of activities, business discussions and networking opportunities to provide our attendees with a truly immersive Fijian experience.

Travel industry reps already in the country have been busy inspecting properties around Fiji to see firsthand what Fiji has included as part of its updated, refurbished and polished suite of products and services.

They would also be seeing or finding out more over the next few days, about the variety of activities and experiences, and transportation options and will then be negotiating and confirming contracts, rates and packages.

The more successful these negotiations are, the more competitive Fiji can be and combined successes can help in some way to assist other businesses eventually get off the ground.

And we are so glad that it’s back because after spending the past two years communicating with agents and buyers on Zoom or Microsoft Teams or Google Room or other internet options, we can finally stand together in the same room and shake hands and learn from each other.

We are back in the thick of things, but still aware that we have many more miles to go.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 13 May 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Plan Big to Play Big

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Plan Big to Play Big

FHTA, 5 May 2022 – The biggest Super Rugby Pacific crowd was seen recently in Fiji – well for 2022 anyway.

What a splendid achievement and fantastic marketing for the central division’s ANZ Stadium in Suva and the game of super rugby in Fiji.

Fans piled into the ground and were in full voice throughout an event that was hailed for its exciting and passionate atmosphere.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association was particularly giddy with the event because it meant accommodation providers were also enjoying full capacity because of the game.

And we have no doubt this will happen again, but this time in Lautoka in the western division, on May 28 and against the Chiefs from Hamilton.

While several commentators are putting in what might be a premature call for Super Rugby’s Super Round to be held in Fiji because of the Fijian fervour and love for the game, industries like tourism are excited at the prospects of this nonetheless.

The Super Round is when all participating teams play their matches in one venue over three days, usually held near ANZAC Day.
What an amazing concept but in reality for Fiji, a logistical challenge of monstrous proportions.

That’s ten teams of 50+ players and staff each, TV crews, tournament staff and not least, both local and international fans.

While within the realm of possibility, it does provide a few headaches in terms of the requirements for accommodation and transportation and although on a scale far larger than tourism is used to managing, is certainly within event management organisation that we have to coordinate every so often – of course without the added requirements of very specific rugby facilities criteria that must be met.

Does Fiji have the required facilities for 40,000 or more people descending in one location for a week?

And is there a sporting facility able to accommodate several teams to train, warm-up, get physio and medical attention, as well as play in? All within the very specific required travelling time frames to get to and from their accommodation?

It would be tough we’ll admit, but worth a look and it would provide Fiji with the often-ignored opportunity to identify these gaps and address them by putting together some long term development plans to progress sporting facilities where accommodation availability is already in abundance.

We’ve dealt with large events before in Nadi so we’re well aware of the necessary logistics required, the planning time frames necessary and the effort that must go into the process to ensure success.

As the 2023 Super Rugby season hopefully returns to normal with the Fijian and Fijiana Drua teams hosting regular home games, it will give us a platform with which to launch a serious bid for the hosting of Super Round at some point in the not too distant future.

One should only imagine the crowds at the stadium, the coverage of the event being seen around the world and the subsequent economic activity, to be able to understand why it is definitely worth consideration for the relevant authorities.

The consideration we have no doubt has been provided previously, but not made it to the development and budgeting phase for whatever reasons.

In the meantime, Tourism continues to forge ahead in leaps and bounds as we cross over into May after a first-quarter that flew by so quickly.

But we know that everyone involved would rather be busy and under the pump than the alternative.

So, we’re putting our big Bula smiles on and greeting every guest, international or local, with a hearty Bula!

It is made even easier now with the removal of the pre-departure COVID-19 test for incoming visitors.

That has made Fiji a whole lot more accessible to all.

Effective from Sunday 1 May 2022, fully vaccinated visitors coming to Fiji by air or sea no longer need to produce a pre-arrival negative COVID-19 test.

This is in line with best practice for entry requirements among highly vaccinated societies.

However, Fiji has also widened its vaccination requirement for entry and travellers above the age of 16 years must now display proof of full COVID-19 vaccination before departure from their homes.

This will further reduce the risk of community transmission and allows the nation to capture a greater percentage of the fully vaccinated tourism market.

As mentioned in our previous articles, next week’s Fiji Tourism Expo is a welcome sight as it returns after a lapse of two years.

The event will provide Tourism Fiji with a marketing platform to remind the world through representatives of those who sell travel, exactly what Destination Fiji has to offer.

Of course, it is also the perfect opportunity to showcase more of the country’s attractions and culture that do not usually get highlighted in the media or on your virtual newsfeeds but have seen a quiet but determined demand come through.

Wholesalers and all manner of travel-associated salespeople will descend on Nadi in a flurry of activity to soak up information and experience first-hand what Fiji has to offer, especially now after 2 years of reviewing products, refurbishing and rebuilding.

A vibrant tourism industry, once fully revived means more critical economic activity, jobs and revenue circulating which in turn should reinvigorate spending and encourage further investments.

Despite many fully understanding the economic shortfalls without tourism its usually formidable influence on employment, supply lines and the large, multiplier effects throughout the country; the industry still cannot afford to be anything but pragmatic as it claws back lost ground.

And we do not intend to lose focus on all the other areas of tourism impacts that ensure the industry remains sustainable for generations to come.

As an example, FHTA will be attending the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Plastic Waste Free Islands (Pacific Small Island Developing States) Consultation workshop for the tourism & fisheries sectors.

This is regarding the ongoing challenge of the usage of single-use plastics in Fiji and we are particularly interested in the impacts on and for tourism.

So FHTA is working with stakeholders like IUCN to partner in the development of an action plan on enhanced plastic waste management for waste management, tourism and the fisheries sector in Fiji.

Waste audits conducted earlier have now concluded and the consolidation of recommendations from the Quantification and Economic Assessment work has been done, so all relevant parties are now working on formulating policy recommendations to improve the management of plastic waste in Fiji and reduce harmful leakages that could damage our beautiful environments.

Marketing our pristine beaches and seaside beauty, building the lovely stories around why and how beautiful Fiji is, is just as important as spending just as much effort as ensuring we are taking advantage of opportunities to develop new areas like sporting tourism, and even more critically important to be managing how we sustain the industry by keeping it clean and viable.

Only then Fiji can truly claim to be the way the world should be.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 5 May 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: That Coconut Tree

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: That Coconut Tree

FHTA, 28 April 2022 – Our warrior ladies of the Fijiana Drua, in their maiden Super Rugby (Women’s) season, fought enormous odds and still came out on top of a game that is gaining attention wider attention in the Pacific and Fiji where representation has been usually part of recognized teams out of New Zealand or Australia and even then, only in men’s teams.

What a collection of inspiring individual tales they contributed to, that wove themselves together into a tough connecting cord that pulled our ladies through this electrifying competition despite deeply personal and painful team challenges.

They have shown the true grit and flair that Fijiana rugby can build a sterling reputation on.
We can certainly appreciate that pluck and adaptive style that demands consistent effort regardless of what is being thrown at you.

It is how Fijian tourism has been able to survive.

Those same tough, plucky and adaptable traits have now seen the hustle and bustle of tourism hotspots around the country return with the exciting reopening now almost 5 months behind us.

What should have been a slow but steady ramp-up to our peak season has turned into an explosion of demand for Fijian holidays and not just from our key markets of Australia, the US and almost late to the party New Zealand.

We’re the most preferred holiday destination for people looking for a holiday right now and until Fiji’s competitor destinations get their reopening frameworks right (and they will), increase their vaccination levels and simplify travel requirements (equally critical elements); it is easy to get distracted by the fact that the industry is far too busy dealing with all the usual but almost forgotten challenges of managing high demand for its services and products.

After the long awful lull, with thousands more people now working, activities fired up, rooms filled and people enjoying themselves on beaches; ensuring there are enough staff on duty, products on hand, services up to scratch and that power and water supplies are delivered as expected are the fundamental elements taking precedence right now.

We know we’re not the only ones at FHTA that is super excited about seeing so many more of our resorts and experience or activity providers back in the swing of things.

As the industry moves from slow to full steam ahead, other connected supply lines have also moved into their increasing activity levels, commencing with a higher frequency of flights into Fiji in response to demand and the ensuing transport and service activities at the international and domestic airports ramping up in tandem.

And while that means that our hospitality staff are back on full-time work and in far higher numbers; filling many, often surprising skill gaps is still an ongoing issue with the short-term solution for bringing in these skills from overseas a complicated and long-drawn-out process, while the benefits to tourism and Fiji for importing these skills lost in the rigid bureaucratic processes demanded of employers tasked with delivering high standards and services.

Travel requirements have moved into yet another phase, evolving as it continually does with post-pandemic adjustments for testing and tracing – not always understood or desirable, but adopted and complied with nonetheless.

Even as these restrictions are reviewed downwards, accommodation providers still form a larger part of the important border health protection management that is taken as seriously as it was before borders reopened.

Fiji’s Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MOHMS) reminds us that we must continue to be wary of potential medical disasters, so the industry continues collectively to support the compliance of the necessary travel requirements.

FHTA recently collaborated with MOHMS to assist mostly rural and island-based or remote tourism properties by training staff to conduct Rapid Antigen Tests for their guests and staff, recognizing that it is far more complicated for remote operators to welcome back their guests within the required travel safe protocols.

It is still our collective responsibility to keep our guests, staff and communities safe and we are still expected to be all working off the same playbook.

But ensuring all the moving parts of an extremely large, unwieldy and complicated tourism machine (scattered as they are over a hundred different islands) work smoothly and effectively has taken considerable effort and collaboration with the tourism and health ministries, Fiji Airways, Tourism Fiji and many others.

There is no doubt it is paying off, but clearly in response to a whole range of reasons from pent up demand and Fiji suddenly the “only show in town”, as well as the collaborative impact of public and private sector consultation on how best to re-emerge.

Figures released for forward bookings in the coming months are positive for the industry and extremely hopeful for the Fijian economy. We appear to be moving firmly back into place in this new-normal world.

In a few short weeks, Tourism Fiji will hold its annual Fiji Tourism Expo after a lapse of two years and this will provide the national tourism office with a marketing platform to remind the world of exactly what Destination Fiji has to offer, and how its competitive edge will play out on the world’s tourism stage as other more tourism savvy destinations awaken out of their COVID induced dazes.

Of course, it is also the perfect opportunity to showcase more of the country’s attractions and culture that do not usually get highlighted in the media or on your virtual newsfeeds but have seen a quiet but determined demand come through.

Wholesalers and all manner of travel-associated salespeople will descend on Nadi in a flurry of activity to soak up information and experience first-hand what Fiji has to offer, especially now after 2 years of reviewing products, refurbishing and rebuilding.

A vibrant tourism industry, once fully revived means more money circulating in the economy and that should reinvigorate spending and investments.

Despite many fully understanding the economic shortfalls without tourism its usually formidable influence on employment, supply lines and the large, multiplier effects throughout the country; the industry still cannot afford to be anything but pragmatic as it claws back lost ground.

This calls for resilience, flexibility and formidable adaptation instincts.

It is no coincidence that the iconic coconut tree, well known for these very traits, is the most used symbol on Fiji’s sporting emblems.

And is the recognized symbol for beaches, islands and tourism.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 28 April 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Leading The Way

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Leading The Way

FHTA, 21 April 2022 – The eagerly anticipated Easter long weekend came and went with thousands of Fijians joining international visitors on beaches and resorts right around the country.

The four-day weekend provides a less rushed opportunity to catch up with friends or relatives as well as celebrate the many religious milestones for Fiji’s multi-ethnic communities that coincidentally, take place in April.

Nearly every hotel or resort, whether small, medium or large, or whether high end, mid-priced or affordable – reported full bookings, with thousands more of our tourism staff putting their best efforts on display to welcome domestic and international visitors.

While domestic tourism might contribute a smaller portion of tourism’s potential earning power, it tends to take place more often and is equally welcomed.

For Fiji, this will be the first month that the majority of tourism properties have been opened and ready for higher guest numbers, coming some 4 months after officially reopening its borders to international travel.

Visitors from our core markets of Australia, the US and then more recently, New Zealand have taken advantage of the reopening to book travel options.

But international travel still comes with a confusing array of travel requirements depending on the country of origin and the country being visited, despite the waning Omicron levels.

For the US, surveys reveal still high confusion with travel requirements to the European Union with restrictions (pre and post-departure testing) continuing to ease from early April onwards due to pressure from the respective travel industry stakeholders.

Despite reducing Omicron levels, more than 100 countries, including some Caribbean islands as well as many European favourites, continue to have “Level 4” warnings.

For the Pacific, many of our regional neighbours are still hesitant to reopen, with many still grappling with the economic impacts of closed borders as they consider the unsustainability of “zero-COVID” strategies with the Omicron variant making its presence felt anyway.

A recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reveals that Fiji is currently ranked first in Asia’s “travel readiness index” for having the most favourable conditions for tourism recovery.

The travel readiness index ranked 28 Asian countries based on the importance of tourism in their economy, local vaccination coverage, ease of travel and the convenience of returning home.

A lower score is indicative of more favourable conditions.

Fiji has led the way with a score of 1.95, while Malaysia and Sri Lanka have been ranked second and third respectively.

But that surprising (and welcome) acknowledgement has not come without the tremendous efforts from the tourism industry and the Government agreeing that to get where we are now, needed massive collaboration which allowed us to navigate our way through a time best forgotten.

If there was any doubt about the importance of the Fijian brand when re-emerging after a 20-month international border closure, it has been replaced by a savvier understanding of how it has supported this tiny but resilient Pacific Island nation get its groove back.

And then some, if the April visitor numbers and reports of full resorts are anything to go by.

Such is the impact and marketability of a globally recognised destination brand that has stayed firmly fixed on maintaining safety as a key part of its attractiveness.

But we cannot rest on our laurels, as few as they may be. If Fiji wants to continue to remain top of all the regional holiday destinations (and it does), it must be prepared for the stiff competition that is coming once other destinations get their groove back.

Hawaii, Bali, Tahiti et al have roared back to life over the past few months but for now, we’re revelling a little in our position at the top as the most preferred destination.

Meanwhile, there is a strong estimation that even more visitors than were being expected will touch down in Nadi looking for a well-earned holiday over the next few months.

With the uncertainty of the pandemic, concern that forced people to stay at home has turned into hope with travel freedoms, through the development and delivery of vaccines across the world.

People are still more anxious than ever about their health, what they are touching, who they are around and more importantly, where they are going.

While hands are being washed more, staying at home may be more acceptable and general good health is being appreciated more; removing travel freedoms is tolerated only for so long and then suddenly, travel restrictions are seen as more than just inconveniences.

In response to the new travel demand, we’ve seen new, enhanced cleaning measures in airports, aircraft interiors, catering companies, land and sea transportation, hotels, sporting arenas, office buildings, supermarkets, bars and restaurants and while these were cost-prohibitive, time-consuming and extremely labour intensive, it has been our only logical way back.

Destination Fiji now has a little more funding to launch its full-scale marketing campaign to entice more visitors over and in preparation, Fiji must ensure that our products and services are polished and to expectations.

From the arrival concourse at the international airport to the reception areas in a hotel to the reading of specials in an intimate restaurant setting – it is all our responsibility to ensure we’re at the top of our game.

And that includes the service stations and little restaurants that locals and tourists will stop by over the next few months.

Refill that soap and sanitiser dispenser, clean those toilets and polish those surfaces – along with your welcome smiles, the world is watching and appreciating your efforts as well.

As soon as the remaining travel requirements for pre-arrival, pre-departure and post-arrival testing are removed; “normalcy” may be just around the corner.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 21 April 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Ready for the Long Weekend

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Ready for the Long Weekend

FHTA, 14 April 2022 – It has been a testing 24 months for the tourism industry in Fiji and no doubt around the world.

But things are always felt a little more poignantly in the Pacific, with our size, distance and smaller economies of scale affecting our ability to absorb and bounce back differently from far larger economies.

Looking back now, it often seemed our ability to recover kept getting hampered by one thing after another.

But we have managed to get our bearings back with Fiji’s tourism industry clawing its way back to be able to stay on par with the rest of the world in terms of getting back to normal.

Whatever “normal” now looks like.

Some would even dare to say that Fiji led, in that regard, at least in the region.

Now into our 5th-month post reopening, the national airline has moved on to increase flight frequencies based on demand, the national tourism office is strengthening its marketing efforts in our key markets and beyond, while tourism operators have brought a larger workforce back online, are adjusting to higher visitor numbers.

These visitor statistics will probably outdo even our more positive expectations, but of more interest to tourism, stakeholders are the data showing visitors are choosing to stay longer (and therefore see and do more), and that many of these visitors are first-time travellers to Fiji.

Both bits of information is exciting to us for a few reasons. Longer visitors’ stays mean more money is spent in the economy as people generally move around during their longer-term stays to try out different accommodation and restaurant options, see as many regions around Fiji and try out a range of activities from diving to adventure sports.

The tourism dollar is therefore stretched further and deeper into communities and a larger collection of businesses.

The impact of first-time travellers to Fiji is also exciting news because it provides some insight into how potential travellers are perceiving Fiji as a holiday destination post- COVID, and have chosen to come here for the first time, provides some understanding into whether our destination marketing efforts are paying off and whether the collective support to get Fiji into its safer reopening mode was worth all the considerable effort.

It appears both efforts are to be applauded.

Additionally, it speaks to Fiji’s timing of the reopening coming on the heels of the confirmation of a highly vaccinated population, with tourism stakeholders committing to safety practices that together created the confidence for first-time visitors to choose Fiji over their previously preferred destinations that may not have been as prepared.

At least not by the time they were ready to travel anyway.

We can then hope that the visitor experience while here will be so positive, that it will reinforce the change in their future holiday plans and that they join thousands of other lovers of Fiji that return year after year.

Every tourism operator in the chain of businesses those visitors come into contact with – from check-in to airline, airport arrivals, transport, hotels, restaurants, bars, shopping and activity or entertainment experiences – all contribute to the overall Fiji experience and value chain.

Such is the impact and marketability of our globally recognised Fiji destination brand – that we all contribute to in some way.

And it is not just visitors coming in as tourists to Fiji that are part of this wide circle of collective experiences.

Included in these visitor numbers are returning Fijians who are visiting family and friends while taking a break at a resort, as well as local citizens and work permit holders doing the same thing.

And what better time to do just that than during the upcoming long Easter weekend.

The Fijian weather has settled down to sunnier skies and cooler temperatures, which give way to deeper hued sunsets that are picture-perfect for sipping cocktails and endless postings of pictures.

And those picturesque holiday images will provide just the right tinge of envy on social media posts that will do even more to convince more visitors to come over.

Local travellers should be aware that international visitors have usually booked months in advance, with many taking up their holidays kept in “credit” by airlines, hotels and resorts because they could not travel during the border closures.

Early bookings are therefore necessary. Especially now.

Because of the constant need for accommodation providers to be always ready for sudden COVID outbreaks; they must keep a certain percentage of their rooms aside that will not be sold so that if isolation of positive cases is required, families can be separated as part of safety protocols.

There are other mitigating factors however that add to how we are managing safer environments and these include a continuation of some of the safety mechanisms that have been adopted as part of everyday operations (staff wearing masks, sanitising surfaces, the increased use of hand sanitisers, use of air purifiers in conference rooms, etc), and that is the very nature of what most Fijian holidays are about – beaches, open-air, sunshine and all things marine.

Mask wearing is optional and getting out in the fresh, open-air is the easiest way to have a safer holiday.

So depending on what you want out of a Fijian holiday, and whether you have already booked you and your family somewhere exciting; here’s hoping the Easter holidays provide you with your idea of a perfect holiday.

Being where the sunset can be seen with a cocktail in your hand is the next best thing.

A happy and peaceful Easter to you all.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 14 April 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Protecting Those Green Shoots

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Protecting Those Green Shoots

FHTA, 7 April 2022 – Traditionally the beginning of April usually signals the end of tourism’s quiet period as the industry gears up for the start of the annual busy period or ‘peak season.’

Coinciding with the end of the first three months of a new year (and failed resolutions), the catching up with repayments of maxed-out credit cards over the sillier season, then the first lot of school holidays and a long Easter weekend; the picking up of travel activity in 2022 for Fiji is also when many more resorts are now ready to throw open their doors and welcome visitors back to a refreshed and renewed list of tropical holiday escapes.

For domestic travellers, returning residents as well as international visitors.

The weather starts to move away from the hot, wet, stickier months to drier, longer spells of sunnier days with temperatures easing off to lower 30 or the mid to higher 20 degrees. And with any luck will continue to reduce to more comfortable levels.

There is a slowly reducing nervousness about cyclonic weather, and a general increase in activity for hire, supplies, and all manner of fun being planned that can be had with combinations of sun, sand and water.

And then there is entertainment and event planning activity also planned that can start from sunset to sunrise to suit every budget and deliver the most unforgettable holiday.

By this time, every mechanical engine, electrical equipment or compressor has been temperature and humidity tested, fixed or replaced and anything that might have threatened to or fallen apart has probably picked any one of the past 3 hottest, wettest and most humid and most stressful months to have done so.

So right now, the industry is looking its shiniest best with the huge effort of reopening now behind them, repairs and refurbishing completed and COVID restrictions and requirements easing off, and 4 months of consistent staff training and upskilling ready to pay off.

And as with Climate Change directly affecting our weather patterns and seasons, so too has COVID caused a slight, but noticeable shift in our traditional peak and off-peak seasons.

No doubt caused by pent up demand from source markets that initially had fewer holiday options to choose from and even fewer appear to have COVID under wraps with a fiercer focus on “getting on with business”; the low season was higher than expected and the high season looks to have started a little earlier.

Time will tell if we have got the measure of this shift and whether this will be simply a border reopening adjustment or here to stay for the longer term.

But if there’s one thing that you can say about Fiji’s tourism industry, it is that it never stays surprised at anything for long, because years of resilience teach you to adapt quickly and take it all in stride.

Every good, bad and ‘what the?’ moment appears to have been dealt with in the last 2 years and counting.

It is in this current frame, therefore, that we recently met with the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji (RBF) and his team to provide some feedback and hear his reflection on where we were with a quick snapshot of where it looks like we’re heading.

Economic green shoots are evident in the country right now, with Fiji on track to recovery with the worst of the pandemic behind us.

A highly vaccinated population, easing of COVID restrictions, no (expected) devaluation, borders reopening and tourism kickstarting amongst other activities, have all contributed to a pickup in consumption and retail activity.

The pandemic wiped out around nine years of growth, but the experts are optimistic about Fiji’s growth and this was echoed by economists adding their voices to the post-budget contributions.

The RBF says we’re in a time of Fiscal Trilemma in which policymakers are struggling to balance national spending, debt levels and equitable taxes.

Not at all difficult to grasp how challenging this must be to achieve balance in the current environment and make the population at large happy that the increasing cost of living is being addressed while assuring the taxpayers and the many industry stakeholders that their businesses will be able to thrive and grow.

For tourism, there is a collective appreciation for the suite of incentives that was required to get the industry reopening ready, that included the reduced departure tax, removal of Service Turnover Tax (STT) & Environment & Climate Adaptation Levy (ECAL), Short Life Investment Package (SLIP) extensions and wider scope, the waiver of departure tax on 72-hour stays & the removal of Family Care Leave & Paternity Leave amongst others.

So the change to 15% VAT from 9% if you were a smaller operator (and therefore not paying the STT & ECAL with a turnover of below $3m) or a larger operator moving from 14% (9% VAT + 5% ECAL) to 15% VAT, with only a few days to decide whether you were going to charge your customers (and upset years of wholesaler and supplier confidence) or wear the difference (coming off 2 years of little to no revenue) was still a jarring impact whilst being reminded to take into consideration those incentives mentioned, with the wider impact of a realigned VAT change to 15%.

Any changes, we have said often enough, are always easier to assimilate into business practice if given sufficient time to work through, adapt to and incorporate into complex supplier contracts and delivery systems.

Especially as these support critical supplier networks that Fiji relies on to on-sell our products and services to overseas, who are governed by their consumer laws.

We hope they persevere with us because coming on the heels of this sudden tax change is another change to how our visitors book their 2nd day Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) before departing for Fiji.

With the removal of the 3-night mandatory stay in a hotel that has been widely welcomed, effective from the 7th of April, all visitors will be required to book and pay for their tests online and show confirmations of these along with their vaccination status, their pre-departure COVID test results and their travel insurance when checking in for their flights to Fiji.

As global travel moves back into its faster-paced practice and travel restrictions reduce, the pre-departure requirements and the post-arrival requirements around testing need to be reviewed in line with global practice and health advice moving in tandem.

We understand Fiji’s need to be early in the detection of new variants, and our continuing need to keep testing everyone – before they arrive after they’ve arrived and again before they leave. So what is our plan if we do detect said variants?

Having seen the green shoots of economic recovery the RBF discusses; will we consider shutting down again with the confirmation of new variants that have been advised as the reason for the constant testing of Fiji’s inbound travellers?

Or will we reimpose previous travel restrictions swiftly?

What is certain is that we should be prepared for how we are to react as an industry, and as a country or all, these often onerous requirements are moot.

With all the effort that is being put in to get those green shoots going, we should be working on how we keep those emerging shoots alive and growing and quickly recognise and pull out the unnecessary weeds that threaten them.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 7 April 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing Big & Small Steps

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing Big & Small Steps

FHTA, 31 March 2022 – The revision to 2021/2022 National Budget announced by Government last week delivered a mixed bag of welcomed and much-awaited policy changes as well as some areas that resulted in some perplexed reactions of ‘but what does it really mean’ discussions across a range of industries.

Having discussed the industry’s challenges widely, both pre and post reopening of borders, we were clear that without support in specific areas, tourism could not get off its knees and back into a thriving business environment, complete with the requisite compliances and licenses in place.

The sector has needed continued support to enable a more inclusive recovery, having come off a hiatus of 20 plus months that, despite reopening of borders, was hampered by initially onerous travel restrictions, the need to access and retrain thousands of staff and often completely overhaul business operations.

As any marketing expert will tell you, it is a massively daunting task to go from being closed for business for almost two years then jump straight into the competition for customers, staff and even the access of quality tradespeople to get your business competition ready.

Much of that support had been acknowledged and provided for in the 2020 and 2021 budgets, but needed borders to be reopened and visitor travel actively in place for said support mechanisms to be utilised in the manner they were designed for.

The confirmation therefore that these support measures would be continued through fiscal, import, rebuilding and tax initiatives, will undoubtedly give tourism a better opportunity to get back into business faster and subsequently provide the economic impetus it usually does for the economy, especially through its massive tax contributions.

Ensuring that these were still in place also provides a measure of confidence that businesses can continue with plans to reopen with refurbished and upgraded infrastructure that in turn promotes enhanced standards and competitive marketing for their brands.

We also acknowledge the positive response to the wider population’s pleas to address the cost of food, fuel, medical services and the minimum wage, especially now during a perfect storm of global, geopolitical and post-pandemic conditions that is expected to continue to push up the prices of fuel, food and general goods.

Fiji continues to increase its appeal as a preferred travel destination following the revision of travel restrictions like optional mask-wearing; the freedom of travel based on a proven vaccinated status; removal of the 3-night mandatory hotel stays on arrival and the general ongoing simplification of travel which will no doubt continue this positive impact through increased visitor bookings.

We continue to hope that there is a trigger point at which a call will be made to completely remove the need for either the pre-arrival COVID test or the need for the post-arrival test.

We even dare to hope that we see the removal of both these requirements eventually as countries around the world have taken steps to usher in these wider travel freedoms.

And while Fiji has had a head start on other regional tourism hotspots, we now have to market ourselves more aggressively and innovatively so we can stand out from the fast-growing numbers of countries getting their reopening on track. The increased budget allocation to the national tourism marketing body therefore will bolster this focus.

Other welcomed initiatives include the tax deduction for maternity leave, the removal of VAT on 21 items, the removal of the current fuel tax, and the removal of ECAL that is expected to benefit many lower-income households.

At the same time many employers while quietly appreciating the suspension of family care and paternity leave this time around, acknowledge that a suspension could potentially mean this might be a short-term change only.

As we try to gauge the impact of some items in the budget that pending the clarity and explanation the eventual release of regulations and Acts we expect will address these; the conundrum on how to decipher these remains for now.

These include the real impact on smaller businesses with the national minimum wage increases, that despite being widely expected and as positive as this increase was received, will have varying effects on different industries having recently emerged from COVID and economic crises, that may be far too early to determine as yet while still in the fledgling stages of recovery.

A change to simplify the tax system was needed and demanded even; but will the increased VAT have the expected impact across the wide range of business categories in a small, developing Pacific Island economy that is predominantly SME based?

This is also being discussed across Fiji with varying levels of concern depending on whether you were below the ECAL threshold of $3m and having to pay 15% instead of 9% VAT, or if you have supplier contracts that are affected and must now consider whether you could adjust, absorb or incorporate the changes without impacting supplier and consumer market relationships.

As with all budgets, FHTA will work closely with FRCS to understand the implications, review the relevant regulations and support the wide dissemination and clarity provided on these to its members.

And there are many more positive things to focus on for now, especially with the rolling back of travel restrictions from early April.

Providing travellers with a choice of booking options to confirm a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) before travelling to Fiji (via a booking platform), with an approved pharmacy, testing lab or directly with their hotel will, with the relevant support mechanisms in place, enable simpler pre-flight processing for travellers.

Rapid Antigen testing is still required 48 hours post-arrival into Fiji and coupled with the 24-hour negative, pre-arrival test, forms the Ministry of Health’s national border protection oversight for all visitors coming into Fiji that gets reported in with regimented discipline by the tourism operators.

Added to this daily data collection, are the reports on tourism staff testing that requires that all staff still get tested at least once a month.

Tourism staff continue to be encouraged to wear masks and observe the hygiene protocols that allowed Fiji to reopen when it did, even while we now allow our guests freer movement and the choice on whether to mask up or not.

The focus on safety, the diligent work applied across the industry to support emerging quickly out of the pandemic and the complicated syncing of changing protocols across the many sectors is paying dividends now, as bookings increase with a consistency that has surpassed initially cautiously optimistic expectations.

The hard work does not stop here with the pain of the pandemic experience still raw, and the road ahead still fraught with many real and possibly worse threats imaginable.

Because the industry must stay wary and alert operationally while being warmly welcoming and showing Fiji’s Bula Spirit to all its visitors.

Fiji is a small island nation forging ahead with often lofty goals and obstinate vision for its people, economy and future.

But perhaps it is our small size that gives us the nimbleness and flexibility to pick ourselves up again when we stumble, and to continue to work together to cope with the challenges and forge ahead regardless.

With a little help from our friends and neighbours of course.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 31 March 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Inclusive Budget Hopes

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Inclusive Budget Hopes

FHTA, 24 March 2022 – There’s a buzz of excitement and anticipation for the Government’s mini-budget to be announced this evening.

Every industry including tourism is looking forward to seeing how the increasing cost of business will be addressed and what measures will support the ease of doing business as the Fijian economy feels the increasing impact of supply chain challenges that
have been aggravated by the ripples of a faraway war.

In the mini-budget submission that the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) put forward after consultation with the Ministry of Economy in February, we shared tourism’s challenges and recommendations.

The submission addressed three key areas for consideration that recognizes that tourism can continue to be Fiji’s key economic driver despite coming out of a hiatus that lasted almost two years.

And even while many SMEs that form a large part of the industry remain crippled by depleted cash flows and onerous new requirements to fulfil COVID Safety compliance.

These key areas noted short- and long-term initiatives that would support resilience, ensure an inclusive recovery and recognize the importance of practising sustainable tourism.

To support resilience and the ability to effectively bounce back quickly from the pandemic induced pain, the industry needs to be able to fully utilize prior budget incentives and capitalize on reduced operational costs that continue to be forced upwards by global economic impacts.

This supports getting staffing back as close as possible to original numbers with staff training a necessary part of new hires, skills enhancement and COVID compliance.

And any efforts to reduce operational costs ensures a business moving from closed to fully reopened and ready to compete for visitor numbers can focus on more productivity and efficiency if it is not decelerated by efforts to work its way through new tax systems or reproducing paperwork across regulatory agencies for compliance approvals.

One such measure we are hoping for is the continued review of the VAT Monitoring System (VMS/EFD) until applicable tourism taxes can be practically accounted for alongside VAT, which must consider challenges this imposes on the packaging and third-party transactions that are almost specifically tourism-related.

We continue to request the synergizing of regulatory agencies that are working hard to digitize their processes so that systems work to collectively reduce paperwork & improve productivity & efficiency.

In essence; to make it simpler and cost-effective to get on with your business.
Inclusive recovery recognizes that the tourism industry is made up of many different segments from which a host of supply chains run off.

The industry is not simply about the different sized hotels or resorts but encompasses the far more complicated network of services and products that makes Fiji a destination that can be considered a small, but fiercely competitive force alongside Hawaii, Tahiti, Bali and other, far better-resourced tourism destinations.

This network of products and services includes a phenomenal number, and a diverse range of experiences, activities and entertainment options that in turn reinforce the ability of tourism to reach deep into our furthest communities, employ vast numbers of the informal sector and is the support structure for thousands of SME’s.

We are acutely aware that many of these small businesses have yet to return or are still unable to reopen and that means that Fiji’s product offering is still woefully inadequate unless we find a way to bring them back.

If you cannot think of who these SMEs are; consider the sports fishing, village tours, river safaris, musicians, artisans, hiking and trekking explorations, quad biking, diving, kite surfing, water sports, backpackers, meke and dance groups, event organisers, florists, guides and many others in food-related areas like farmers and fishermen.

Our proposed measures address the need to ensure that tourism’s inclusivity is maintained and that it better support the recovery of many more SMEs or we risk our competitive edge to other destinations.

We are also very passionate about promoting sustainable tourism especially given the breathing space that the global lockdown afforded the environment.

Tourism fully supports Fiji’s focus on climate change on a broader scale, embracing sustainable practices, ensuring the long-term viability of the industry and providing us with another important opportunity to be able to showcase this to the world by living the example.

We have a significant opportunity to build back better and greener.

We should be recognizing and addressing the need for longer-term plans for formal waste management collection and recycling throughout Fiji and not just in urban areas.

Could we escalate plans to increase the supply for higher demand commodities like water, sewage treatment, waste management and power supplies for urban & rural areas, than is currently being supplied?

Over half of our tourism properties and businesses have been in operation since December 1, 2021, border reopening and we are hopeful that even more of these operators and supply chains will open their doors by the midway point of 2022.

As the largest economic driver in Fiji, it can, with target support, get back up again quickly.

With over 150,000 lives directly or indirectly affected by the industry, it can provide a lifeline to many families.

Tourism contributed $3b in taxes and foreign exchange earnings in 2019 and the industry while fully aware of the impact of the pandemic on our economy, understands that it can make huge inroads to reducing this impact and being the impetus towards positive economic growth.

The experts say that the economy is not expected to rebound to pre-COVID levels for at least three years.

While FHTA and the industry might be a little more optimistic about rebound levels, we acknowledge that several key milestones must be achieved beforehand.

We also believe that more business supportive policies introduced or maintained, can enable a faster industry and therefore economic turnaround.

And we have acknowledged this is not possible without Government and targeted policy support.

More and more visitors continue to flock through the arrivals at Nadi International Airport and we are quietly optimistic that this will continue if we get our entire industry back up again and not just a few areas.

But what is the growth we expect if we’re not aiming to better ourselves from the last time we had a full calendar year of fruitful economic activity?

We need all parts of the industry given equal opportunity to bounce back because we know the impact can and should be more inclusive.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 24 March 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Travel

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Travel

FHTA, 17 March 2022 – The last two years have been an example of living through consistently shifting priorities and management of our private and social lives, how we do business, interact with each other, other communities and countries, and prioritise health and travel protocols.

The constant changes and shifting levels of urgency have dictated whether we can move, where we move and how we move.

The reason has been the only simple thing about the constantly evolving rules around movement in the pre and post-pandemic world. And that reason was that movement spread the pandemic further.

So, when movement was forced to stop, we managed to slow and then counter the pandemic while the science caught up with better applications of how we could make COVID something we could live safely enough with, seeing as we still have not quite worked out how to completely eradicate it.

And because tourism is all about the movement of people from one place to another; it is the industry that most feels the impact of travel limitations and is therefore caught up globally in how the pandemic starts, spreads and evolves.

As country after country now rolls back their travel restrictions, lifts mandates and cancels masking or testing requirements; it is clear that if a country has been open to travel for some time having vaccinated the majority of their population beforehand, that the reducing hospitalisations and infection rates are giving way to more travel freedoms.

Travel freedoms have been increasingly demanded because tourism and people movements have enormous multiplier effects that have never before been so acutely felt by economies around the world.

As indicated earlier, Fiji also continues to amend its travel rules and the previously announced restriction rollbacks will be joined by further changes over the next week or so that we have no doubt will further simply travel to Fiji.

We will move from the 3-day hotel stay requirement that automatically includes a rapid antigen test is taken on the second day, to the option to book a hotel for your holiday (and get the test automatically on the second day), or stay with friends or return to your family home by showing a confirmed booking for a test at the nearest approved medical professional (doctor, pharmacy or lab).

The mandatory initial hotel stay for all visitors was mandated to ensure that all positive tests were appropriately facilitated while the traveller was still locatable and made the hotels responsible for reporting test results while keeping tabs on visitor movement.

Four months post reopening, we are still reviewing how we can simplify travel rules, make it easier to come through borders whilst staying alert to possible outbreaks and use what we have learnt since December to improve processing, shorten queues and make travel fun again.

The difficulty has been to remove the fear that is now ever-present with travel while trying to provide and maintain confidence in safety.

The unending demands to confirm one’s vaccination status and prove you’re not carrying illness while being consistently sanitised and temperature checked is starting to grate on traveller’s nerves.

Especially if they have been through a number of these checks before and were confirmed as being cleared.

If you’re a Fijian passport holder travelling with a bit of paper confirming your vaccination status (that might be in your maiden name), you should be prepared for quizzical looks and furrowed brows on the faces of overseas immigration and border control officers where QR codes usually confirm vaccination status on scannable phone apps.

If you travel around Europe where all travel documents are scanned, the unfolding and presentation of that paper hold up fast-moving queues and processing lines (and makes you unpopular with fellow travellers).

But this too shall pass once Fiji gets its own electronic version of a vaccination pass.

Accessing travel insurance now has also taken a downward turn. There are now fewer quality options and even fewer that will include coverage from COVID related loss, incurred costs and travel plan changes.

Concerningly, options reduce even further if you are from a Pacific Island Country.

Fiji’s latest figures from our medical services people indicate that our vaccination rate for adults over 18 years is currently at 99.9 percent.

That is good news but this information is no longer as important to travellers who simply want the freedom to be able to travel again and to do so with as much flexibility, speed and a degree of safety that includes support for those “what if” occasions.

We have made Fiji safer for our population, our communities and our visitors, but we will need to continue to work on making travel as smooth and as simple as we can, with the element of safety becoming second nature with all we offer.

It will become an expectation and move away from explainable delays due to the need be cross-checking several documents and processes at every border checkpoint.

As we move through a humid and thunderstorm filled March and slowly out of tourism’s traditionally low season, we note the increasing and welcome visitor numbers from New Zealand, as well as the increasing number of local conferences and face to face training sessions that are being scheduled throughout the month and all over Fiji.

Training for tourism staff has continued in earnest since the reopening as more staff are needed to fill positions and more businesses prepare to reopen.

The next batch of resort reopenings is scheduled for April 1, all the way through to early June, if they haven’t already scheduled their reopening by the end of this month.

This will enhance our Destination Fiji product and services even further, and we hope that amongst these businesses are the wide variety of SMEs that provide entertainment, activities and experiences. All so important for a really exciting and fun-filled holiday.

These businesses in turn not only ensure that we provide more tourism attractions but also impact our local community interaction, tend to hire more informal workers and are critical conduits for tourism’s multiplier effect into our more remote areas.

So as travel starts to move from its complicated set of requirements that initially limited travel to specific areas, we are acutely aware of things snapping back into place in response to demand for easier movement, while noting that we can still see some gaps existing where our products and services have yet to return.

We might be demanding a move to more “normal” operations, but we are being reminded that we have to remain alert for new variants, not let our guard down and practice COVID safety.

But many of these reminders and requirements we are practising are the very reason some of our SMEs have not been able to make it back since closing.

Simplifying travel, therefore, must include ensuring we have considered those businesses that have not been able to get sufficient support to be considered “safe”, or who can replicate the standards deemed sufficient for their inclusion.
Inclusivity must include being aware of how difficult it might be to access the support to get your business COVID or regulatory compliant after being closed for nearly two years.

Just as simplifying travel must consider just how much we continue to worry about new outbreaks or emerging variants and refocus on all the other important areas we let slide while we were so COVID distracted.
Because they are all still there and COVID is no longer the same.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 17 March 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Towards Constant Improvement

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Towards Constant Improvement

FHTA, 10 March 2022 – Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn, and you will.

Wise words indeed from the “Lion of London”, Winston Churchill.

It is often hard enough to stay motivated about the need to continue to improve ourselves, never mind keeping up with our continual learnings for work-related skills, whether in a classroom or in life.

Learning is an essential element of our existence. Just like food sustains our bodies, information and continued learning nourish our minds, build a wider collection of skill sets and build stronger confidence for more successful businesses that are better prepared for innovation, competition and problem-solving.

This is true for the tourism industry in Fiji and around the globe as we continually look to make our destination safer, compete with tourism destinations with far more marketing spends and ensure we are better prepared to overcome the expected challenges that come with a destination and industry like ours.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) commenced its annual training program earlier this month, having actively listened to member challenges over the last 2 years that covered managing COVID safety, guest isolations and testing protocols, along with dealing with staff during business closures and the HR issues around letting staff go and bringing them back.

We have participated in discussions to get SME businesses back online, supported efforts to access concessional loans and consulted widely to get all segments of the industry regulatory compliant when it was difficult to do so while cashflows were low or depleted.

This, therefore, requires a range of flexible and often redesigned, targeted training programs that consider the industry’s geographic spread, varied sizes and segments and more critically, its extensive groupings of workers.

Training kicked off with the first of many more planned weather map awareness sessions that were conducted by the Fiji Meteorological Service (FMS).

This allowed tourism stakeholders to learn the intricacies of weather forecasting and to support weather map interpretation; not just to maximise customer, staff and business safety, but to also enhance business planning for sales and marketing and enable decision making that could potentially save money.

This has proven to be a success and is scheduled to be a monthly affair for members to get better at utilizing the FMS suite of products and services that are often not taken advantage of because few understand their critical importance.

Tourism is an industry that likes to be prepared, especially on anything weather-related. After all, some key reasons that Fiji is a preferred tourism destination are its wonderful weather and location.

Earlier this week FHTA rolled out its subsequent programs – a two-day COVID Safe Training for staff of tourism businesses, in collaboration with the Australia Pacific Training Coalition (APTC) and with the generous support of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

And completing the tailored training for the medical aspects was the team from the Ministry of Medical & Health Services (MOHMS) and staff from the Fiji Centre for Communicable Disease Control (CDC) that was led by the very capable Dr Aalisha Sahu Khan.

The MOHMS team provided the hands-on training for in-house COVID testing, compliance and reporting, with updates also included for the online Tamanu e-reporting database used by them.

The database access is being expanded to include private labs, pharmacies that will also be providing Rapid Antigen Tests and hotels for test reporting.
The current minimum 3-night pre-booked hotel stays required for all visitors entering Fiji is being phased out, with pharmacies around Fiji being included as approved Rapid Antigen Testing sites.

Visitors will soon only be required to show a confirmed booking for a hotel, or a confirmed and pre-paid booking for a Rapid Antigen Test at one of the approved locations to be done 48 hours after their arrival.

The industry training dovetails with this rollout that ensures MOHMS and CDC are aware of where the tests and result reporting is being done and ensures that these are carried out by staff who have been had medical supervision with the training, as well as complying with the testing protocols that are subject to inspection.

ILO Director for the Pacific Island Countries, Mr Matin Karimli opened the training and very succinctly noted that our collective efforts to provide safer environments not only support keeping our borders open but also create more decent job opportunities across the industry’s widely linked value chains, and in turn impact economic recovery and the growth Fiji needs right now.

These efforts reinforce our commitment to identify, develop and deliver the supportive mechanisms required to enable businesses to reopen, remain open and hopefully continue to grow as they might have without the forced interruption of the pandemic.

Tourism properties in the central division turned out in numbers to access the 2-day training session that now equips them with the confidence and toolkits to train other staff members in their individual businesses.

The second day was led by APTC who delved into Micro-Credential courses specifically tailored to the tourism sector.

These covered new protocols for ‘COVID Safe Dining In’ as well as ‘Dealing with Difficult Customers’ and created an opportunity to discuss the current challenges of integrating COVID safe compliance with customer service delivery and customer expectations.

It might not be widely appreciated that focusing on COVID compliance can often distract our service providers from offering their usual Fiji-friendly customer expectations and that losing front line staff to COVID illness and/or greener (and less stressful) pastures has often meant newer and less skilled staff have had to fill gaps.

By recognising and then addressing these challenges, we hope COVID compliance becomes second nature to the industry and that our usual Bula Spirit shines through to ensure Fiji can continue to maintain its competitive edge.

Small things perhaps, but we have no doubt they will make a steady but effective difference because all things start and stop with Our People in this industry.

This training will be conducted in the Western Division later in the week and if sufficient demand warrants, in the Northern Division too.

There are more training opportunities lined up for the calendar year as we ramp up efforts to make COVID compliance second nature and ensure that as the industry becomes part of a very critical layer in MOHMS’ border control efforts, we play our part to ensure consistent applications of these necessary protocols supports their data collation and any new variant identification and subsequently more rapid containment.

This is a collective commitment to ensure safety remains paramount and that we never have to close our borders again.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 10 March 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing the Scales for our Women

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing the Scales for our Women

FHTA, 3 March 2022 – Imagine a gender-equal world. A world that is free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination where gender equality is simply the platform from which equality in all areas is practised as part of a natural order.

Collectively we can all “Break The Bias.”

That is the campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2022 which will be commemorated on March 8.

It calls for the world to work together to shape a more equal future and recovery from the pandemic and highlight the gaps that remain so we can work on these more effectively.

In the global tourism sector, there has always been an acknowledgement of the immense contribution of women to the industry.

Were you aware that in most regions of the world pre-COVID, women made up the majority of the tourism workforces, but tended to be more concentrated in the lower-paid and informal jobs in tourism?

The 2018 Global Report on Women in Tourism commissioned by the World Tourism Organisation states that 95% of the people employed in tourism around the world were women, yet they were usually relegated to lower-level positions and earned comparatively less than men.

So acknowledgement yes, but not quite the recognition that women hope for.

As we continue to develop policies to enhance our economic development, we must enhance our efforts to empower women to participate fully in economic life on all levels, whether it is in Government, in commerce, education, sports, finance or law.

And not just in hospitality, medical or social services where women are expected to have higher numbers by default.

This is critical in building robust economies; achieving sustainable development goals for economic development, sustainability, and human rights; and improving the quality of life for women, and consequently, that of the 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.

By the same rule, countries with more women in Government and civic leadership roles have better-performing economies, education, policies and believe it or not – less crime.

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.

Bar the nasty bump on the road that the pandemic caused us, this challenge must continue to be reviewed

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, or available for rostered work, working long hours and managing and working with teams that must deliver consistently great service.

After all, your business is always about making your customers happy.

Or you risk losing your competitive edge and eventually your customers.

Add to this are 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 being 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.

Long hours at work and away from family and friends requires a passion for your work that can continue to light the fire in your belly.

And women that want or have children find it difficult to juggle motherhood and a demanding career that requires physical and mental aptitudes and attitudes that never falter.

That is not to say there aren’t already some formidable examples of female leadership in this space.

It’s only that there are simply not as many as there could and most definitely should be.

This is largely due to many women choosing employment that allows them to continue to be closer to, or more closely support their families.

So choices are already more difficult for women and the pandemic added another layer of uncertainty that forced many industry workers to review where they worked and even the industry they were working in.

While it isn’t just tourism that is lagging in its gender balance in management roles, tourism can be the leader in changing this.

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.
Yet, the instances are too far in between to be considered a revolution.
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.

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, tackling sexual harassment and encouraging the 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 just coming out of a holding pattern currently, these issues are already in play and being seriously addressed at several different levels.

The biggest recognition and acknowledgement for Fiji and the reason tourism could get back on its feet – are for the many women who aided in raising the vaccination levels of our population.

These brave and hardworking ladies from the Ministry of Health & Medical Services led the way in safely administering Fiji with vaccines that provided an important layer of safety against the virus.

These women worked long hours away from home, managing anxious and often difficult crowds.

Tourism staff may not have much in common with health workers except for the high number of women employed in both sectors, but they became kindred spirits who can match any need to keep going until the job is done.

Persevering, supporting and ready to make any changes so, onwards and upwards, let’s have all women working towards personal, organizational and national goals.

We see you and we acknowledge you.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 3 March 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Our Top Markets are Open!

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Credit: BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

FHTA, 24 February 2022 – It is no secret that Fiji has taken a ‘Living with COVID’ approach to its many restrictions now following the high vaccination rate, successful border reopening and where the last virus variant has moved to.

We have been through some dark times over the past two years but we’ve managed to get our heads above water for now, but not without some experiences with reopening that have taught us some hard lessons.

Following hot on the heels of New Zealand’s reopening plans is their neighbour’s announcement from over the Tasman Sea, Australia.

This was more welcome news to Fiji’s tourism industry as it means that our Aussie mates choosing to holiday here face softened restrictions on their return home.

And that means that more of our top key tourism markets are now open with reduced restrictions!

From Monday this week, Australia’s borders reopened to all appropriately vaccinated visa holders ending over two years of border closures around the world.

We were as excited for their reopening as we were with our own reopening because we can relate to that elation and relief.

They are following New Zealand’s lead of allowing 7-day home isolation for returning citizens and permit holders.

Why is this good news to Fiji?

The number one outbound destination for Australians in December was Fiji and we welcomed them all with open arms. Well, once they cleared all the necessary safety requirements and testing.

With 15% of all outbound travel from Australia, Fiji was placed in front of the US and UK and it is truly reassuring to see Fiji’s progress in restarting tourism.

Our December reopening marketing worked wonders as many travellers sought to escape their restrictive lives at home to come over and soak up paradise on our shores.

This is a direct result of the many minds coming together to make the dream a reality.

The dream is to return Fiji to its envied position as one of the top destinations in the region and not only do we believe this is doable, we are planning on making this inevitable.

The Fiji Bureau of Statistics has released its January visitor arrival figures that are understandably low as we head into our off-peak season.

18,405 visitors arrived at Nadi International Airport in January and while this is lower than the booking figures we received at the time, was impacted by increasing Omicron infections in Australia and Fiji (the 48-hour pre-departure testing adding more positive cases too), and the adverse weather conditions that beset the Fiji group around that time.

The forming of Tropical Cyclone Cody affected Fiji at the same time our third COVID wave of the Omicron was sweeping through the islands, further testing our ability to manage one crisis after another.

But to put things into perspective, Australians eventually made-up 86 percent of our total visitors in January.

This is why we focus so much on marketing Destination Fiji to our Vuvale partners from whence the bulk of our visitors come as both returning or new tourists and our Fijian families coming back to reconnect with loved ones.

While it is still way too early to begin comparing our arrival figures to pre-COVID times, the data guides our rebuilding strategies as we study new and emerging travel patterns, discern opportunities for market segments that might need more convincing or work out why other groups are choosing not to travel yet.

Our Peak Season usually starts around early April and many businesses are preparing themselves before the busy period kicks off.

More staff will be required and this means training new people if businesses have been unable to bring more experienced staff back to work post-COVID.

Additionally, many businesses that delayed opening in December are now set to join the fiesta, come the Peak period.

That means more accommodation options and increased room inventory, more experiences and more smiles to show off to the world.

Those businesses that remain closed have needed more time (and money) to get back into operation, or could not sustain the reopening numbers dropping to extreme lows, so opted to wait out the initial rush to open so they could continue prepping themselves and working on having their products and services at optimum levels.

But it is clear that every tourism stakeholder and their thousands of direct and indirect supply chains are eager to get back on board.

This includes the transport companies ferrying visitors to and from airports, hotels and activities, as well as those connecting our maritime islands to resorts and ports.

It may not be appreciated just how many other businesses connected to tourism are also watching the markets around us get their acts together in terms of travel and reopening so that they in turn can adjust their budgets and expectations for this year and the next.

Suppliers of food and beverage suppliers (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), fresh produce, furnishings, cleaning equipment, sports equipment, pool and garden supplies, art and entertainment, IT, telecom and digital equipment, fuel, uniforms and safety equipment.

As an association, working to ensure our members are fully appraised of what is happening that affects and impacts their businesses, FHTA must continue to work closely with industry stakeholders and the various arms of Government to ensure that we get our information correct and get the concerns of our members across as well.

And as Government relaxes some restrictions and tightens others in accordance with the evolving science and increasing vaccination levels, our tourism protocols also continue to be adapted to ensure compliance all around.

Just as we continue to reinforce the need for compliance and adherence to the regulatory requirements and safety practices to our members, so too do we keep an eye on economic conditions, climatic changes and the movements in global travel protocols.

All of these and more impact the industry in some way or another, so there is a constant need to be aware, to communicate widely and continue to learn to adapt so we can collectively succeed in all we do.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 24 February 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Supporting the Ease of Doing Business

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Supporting the Ease of Doing Business

FHTA, 17 February 2022 – A key part of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) focus has been pushing for more pragmatic solutions to assist the ease of doing business specifically for our tourism operators.

We have ongoing discussions with our members and listen intently to understand the challenges that impact their productivity, resources and operational costs, which in turn might hinder their sustainability, viability and development.

We then research the subject areas more intently, gather relevant data, collate these and meet with many of the regulatory bodies, Government ministries and agencies, to work on either practical solutions or a better understanding of underlying issues that might require creating more awareness of newly implemented changes, or simply sharing information that supports businesses to be more compliant.

Some of these might be presented via submissions to these bodies and if critical to the industry, will usually get included in our annual submission to the National Budget Committee.

When COVID threw us a curveball that was as slippery as it was hard to evade; we went to work with even more resolve that to get back to where we needed to restart from, we were going to have to work harder at understanding, then embracing and eventually adopting the many new ways of doing business first, before we would be able to get a grasp of what the new PC (post-COVID) world was going to look like.

Does that mean that during those 20 months of not being able to engage with the businesses that the industry is all about, we simply left the usual focus of ensuring businesses could revive, survive and then thrive?

Absolutely not!

Many issues remained either steadfastly in focus or simmered away on a back burner that we ensured the fire did not go out completely on.

If you have ever been called, or emailed late at night, just before your license was being reviewed by the liquor tribunal, you might understand the need to clear a whole day’s work to front up for the hearing with a usually large group of other licensees.

And you would know all about waiting for hours for your name to be called, while hanging on to your heavy briefcase full of documents, so your property could have its license renewed.

If you had to close your hotel because you could not get guests, and had just paid for your liquor license, there was no way to get a refund or request that it be held in credit. And if you were closed for another year and therefore did not renew your license, you could not get your license renewed the following year.

Similar circumstances took place with getting your hotel license renewed, so updating the legislation that covered these areas not only made sense, they moved them into a more current working environment.

It is not fully appreciated that Fiji’s tourism industry landscape is made up of 80% of small & medium-sized businesses (SMEs) and that only 20% is made up of large operators.

As a multi-faceted industry, tourism in the Pacific specifically and certainly in Fiji is a collective of thousands of small to medium businesses relying on one another to survive.

From suppliers of products and services that include food and beverages, all the elements of transport, experiences and activities that include entertainment, to the actual provision of accommodation and all the aspects that are required for a guest to enjoy the comforts and privacy of a room (like furnishings, linen, air conditioning, lighting, entertainment, communication, etc); every involved business has evolved from a demand for each specific need.

As these trends change, so too does the demand and along with these moving changes come regulations and legislation that protects employees, looks out for the safety of customers and ensures there is minimum impact to the environment, to name a few.

So, ensuring the “meat in the sandwich” can continue to glue all these elements together, means that we continually improve our business environment so that the productivity and efficiency gains provide the necessary platforms for growth.

Supporting any improvements in the Ease of Doing Business (EDB) therefore should be a high priority.

A hotel has not simply decided to exist somewhere simply based on demand for rooms there. It must also make a profit eventually and will look for opportunities to grow its business portfolio.

Growth opportunities in the business environment may be incremental sometimes and at other times, they may take place in leaps and bounds.

For now, we will take all the incremental gains we can get, because these help to fuel the engines for growth later.

Both major alterations to existing Acts are therefore timely relief to tourism stakeholders who have reopened or are putting the finishing touches on their plans to reopen soon.

As they reopen, anything that positively impacts critical cashflows, productivity and efficiency allow them to fully focus on their core businesses which at this point in time, also requires them to provide enhanced COVID-safe environments with cleaning, sanitisation and hygiene protocols in place along with virus testing and reporting ability.

So included in the cost of operations now is staff training in these hygiene protocols, testing accessibility and reporting test results, and ensuring there are sufficient rooms set aside that cannot be sold, to cater for guests who might turn positive and require isolation before being allowed to return home.

FHTA continues to identify and support changes that will further improve the EDB, and strongly believe that these, in turn, help to promote a more compliant business environment where integrity, safety and ethical behaviour can be consistently practised.

If we make it difficult for businesses to comply with regulations because the legislation does not make sense, is impractical or out of touch with where the business or industry has moved to; we open ourselves up to unscrupulous and fraudulent behaviour.

Our Code of Ethics (FHTA Code of Practices & Ethics – Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association) holds us defend and advocate the professional interests of our members while preserving the good name of the tourism industry and adhering to ethical and legislated guidelines.

So much of what we do as an association looks to uphold best practices. Whether this is proactively contributing to discussions on

Fiji’s travel requirements that will promote safer travels, or lobbying for improvements in the business environment that will support tourism stakeholders to claw back their lost revenue streams; these must have the interests of the industry and therefore the economy at heart where the benefits can continue to have the widest possible impact.

Because now the competition is back on and we must go above and beyond what we used to do, in order to convince a larger potential market out there to come to Fiji.

And because Bali is open, Hawaii is open and other Pacific Island rival destinations are open or will do so soon enough.

So, whenever we can, let’s allow more focus on getting more visitors to come because we have been able to get our businesses back up again.

Not just with the refurbished and revamped beautiful surroundings, but with all our regulatory compliances in hand as well.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 17 February 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Moving to the Next Phase

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Moving to the Next Phase

FHTA, 10 February 2022 – Fiji moves into February and its third-month post borders reopening, with progressive but cautious optimism.

As experts around the world start sounding their wary notes of optimism that better times are perhaps weeks or just months away; what can we glean from the still hesitant warnings that prospects of an “end” to our pandemic induced restricted lives will be here soon?

Especially as these prospects still appear murky at best?

The likeliest scenario is one in which the virus shifts from pandemic to a more manageable endemic mode.

And while we acknowledge that endemicity means that the virus will keep circulating populations for years, its prevalence and impact will reduce to relatively manageable levels so that it ends up more like the flu rather than forcing the world to stop again.

There is no doubt therefore that for one reason or another, there was a nationwide collective sigh of relief with the recent lifting of the curfew; signalling for Fiji at least, that we were ready to move on to whatever the next phase is going to look like.

Not that the vast majority of people want to be moving around after midnight, but having a curfew always put pressure on business owners, their staff and transport providers to make a mad dash at the end of the evening to clear up, lock up and make their way home within the times that transport could still run.

We know the tourism industry certainly welcomed the Government announcement of the rescission of the nationwide curfew this week because it meant like other businesses operating 24/7, that we didn’t have to organise staff curfew passes and letters anymore for the check-points.

We were more than ready to put behind the six hundred and eighty-nine days of nationwide curfew that had taken place in various start and end times, along with all the challenges the containment zones and movement restrictions that were associated with it.

And move right on.

With data and increasing scientific evidence showing infection cases numbers dropping, a host of other restrictions have been rolled back that might just be an indication that we are progressively moving into the often-predicted new living with COVID arrangement.

Infectious disease experts whilst being more optimistic now that we have learned a lot about vaccines, developed new drugs and have better public health tools to manage the pandemic with, still note that they have found the pandemic incredibly humbling and confess that it is still impossible to predict with certainty exactly what will happen next.

We, therefore, accept the rolled back restrictions with relief but with some caution that we all still need to continue with the mitigation measures of masking in confined spaces, social distancing and sanitising.

The combination of the curfew removals, simplified pre-travel testing requirements, reduced isolation timeframe (if testing positive), venue capacity restriction reviews and dropping the requirement for the use of the contact tracing app, allows for more efficient movement of people, reduces travel costs considerably and makes Fiji an even more attractive destination.

Not just for international and domestic travellers; but also, for ordinary Fijians to access work, sports, leisure activities and general movement.

For the tourism industry now well into its traditional off-peak season, the adjusting and removal of restrictions and travel requirements allow the changes to be embedded in amended protocols and into staff and guest communication and signage.

More importantly, it allows the industry to adjust destination marketing messaging to ensure we clearly indicate our progress into safer, but more simplified travel that we have no doubt will provide us with another needed, competitive edge.

One need only to check the travel requirements or restrictions into neighbouring island countries, competitor South East Asian countries and other tourism reliant destinations to appreciate just how far Fiji has progressed in its vaccination program and mitigative measures.

Travellers will now be encouraged to move further out from tourism hot spot areas and into the wider community that is now more highly vaccinated.

With the bulk of tourism, retail, transport and general businesses now complying with the now ingrained COVID safe practices; locals and tourists can stay and play longer.

On the heels of Fiji’s reviewed travel and movement restrictions, an announcement followed news of New Zealand finally putting solid dates to their planned reopening in five phases.

This was welcome news from Fiji’s second-highest travel market and no doubt also welcomed by the strong Vuvale we share across the ocean, who have been waiting for nearly two years for this.

The New Zealand Government has set entry dates to allow fully vaccinated New Zealanders from Australia from February 27 in Phase One and the rest of the globe on March 13.

So we’re expecting Kiwis, in March, to join our other Travel Partner Countries that can already come for a holiday here, with time between now and then to review the current requirement for returning travellers to have to go through a 7-day self-isolation at their own homes.

But having been there and done the managed quarantine and everything else that was required when we first reopened, we can say with some painful experience, that they were lessons we learnt well.

So next phase, here we come.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 10 February 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Travel Data & the Insights They Provide

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Travel Data & the Insights They Provide

FHTA, 03 February 2022 – Uncertainty, loss of work, business and life and general anxiety about the impact of many changes, have made these past two years a nail-biting rollercoaster ride.

We have all been in search of a crystal ball to gaze into the future and without one, there has been a surge of endless questions, the sudden exploration for relevant data, the seeking of deeper insights and much probing for enlightenment on what exactly our future holds in the PC (Post-COVID) world.

Because let’s face it – nothing adds up anymore in comparison to all things BC (Before COVID).

So now, with our international borders open to visitors, we look at gaining insight into our collective financial recovery and projecting how the next few months and years will pan out, knowing what we do know now.

Which is probably not much given that we spent 20 months having our lives turned upside down by a virus that disrespected every known viral rule by simply reinventing itself every time we figured it out.

We ended 2021 by getting over 90 percent of our population vaccinated, and having prepared ourselves medically, psychologically and socially; flung open our borders and almost got blown away by Omicron, a tropical depression, flooding and the usual joys of international tourism we had almost forgotten.

Almost.

In a region where no other country felt ready enough to reopen the industry, we rode a high wave into the new year that was both exhilarating and scary because of the seemingly unending crises that even included an underwater volcano erupting close by that reverberated around the world, with small but impactful tsunami waves being felt here.

The Reserve Bank of Fiji says that an economic recovery is on the horizon for 2022 and that this is expected to be by 11.3 percent.

This is after RBF re-estimated a 15.2 percent contraction in 2020 and a 4.1 percent decline in 2021.

As was in PC times, tourism is expected to lead the way in this recovery along with other industries and sectors like food services, transport and storage, finance and insurance, wholesale and retail trade, and manufacturing and agriculture.

Fiji’s economic recovery is predicted to continue into 2023 and 2024, with the economy forecast to expand by 8.5 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively.

These figures were readjusted after an earlier forecast in July 2021 when the expectation was for economic recovery of 6.2 percent in 2022 and by 8.0 percent in 2023.

The higher revised gross domestic product growth forecast for this year is based on forward bookings and consultation with the tourism industry, the national airline, supplier chains and other factors that affect smaller island countries more deeply.

The Fiji Bureau of Statistics (FBOS) has released its much-awaited provisional visitor arrival data for 2021 and it makes for positive reading.

Our total annual Visitor Arrivals were 31,618 in 2021.

This was a substantial, but not unexpected decrease of 78.5 percent compared to the number of arrivals in the year 2020, which stood at 146,905.

This decrease in numbers is attributed to the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions on international travel. No surprises there.

Of significant interest to the tourism industry was the total number of arrivals recorded for December alone when our borders reopened for tourism.

December saw 23,226 visitors flock onto planes and over to Fiji and a majority of these were from our dependable key market Australia with 18,569 or 58.7 percent of the total.

So strong response came through as was expected from our key market and neighbours, Australia, from where we have traditionally pulled an annual 41 percent of our total market BC.

Visitors from the USA came in second obviously and accounted for 4,233 or 13.4 percent of the total December figure.

The response from Australia and the increase in younger travellers support the clever marketing and why Tourism Fiji chose Ms Rebel Wilson as their brand ambassador for their ‘Open for Happiness’ marketing campaign.

Rebel’s 10.4 million Instagram followers, fame and most tracked weight loss journey in the two countries from where we received our highest visitor numbers, makes her a formidable travel influencer, even if as locals we may struggle to understand the impact.

If she can influence just 1% of her followers to book a trip to Fiji, we would exceed even our BC targets and live happily ever after.

What is already well known though and being reinforced by travel data is that many visitors had been waiting for months to book a trip away just to escape the many lockdowns and restrictive nature of their current lives and they came over looking for a relaxing getaway from reality, if only for a short time.

FBOS’s data tells us that for 2021, visitors arriving for holiday purposes totalled 19,846 (62.8%).

2,625 of these travellers (8.3%) came to visit friends or relatives, 1,420 (4.5%) came for business purposes while 7,727 (24.4%) visited Fiji for other reasons.

We suspect that depending on the way travellers responded to questions, these figures are debatable, hence the importance of asking the right questions.

We are working to get more specific breakdowns of these statistics while awaiting the data from this past January, which would add more robustness to the economic projections.

For example, we need more specific details on how long each visitor stayed – influenced to a certain amount perhaps by the numbers of those who having been confirmed as positive post-testing, needed to stay back longer as part of isolation protocols before their departure.

Information on how much these visitors spent daily, what they spent it on and where they went or spent the longest time and even which activities they experienced would provide more specific detail that would allow stakeholders to tweak products, improve marketing and review services.

Additionally, to successfully translate these facts and figures into real, actionable insights for Fijian tourism, we must start by asking the right questions and then gain a better understanding of what the PC booking preferences are for potential travellers.

The challenge has been that depending on what level of the pandemic a country is going through; travel interest can move through erratic patterns that consider the ease of travel (testing requirements), safety (pandemic level and vaccination rate in holiday country), how quickly they would get there (flight availability and frequency), holiday package options and then costs.

Booking patterns are currently all over the place. Moving from short booking timeframes because of the 48-hour pre-departure PCR testing requirement (you cannot travel if you return a positive test), to longer-term bookings that might continue to get moved to later because people are still getting sick wherever they are.

Exactly when people choose to travel is being further influenced by when schools overseas are being reopened as well as the global controversy and division being created by vaccine and masking mandates.

Everyone is looking at the numbers right now including economists, business operators and relevant stakeholders, who are crunching the numbers and researching facts and data.

Data that is still slow to emerge given that many uncertainties have still not gone away while many parts of the world are at different levels of the PC stage, are at different levels of managing the crisis and their border reopening levels (not all to international travel) and have varying degrees of travel restrictions and requirements in place that also change frequently.

The good doctor has indicated that our current wave of COVID infections has peaked and barring any new variants, tourism is buoyed by the fact that despite restarting in the middle of this wave, we are still moving forward.

Strong indications from Government are that Fiji will not be shutting borders as we have tracked well with targeted population vaccinations, have accepted mask-wearing, scanning in and sanitising as part of our work, school and home habits and have basically learnt to live with the virus.

Tourism has been preparing for a long time for this and while there have been some hiccups, a host of rolling weather and natural crises tossed in for good measure and the onset of our traditionally low season, we are putting in the time and effort to get our processes right for the next high season.

By March and then into April, Fiji will have the balance of tourism operators reopened and we are supporting our members to address staffing shortages, supply chain issues and getting back into compliance mode with regulatory requirements.

We are also looking through what little data there is to give us more insights into the ever-changing future.

And accessing more useful, relevant and timely data would be ever so helpful right now.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 03 February 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Complicated Travel Rules

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Complicated Travel Rules

FHTA, 27 January 2022 – We wish our regional neighbours (and key tourism market) Australia a very happy Australia Day which was celebrated 26th of January.

Late last week, Australia really came through with what has been widely recognised as a game-changer for tourism industries globally, many of which have been struggling collectively with the often onerous requirements for travellers.

Their federal government confirmed last week that travellers returning to Australia will have the option of completing a rapid antigen test (RAT) within 24 hours before their departure back to Australia, rather than having to take an expensive PCR test within three days (four from Fiji) as is currently required.

Not only does that speed things up for departing guests, but it simplifies the process and significantly reduces the cost because they are still required to undertake another RAT 24 hours after their arrival in Australia.

This has come into effect from Sunday 23 January 2022.

Other areas have been simplified which will make travel and returning home less complicated.

For travellers testing positive, the isolation timeframe has been reduced to seven days before being issued a ‘Fit to Fly’ notice from Fiji’s Ministry of Health & Medical Services. No further test is required before their departure.

These changes to Australia’s re-entry protocols recognises the changing science around the virus and its current impact on highly vaccinated populations globally, as well as in consideration of the fact that despite high infection rates, the number of cases in intensive care units remains low.

But the highest priority surely would have been the impact this makes for anyone coming to Australia for a holiday where tourism has contributed AUD$122 billion to its economy prior to COVID.

While tourism stakeholders closer to home might have different reasons for arguing against these tests; key amongst them has been that the challenges of costs and testing logistics were eroding efficiency and productivity whilst not providing any real evidence that any battles were being won against COVID.

Staff, guests and communities were still getting sick, albeit for shorter and far less critical bursts, while anecdotal evidence appeared to suggest that any exposure and experience with Omicron actually provided many with stronger immunity.

With their 93% vaccination rate of people aged 16 and over, Australia’s authorities are steering away from a COVID-zero plan to a COVID-contained one.

This is essentially what Fiji had implemented into its protocols as we prepared ourselves for the border reopening.

Medical experts cautiously state that Omicron appears to have peaked, but this may only become more apparent once movement restrictions are eased and RATs are widely available.

However, the sentiments echoed by the good doctor is that Fiji will be aiming at making the virus endemic which essentially means that the pandemic will not end with the virus disappearing, but rather that enough people will gain immune protection via vaccination and from natural infection; so our anecdotal evidence might not be too far off the mark.

With the entire Fijian tourism industry well experienced in the Omicron variant now, we may be the new experts in testing, reporting, transmission, infection and isolation impacts.

There is still a critical need to improve worldwide public health structures and surveillance systems to monitor for and help respond to the inevitable next potential pandemic virus, as opposed to reactive measures based on past experiences with other variants.

As we move into a typical “low” season for tourism, there is a lot of work going on in the background to re-evaluate our responses to COVID related guest and staff illness, strengthening our staff training, adjusting testing and reporting protocols and reviewing COVID safe practices.

Included in these practices, businesses are relooking at improving air flows in public spaces, introducing air purification appliances and more efficient surface decontamination products.

Any practice or product that improves efficiency and health safety that also promotes a more efficient flow of people or processing is being considered for adoption.

High on the list of returning the industry to better efficiency and productivity is the consideration that like Australia; Fiji should also be thinking about reviewing its entry requirements for inbound travellers.

There is no ignoring our heavy reliance on tourism and the more barriers we place in front of potential visitors before they get here, whilst they’re here and before they leave; the more reasons we give them to choose another destination.

And we preface that statement with the reminder that Fiji is almost on par with Australia in terms of vaccination rates and just as hesitant to change or relax COVID rules despite the global evidence that might support any changes.

There is no denying we have had a horrific experience with the Delta variant and the pressures placed on our health system is not somewhere we wish to return to.

But even the World Health Organisation (WHO) waited till this week to issue a statement that noted ”The astonishing spread of the Omicron variant could help set the stage for the pandemic to transition from overwhelming to manageable in Europe this year”; potentially offering the world a glimpse at how countries can ease restrictions while keeping the virus at bay.

It did go on to provide a “heavy dose of caution”, adding that while the surge of infections would probably wane (we have already experienced this), new variants were likely to emerge and strain health systems.

We agree.

We are also expecting more cyclones till at least April.

We do not ignore the warnings and we do not let our guards down when it comes to the weather or COVID.

But if we are preparing with everything we can possibly use to be ready, how could the demand for an AUD$300 test protect us any better than an AUD$10 test?

Especially if we insist on retesting everyone again two days after they arrive in the country.

There is a collective commitment to the recovery of Fijian tourism better than it was pre-COVID, and for 2022 it has already become evident that the efforts to keep staff and guests safer requires far more stringent planning, more budgetary allocations, complicated training and far more dedicated staff to keep your business compliant as well as competitive.

If we must reimagine an industry with a refocus on COVID, cyclones and environmental safety, then the many compliances and regulatory requirements and expectations around tourism must be evaluated with the same sense of urgency, relevance and application.

Like many other tourism-focused destinations, it has often felt like we walked into a ring with some protective equipment and an instruction list that kept changing on how to fight an elusive opponent.

Our opponent changed, stepped out of the ring, came back and probably left again.

Nobody seems very sure.

We just want a fairer fight so we can continue to punch above our weight as a preferred tourism destination.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 27 January 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Plans for 2022

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Plans for 2022

FHTA, 20 January 2022 – What a start to the year we have had and we’re not even past January yet, but there is no doubt it started out tough for Fiji and the Pacific.

Mother Nature for one has been extremely active these past few months, ratcheting up the pressure in the last two weeks for the Pacific generally with our very well-known tropical cyclone season commencing as usual from early November and rolling through till the end of April.

As prepared as we usually are, the higher humidity, more frequent rainfall and hottest days that see us through the Christmas season and into the new year can easily distract us from keeping a wary eye on rapidly filling streams and rivers during the depressions that usually herald in a tropical cyclone or two forming as the Pacific Ocean retains more heat that subsequently feeds stronger cyclone systems.

Tsunamis, however, are still difficult for Pacific Island Countries to come to grips with. They are more difficult to predict in terms of size and impact, where exactly they might hit, how long people have to move to safety and how long they will last.

And more importantly, it is really difficult to believe that any predicted wave activity will be dangerous when the serene beach scene in front of you often has no signs that anything could possibly go wrong anytime soon.

Preparation for disasters is usually far easier for populations to understand when exposure and experience to these enable better understanding and acceptance.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to our Pacific neighbours to the East in the Kingdom of Tonga, to whom we have very strong blood ties.

Fiji will be among the first countries to extend a helping hand once the volcanic activity has subsided and more understanding of what is really needed is known.

Tropical Cyclone Cody developed soon after the tropical depression that spawned it had finished dumping enough precipitation to flood streams and rivers to dangerous levels and has just moved past the country into open waters, gathering strength as it moved closer to New Zealand.

Not much later, the rippling effect of the underwater volcano eruption in Tonga with tsunami waves inundated many eastern-facing Fijian coastal villages and shorelines: many of whom were not aware of the eruption and even fewer of the tsunami advisory that had been released until after the 1–2-foot waves had come ashore.

The tsunami alert level at “advisory” which essentially is a warning for us to “stay out of the water and away from the shore and expect strong currents and dangerous waves in or near coastal waters that could result in 1-3 feet (.3-1meter) high waves” was not communicated as widely as it could have been, so we were lucky that the impact was minor here.

But for the resorts out on islands and along coastlines around the country, early information like this allows for better preparation and understanding of what’s happening so that guests, staff and nearby communities can work together to stay safe.

For tourism members hooked into the FHTA network, the advice went out as soon as the search for alert was found from the seismology section of the Mineral Resources Department.

The tourism industry, along with navigating the current health pandemic and reopening its borders 20 months after being shut off, has had to manoeuvre its way past these nature-based obstacles along with a series of domino-like consequences from them.

Incoming and departing guests have been caught up in delayed or cancelled flights and have had to seek alternative arrangements for accommodation, onward and connecting flights as well as deal with expiring PCR tests that due to the different country travel regulations, are very time-specific.

For Australian arrivals, PCR tests have an extended expiry of 96 hours, while US arrivals will allow up to a day past the 24 hours Rapid Antigen Test.

With all the lessons we’ve learnt over the past two years, are we as an industry prepared for what the year 2022 has in store for us?
With our planning and strategizing, as well as anticipating, researching and modifying each step as soon as it was needed; key amongst the main learnings has been the ability to be flexible and the need to communicate, communicate, communicate.

As we move into the new year despite everything COVID, the weather, natural disasters and constantly changing local or international Government travel and health regulations threw at us; we are still moving forward.

So, what should tourism planning include this year and into the next few more?

Incorporating COVID safety as an integral part of all our standard operating procedures, training programs and risk assessment is the first priority.

Regardless of where COVID goes with its ability to mutate and evolve; we need to build dealing with it into our budgeting, HR and staff health priorities, sick leave policies, marketing, insurance and risk planning.

And that includes being able to test, report and prove vaccination or negativity status far more efficiently and effectively than we are now so that flights, transfers and travel generally can resume scheduled timetables and programs that previously allowed more productive planning.

Technology and science need to catch up so that passports, health reports, biosecurity, immigration, health and anyone else needing to be looped into the data-sharing platforms deemed vital for safer international travel can coordinate better.

And included in all things COVID related; we will also need to determine where we’re going with our Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) that has given us the platform to effectively measure our safety processes, but will eventually have to be guided into a format that will be defined by the strength of a virus to move.

As staff numbers increased in tourism and other industries based on rising demand for products and services, the twenty-month hiatus and reduced demand during that time showed us wide gaps in customer service areas, while identifying that even staff that did not normally work frontline often needed to fill gaps created by staff needing to isolate because of infection confirmation.

Hence customer service training is next on our list for anyone that is involved in the service industry because focusing on safety first in our efforts to manage COVID has often eroded our ability to deliver quality service and smile at the same time.

Training staff and having sufficient manpower in emergencies that may continue for a week or more will need some deeper evaluation by HR practitioners and senior management that must consider cost-effectiveness and practicality for longer-term planning.

Also, there will be a concerted review of supply networks and the impact of profit margins that are under pressure as costs have gradually crept up for a variety of reasons resulting in rising operational expenses across the board.

Major contributors to these increased costs have included rising fuel prices to transport goods by road, sea or air, the increasing commodity prices raising the cost of raw materials, higher labour costs from global suppliers and manufacturers and the complex international logistics that have led to higher charges for storage, transfer and management of products.

This will not be limited to tourism but is already being felt by every industry relying on imported products at some point, that is required to complete their own manufacturing or material for sale.

Last but not least, in an area, we can make the greatest impact with a longer-term vision and wider collaboration; is the tie-in between agriculture and sustainability.

In these two areas, we could potentially improve our food security, reduce our reliance on fresh produce importation, provide just as many jobs as tourism does and vastly improve our exportability.

At the same time, we could create a demand for Fijian food as an attraction itself with more food entrepreneurs, SME restaurants, seafood suppliers and marine-based activities that in turn promote biodiversity education and awareness.

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

That doesn’t have to happen here with our communal style of living and we can certainly be a more attractive destination if we tapped into the opportunities that are still here for a fraction of that 68% to want to visit.

Tourism might be 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, but it is also the most diverse of industries with far-reaching impacts, tiered segments and geographical spread.

How we plan to utilize the vast opportunities that present themselves is up to us.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 20 January 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Happy New Year, Tourism is One Month In

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Happy New Year, Tourism is One Month In

FHTA, 14 January 2022 – Our borders have been open for over six weeks now and while we have seen some lows, we can attest to the wonderful affirmative stories and highlights that far outweigh everything else since the industry switched to “operational” mode.
Indications from Tourism Fiji (TF) was for the arrival of 30,000 visitors in December 2021 and around 40,000 visitors are expected this month and into February; which are rather surprising outcomes in themselves; all things being considered.

While the International Visitor Survey (IVS) will eventually bear this out, (if people filled out their Arrival Forms correctly), anecdotal reports indicate a very large number of returning Fijians took the reopening of borders as an opportunity to make the long-awaited homecoming to see friends and family.

But their support for their country of origin has not gone unnoticed and along with the other thousands of visitors, have put the smiles back on the faces of our many tourism workers and suppliers.

Social media and mainstream media has carried stories of tourism staff being back at what they love most and ready with their Bula smiles and it has certainly been a hectic but generally positive first six weeks that even culminated in a depression that dumped more rain over 3 days than we had seen in our wettest times of the year resulting in flooded bridges and roads around the western parts of the main island.

Many visitors who got a ride on a fire engine, military or police truck through flooded roads to get to the airport have had an experience unlikely to be repeated in their lifetimes.

In the background of a well-received reopening of borders and the influx of visitors looking for much needed R&R, was an industry trying its best to apply all the new COVID-safe protocols that seemed to be constantly changing and adjusting.

Hotels eventually got used to testing, reminding guests to test, chasing up results, reporting the results to health authorities and then dealing with first a handful of positive cases that slowly escalated.

This meant further reviewing of the processes, rolling out the isolation protocols, convincing healthy and asymptomatic guests that the test results meant they suddenly had to stay in their rooms and couldn’t mix with others, and then deal with the repercussions.

This included managing suddenly impacted room inventory because guests had to be separated from negative family members, dealing with travel insurance and supporting guests to ask for support from home if this was insufficient.

Staff rallied with trying to make guests comfortable, running errands and shopping on their behalf with some hotels going the extra mile with care packs, lists of online options for food, shopping and even souvenirs.

And despite all the care taken, the inevitable happened with more and more staff testing positive and everyone in the industry feeling the impact of a critically reduced workforce – hotels, airline, transport, airport operations, retail and even the support from supplier chains.

Administration, finance and HR staff were suddenly front-line staff fronting guests trying to organise test results, changing airline bookings and helping them make their way home.

While in restaurants and kitchens; casual staff were suddenly taking orders and delivering food before tackling the cleaning tasks they were otherwise assigned to.

At the height of things looking like they may just be settling down with reviewed isolation time frames and labs scrambling to meet the sharply increased testing demand, a tropical depression decided to settle over the country and dump the biggest rainfall ever, so that rivers burst their banks, roads became impassable for 36 hours and flights and transport came to a stop.

As used to this scenario as Fiji is, and with deepening expectation that this may just turn into a Category 1 cyclone, guest and staff safety kicked up a higher notch with cyclone preparations taking precedence, large generators kicking in as power went out nation-wide and all movement stopped to give Mother Nature her respectful berth.

A few days later, as the weather cleared up, water levels moved rapidly back down to expose mostly damage to road infrastructure and power lines, and the welcome appearance of the sun reminded us why Fiji is such a popular destination.

The relief on the faces of our staff was heart-warming, along with the appreciative cheers from the patiently waiting guests.

Resorts report that guests are leaving to go back home but will be replaced with almost just as many guests immediately and that despite the challenges of testing and isolation and late results and getting stuck because of the rain and floods; many guests are even extending their stay here.

We put this down to the hard-working staff who having been brought back to work, are working longer hours to fill in for colleagues that tested positive and must therefore isolate despite being asymptomatic.

A shout out also to the behind-the-scenes medical and testing laboratory staff, military and police personnel providing support and assistance and even the firefighters for bringing their fire truck to the party.

International travellers are warned often enough about the risks of travelling right now and Fiji’s reopening did, unfortunately, coincide with the start of the third wave in many countries around the world.

What we have seen so far from many of our visitors is a mix of confidence in Fiji’s safety precautions being put into place, the burning need to take a holiday after numerous lockdowns (and why not somewhere close and tropical), as well as some blissful unawareness of the risks of returning a positive result with the numerous times everyone has to get tested (despite widespread communication).

And there is no doubt that added to these many complicated layers, it was after all the festive season, and with an overwhelming increase in the number of personal and social events that took place, the rest was probably more predictable than we were willing to admit.

But even as infections continue in the Fijian communities on the mainland, up in our northern regions and as far as the beautiful islands of Lau; we are buoyed by the fact that a majority of eligible citizens have been fully vaccinated and thus far no visitors or tourism staff have been severely ill or hospitalised.

If we check rising infections with our international neighbours despite differing stances on how state and national Governments implement their health and protection programs, we might recognise that many changes being implemented now are actually what Fiji is already practising.

We admit we are making mistakes – these are after all extremely alien protocols that might be normal for medical staff, but that has been made a part of our hospitality practices and we are learning quickly from them.

And the learnings from these include the need to communicate often, really loudly and widely.

That what worked for the Delta strain that initially smashed us are not all necessarily help with the more infectious, but less deadly Omicron because apart from the obvious differences we are now operating in a more vaccinated and more “COVIDaware” environment.

Tourism workers are expected to be welcoming and friendly and provide great service but with masks on and stern reminders to scan in, sanitise, wear masks, keep distances, not shake hands or hug or share food and drinks.

So, we continue to remind them they must keep doing these things.

It is not difficult to appreciate why there is a hesitancy to review many restrictive measures downwards, and key amongst these is the difficulty with compliance and the tendency for complacency.

We really do “get it”, despite not being scientists and medical professionals but we are doing everything we can to live it, enforce it, and demand the compliance around it.

Every. Single. Day.

And six weeks on, Fiji is still holding it together. By no means an easy feat.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 14 January 2022)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: How Grateful Are You?

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: How Grateful Are You?

FHTA, 23 December 2021 – “Vakavinavinaka” or being grateful is said to make you more optimistic, improve your mood and even lower rates of stress and depression.This might be a good time to remind ourselves why we need to practice this more often.

Around this time last year, Fiji was recovering from its second category 5 cyclone in a year, with Tropical Cyclone Yasa hitting hard on the 17th and 18th of December.

Borders were still closed, and a 60-day state of natural disaster was declared as the cyclone destroyed homes and displaced thousands with an estimated loss of nearly $250 million to infrastructure, livelihoods and agriculture.

But as cyclone experiences went, despite the destruction and upheavals, we still considered ourselves lucky and blessed even, that we emerged with the larger populated areas of the country going relatively unscathed.

With only local tourism to look forward to in the early months of 2021, many tourism businesses remain closed with flights still grounded and news emerging from around the region that the industry’s initial requests for tourism employers to be allowed to demand that staff be vaccinated appearing to be not as far-fetched as it might have seemed initially.

Globally as airlines, industries, then states and Governments came on board with the increasing scientific data arguing for mass vaccinations to keep entire populations safe; Fiji too quickly embraced the view that vaccinations needed to be a requirement for safer employment.

If 2020 was about how to survive by reducing your overhead costs, managing your staff and even mothballing your future plans for a while; 2021 was all about working towards a reopening of borders with an acceptable plan that would be considered safe.

Months dragged slowly and painfully by, as COVID safe guidelines were reviewed, the research and evolving science on the virus was devoured as soon as it was released, and each piece of evidence was critically examined for clues to how we were going to come back from an economic abyss that appeared to be growing bigger and deeper with mounting infection rates and deaths.

At the same time, Fiji raced undaunted into its vaccination program with the good doctor at the head of an unrelenting push to grow vaccination numbers, and keep a cool head even as our health system started to buckle.

And not just under the usual impact of overworked staff and failing systems under COVID; but also, under the pressure of criticism from all sectors that offered no support or alternative options for improvement.

Support instead came from unexpected areas; industries like tourism pooling resources, sanitisers being made by alcohol suppliers, international neighbours and agencies that offered technical support, funding, vaccines and PPEs.

For many months, reopening frameworks and movement restrictions were discussed, discarded, redone and debated until frayed tempers and disagreements were soothed and started anew the next day.

COVID-19 has had undeniable and horrific consequences on people’s lives and the economy. With sickness, death and unemployment rates soaring almost everywhere on our planet, it was easy to despair.

But much has been learnt in the journey from April 2020 to 01 Dec 2021- 20 months that saw a nation move from vaccine hesitancy to embracing vaccination with approximately 92% of the adult population now fully vaccinated and many preparing eagerly to get booster shots now.

Yes, eagerly!

And we recognise that the Government push for “no jab, no job” had a lot to do with getting us here, but employers across a range of industries have agreed that to have waited for our population to choose to vaccinate in their own time would have seen far more deaths and desolation than our island nation could have afforded.

We are, after all, Fijian.

It does not sit easily with us to have any urgency for most things we cannot immediately see that there might have to be a mad rush for.

However, we dared to hope as a nation that we could pull ourselves out of the steeply climbing infection numbers and death rates, and as vaccination numbers took over the rising graphical inclines, so too did we finally see the flattening curve of those infections.

Whenever we look back on a nasty chapter of our lives, whether personal, business, political or economic; we are inevitably reminded that we should always take stock of where we came from, went through and that we should learn from these.

This helps us plan our next steps more carefully, review what we can do better and hopefully learn from our mistakes if we are humble enough to admit them.

And as nasty chapters go; there is nothing quite like 20 months of pain to help you remember how not to feel that way again.

So, what have we learnt that we can use to improve ourselves, our businesses, our lives and eventually our nation?

We learnt that as human beings we detested being isolated, but as Fijians, we found separation from loved ones, the inability to access food daily and the religious activities that are woven into the deep fabric of our ethnic, traditional and social lives left us physically and psychologically distressed.

Our environment benefited from our continued absence and allowed rejuvenations in wildlife, marine life and entire ecosystems.

And we were also reminded about kindness. Being kinder to one another and acknowledging that we needed to be more considerate of those around us, especially those who needed our help.

This positive outcome has been a rejuvenated sense of community and social cohesion.

Additionally, wider collaboration and consultation took place on a scale rarely seen, acknowledged or even expected.

COVID pushed together scientists, economists, accountants, lawyers, businessmen, disciplined forces and entire industries to work with the front-line medical staff who needed everyone’s support to tackle an ever-evolving enemy.

Perhaps it was our determination to beat the virus or the need to contribute more, but each brought their own expertise and regardless of how small or large their effort was, it was a step forward in getting our nation back its spirit.

As COVID became the biggest market disruptor, it led to unprecedented levels of innovation.

Commerce, education and administration amongst others, were challenged to rapidly digitize products, services and delivery mechanisms to continue to be relevant by reimagining their business models. .
Finally, as we move closer to Christmas, consider another “gift” that COVID has given us that is so appropriate at this time of the year. And that is a new sense of appreciation and gratefulness.
COVID has offered us a new perspective on everything we have taken for granted for so long – our freedoms, leisure, connections, work, family and friends. We have never questioned how life as we know it could be suddenly taken away from us.

We are therefore grateful for this and many other things.

For new beginnings.

For our health workers and their supporters in Border Control who show up daily for work despite the risks.

For the people who believed resolutely that Fiji could reopen safely.

And for everyone that heeds the need to continue to wear their masks in confined spaces despite how uncomfortable it is to wear them, who sanitise their hands frequently and scan in and out of shops, businesses and restaurants.

Because you too are doing your bit to keep us all safer.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 23 December 2021)