FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Laying The Groundwork To Get To Now

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Laying The Groundwork To Get To Now

FHTA, 19 August 2021 – From creation, production, distribution to access, no part of the economic value chain has been spared the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As tourism counts down to 01 December for a potential reopening of borders, we are aware that we cannot simply just go back to how things were.

The United Nations declared 2021 as the International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. While in the middle of a pandemic, it is still quite timely as nations prepare for collective returns to normalcy, or near normal, if they haven’t already.

With various versions of lockdowns taking place around the world over the last six months, no country’s citizens were ever satisfied with their particular version, length or management.

And as a cautious world emerges from being restricted to particular areas, limited to bubble sizes and kept from work, education, athletic pursuits or socialising; there has been collective testing of the waters to tentatively access greater freedoms. And travel.

While Fiji is not quite there yet, having just drawn a line in the sand with an indicative date for when we believe we might be ready to cross that line and reopen our borders; we do so cautiously as well whilst constantly moving our plans forward.

In any preparation for a big event, there is obviously a long list of “Things to Do” that are high level, and therefore usually discussed at a national level with deliberations on strategies and phased plans, while medium level items are then dispatched to organisations, associations and committees to commence said phases and get the communication process underway.

Then there is lower-level stuff that forms what we might call the “meat and potatoes”, or if we have to localize the phrase; the curry in the roti or even the chicken in the lovo.

Basically, how it all comes together.

And for the majority of businesses who have to work towards a reopening, without a clear strategy or plan shared with them, they will continue marching on towards the point in time already indicated and continue with their plans and timelines for preparation.

The pandemic enforced current economic situation has already provided many businesses with a savvy understanding of what needs to happen before their operations can reopen. Many tourism operators therefore only needed that confirmation of a reopening timeframe as a precursor to many of their plans being brought online.

So, with the “Go” signal effectively made, the reopening timer has been set and this has set in motion a whole host of activities industry-wide.

While it might have appeared, there was very little going on with large marine transport vessels anchored out for months, tourist transport buses parked neatly in rows at depots and lowered boom gates signalled closed resorts; there has been quiet buzzing behind the scenes as operators have worked with their finance teams, their bankers and their HR and operations teams to rationalise or update plans from a list of planned scenarios.

Starting with budgets and moving through the big-ticket items on plans for staffing, training timetables, operational and maintenance needs, stock replenishing, marketing and finally to schedules; regardless of which sort of tourism business they are in, activity levels have moved up a notch or two and have several more layers to move through yet.

It might not be as well known, but there are many agencies out there that have been engaged with the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) in our efforts to protect the industry and ensure its survival during these last sixteen months.

These include the Association of Banks to request more empathy for the SMEs in the industry that we could not afford to lose. The marine and land transport regulators as well as the licensing agencies for hotels were approached to consider more sustainable options for compliance on licensing and penalty fees.

Discussions and consultations also took place with the Reserve Bank, relevant ministries, the Immigration Department, the iTaukei Land Trust Board and the Fiji Revenue & Customs Service management to discuss tourism challenges with closed borders and the need to ensure the industry could survive the crisis.

With each agency, we discussed support mechanisms, more empathic payment terms or requested extensions to the normal compliance timeframes and the need to hold off on the usual penalties.

Encouraged by the support from the Ministry for Commerce, Trade, Tourism & Transport (MCTTT); we were able to buy valuable breathing space for many of our grateful members.

What would Fiji’s tourism industry be without a range of exciting activities, adventure sports and locally influenced accommodation options to choose from?
Without a diverse range of products and services ready for when borders reopened, Fiji would lose its renowned competitive edge and its fierce endeavour to consistently deliver way above Pacific Island expectations.

Without these businesses being able to restart, we could not reemploy over 100,000 workers that are still waiting to be called back to work.

Our talented artists in tourism that include the cultural dancers and singers, musicians and artisans have no creative outlet and our young entrepreneurs in events planning, media and food and beverage suppliers never get back the opportunities to showcase their skills.

Many of these people have not been able to earn their usual wage, if at all, during this health crisis and some may not even qualify for assistance or support afforded to other workers in the hospitality sector.

Under the current theme for 2021, the UN attempts to highlight the power of creativity for resilience in times of pandemic and to share best practices and experiences, build human resource capacity, promote an enabling environment at all levels and address the challenges of the creative economy.

Nowhere else is creativity more supported than in tourism which by its nature can provide more opportunities and testing platforms for creative spirits and budding entrepreneurs.

Our visitors will need more than a hotel room to convince them to return. And we are under no illusions as to the importance of instilling the required confidence that Fiji will be as safe as it can be when they have to make those decisions.

Our destination marketing will be kicking into high gear soon and the message of safety as a key concern and priority will no doubt be a part of it.

In an inextricably linked, long chain of tourism businesses, employees, suppliers, communities and young people getting ready to move in with their energy; the industry’s usual collective working rhythm for the same goals has taken on a higher, more defined meaning.

Collectively they understand what is at stake.

They understand what needs to be done. As difficult as it was always going to be.

And everyone is getting ready to take their places for that big reopening.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 19 August 2021)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Ready For Anything

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Ready For Anything

FHTA, 12 August 2021 – As Fiji surpasses 90 percent of first vaccine doses completed and 35 percent of fully vaccinated eligible adults, the tourism industry continues to pay close attention to these figures.

It is becoming far more widely accepted now that ensuring we get more than 80% of our eligible population vaccinated is the only way we are going to get anywhere near our previous way of life back.

It is heartening to see that many Fijians have lined up to get their vaccine jab at least once and we remain optimistic that more people are becoming convinced of the science showing that vaccines really do work to protect us.

In the midst of the whirlwind of the worrying updates of new confirmed cases and fatalities from COVID-19, one can’t help but be awed by the fact that the majority of Fijians have banded together to take the necessary step of vaccination.

On the flip side, the rising anger on social media with those that continue to advocate against the vaccine’s benefits is both tragic and funny at the same time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent post, for example, was both hilarious as well as sobering; reminding us to listen to experts like him if we want to build biceps and to listen to Dr Fauci and the virologists if we want to understand viruses and vaccines.

He finishes his advice by adding that “weakness is thinking that we don’t need expert advice and only listening to sources that confirm what we want to hear”.

And we most certainly did not expect such pearls of wisdom to come from the world’s best bodybuilder and ex-US Governor. But there you go.

In a time of great uncertainty where days, weeks and now 16 months have gone by, it appears we are stuck in a crazy Groundhog Day rotation of the same old, with the expected virus flattening “spring” nowhere in sight.

We should therefore be expecting not only a certain amount of impatience and angst about restricted movements, containment zones and new rules for simply getting on with life as we know it now, but a general tuning into other shared views of great conspiracies, vague prophesies and generally wacky theories that sound far more exciting in comparison to what is becoming a very tedious way to live life.

Unfortunately for those in the tourism industry, there has been very little time for navel gazing and introspective reflections.

When you are busy beating off debtors, bankers and suppliers demanding cash-only transactions from your almost difficult to locate door because of the overgrown weeds, there is only the focus of keeping your business from going completely under and planning how you can get back up again in time to meet that border reopening springtime.

There is a quiet confidence that the planned relaxation of restrictions once the 80 percent vaccination target has been successful, will take place. Quiet, because many heads are still down with a preoccupied focus on the mammoth task ahead of them and therefore very little time to get caught up in anything other than how they continue to move ever forward.

With global tourism still far lower than predicted since March 2020 despite the increasing number of countries that have either fully opened their borders or nervously trialling phased reopening’s, we are keeping a watchful eye on how they are all progressing to learn what we can.

There are varying degrees of success with opening borders to vaccinated travellers or based on their originating destinations, as well as travel bubbles between countries. Some have simpler rules in place because they share national borders, currencies and infrastructure access that make border control regulations easier to manage.

Others have had to constantly revaluate their activities, border control measures or review any planned implementation because of unexpected breaches of particular processes failing.

Calls for more rational and evidence-based border policies and regulations aside, we can never be sure anything will work exactly as we expect it to because we are dealing with a pandemic that has far outstripped every limitation that has been placed on it.

New Zealand, having enjoyed a trans-Tasman bubble agreement with Australia, have had to pause quarantine-free travel between the two countries as the continuing spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant in Australia has all parties concerned and rightly worried about potential risks.

Their trans-Tasman bubble was suspended for two months from 24 July as Australia also struggles to contain this current outbreak.
Fiji and other Pacific Islands have been extremely lucky that Australia, New Zealand, the US and other countries continue to provide assistance in the form of vaccines and medical expertise.

And understanding the critically challenged health system and heavily pressured staff of the Ministry of Health and Medical Services; no doubt that assistance is indeed welcome.

The point here is, even those we consider experts are still learning how best to grapple with the current situation. Whether you are a virologist or epidemiologist, you’re still learning how to outsmart a deviously clever virus whose sole purpose of existence is to recreate itself constantly.

And whether you are a border control manager, a world leader or the head of the health ministry, each one is trying to do their best within their means, to manage their responsibility for keeping people safe from this virus.

The increasing numbers of rabbit holes of misinformation that Big Arnie refers to, therefore, simply makes their jobs an onerous and uphill battle.

We are trying to make a small difference, but a difference nonetheless with our tourism vuvale assisting the health teams wherever and whenever possible.
In the last few weeks, this partnership and support from tourism operators in the area pitching in saw the rollout of vaccination programs in the Yasawa group of islands where many districts and villages in the region were provided vaccine information and agreed to be vaccinated.

Congratulations also to the medical teams that were responsible for getting information and vaccines out to the islands in the Lau group from where scenes of celebration have been shared widely.

We have shared in this weekly forum before that the industry has recognised that vaccinations will be a key milestone to reopening borders globally and many tourism operators are doing everything feasibly possible to see this eventuate.

The World Tourism Organisation reports that global tourist numbers are down 83% in the first quarter of 2021 due to the travel restrictions currently in place for most countries.

However, their Confidence Index shows signs of a slow uptick in that confidence.

Not unexpectedly, between January and March of 2021, world destinations welcomed 180 million fewer international arrivals compared to the first quarter of 2020.

Our own region under the Asia and the Pacific category continued to suffer the lowest levels of activity with a staggering 94% drop in international arrivals in the first quarter.

Europe recorded the second-largest decline with -83%, followed by Africa (-81%), the Middle East (-78%) and the Americas (-71%).

This all follows on from the 73% fall in worldwide international tourist arrivals recorded in 2020, making it the worst year on record for the sector.

While Fiji cannot expect a tsunami of visitors immediately that our borders do finally reopen, we are certain that there are many Fijian citizens or residents abroad that would like to visit their families and friends here who will be the first ones we expect will be booking flights.

Returning friends and family, visitors that were booked pre-COVID that chose to keep moving those dates, and the expected gradual increase in international visitor attention would provide the required impetus to kickstart our depleted tourism’s earnings, and this would eventually benefit our national economy because of tourism’s naturally large, multiplier effect.

We realise that while it took very little time to shut things down, that it will take a far more exerted and cost prohibited effort to reopen, and that we are encouraging the industry to do so under still unknown conditions that would be critical information in our normal business world.

Yet we are pressing on despite not really knowing exactly which markets might open up to Fiji first or even second.

But ready we must be. Of that, we have no doubt.

So instead, we have to be pretty much ready for anything.

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

Tourism Talanoa: A Simple Equation

Tourism Talanoa: A Simple Equation

FHTA, 29 July 2021 – Under a cloud of COVID uncertainty and more than the usual media negativity about why it should not have gone ahead, the Olympic Games in Tokyo got off to a muted start without the usual in-person crowds.

Fiji has been welcomingly distracted by all its participating athletes and their events, in particular the rugby sevens teams.

For a distraction was rightly needed for many this week.

We acknowledge and thank them all for their commitment to their sporting goals and for reaching the pinnacle of global sport.

Each time they shine brightly in their events, they take the renowned Fijian brand to new heights and remind the world about who we are and where we are.

Globally, we are apparently on par too with our infection rates.

Our national 7-day daily test average is 3530 tests per day or 4.0 tests per 1,000 population. The national 7-day average daily test positivity is 22.8 percent.

The rate of community transmission within the Suva-Nausori containment zone is through the roof, to put it mildly, and it appears we join every other citizen from around the world protesting lockdowns and not heeding calls to stay at home or be more vigilant in protecting ourselves.

Those citizens calling for a national lockdown fail to realise it would never work for us.

So, it is doubtful that asking our citizens who develop COVID symptoms to assume that they have COVID-19, to follow stringently the COVID-safe protocols and to isolate themselves, will have any real impact either.

All the more reason as we have all been encouraged to do, to get vaccinated to be better protected against the virus and our fellow countrymen who will not follow these rules.

While many have been tracking the second dose percentages of total vaccinated adults in Fiji, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) is instead, keeping a close watch on the first dose percentages.

This we feel, is more indicative of our vaccination programs and gives everyone a more indicative timeline for a return to some semblance of near normalcy and dare we say it, reopening our borders.

We have a vaccinated target of 80percent of eligible adults being aimed for.

The first dosage data is nearing that figure, with Fiji currently at 77 percent of eligible adults taking the first step to being vaccinated, with a more likely scenario being that we are actually at 80 percent given that data collation can be slower to feed in from the various sources.

It is also presumed that the vaccination figures are matched with the vaccine dose inventory with a certain percentage of wastage also factored in, and if we followed this through with the eight to ten weeks estimate for the administration of the second dose, we would arrive at a time frame that we might expect our 80 percent target.

Don’t forget to add 2 weeks post jab number 2 for full immunity to kick in.

That will be the time to ask “Are we there yet?” because the tourism industry is expected to be already working its way through its reopening plans by this stage.

FHTA is far from being medical professionals, but we are voracious in our appetite to understand more of this virus and are unrelentingly driven by the need to overcome its impact because we recognize that we cannot have a tourism industry while the virus remains a threat for Fiji.

It really is that simple.

We are constantly pushing the vaccination message to our members and their staff and in all of our communications channels because we know this is the right thing to do.

It is expected to take at least 3 months to get reopening ready. For businesses that have been in hibernation, fully closed or only open intermittently and even then, at only a fraction of their normal size; there are huge challenges to overcome regardless of their size.

These include locating and retraining staff in all the new COVID-safe requirements in the service industry, getting them back in fresh uniforms and back in service-ready form.

Resorts must repair and refill swimming pools that have been empty for 18 months or more, landscape and trim overgrown gardens, repair or replace equipment, sea walls and machines, before addressing the huge cost of replacing and replenishing emptied out food and beverage items for restaurants and bars.

There is currently some concern that there will not be sufficient availability of the products and even services that will be required to support the industry get reopening ready.

Whether supplies of replacement equipment, repair expertise and stock will be accessible once identified.

Resorts around Fiji must bring back their chefs, maintenance, service, cleaning and support staff while dealing with the effect of humidity and tropical weather on closed rooms and furnishings.

Marine based activity providers, airlines and cruise vessels must get their operations out from under covers and storage and prepare equipment and get staff safety compliant, re-licensed and training approved.

Everyone must have their revamped marketing plans prepped and ready to go.

There is also obviously a need to understand timeframes on which markets will be ready and that Fiji will be able to open to and what the expected welcome format will be towards them – as either vaccinated or non-vaccinated visitors.

The industry will need confirmation on the airline schedules and expected uptake so that it can adequately match the inventory with demand and ensure that inventory is refreshed, sufficient in quantity, and ready to compete with the best quality, products, services and holiday packages.

With this in front of the industry, it continues to work on the areas it can make a difference with now; and this includes supporting efforts to get communities it works in to be made safer.

Despite the currently escalating infection rates and despite fully understanding the economic shortfalls without its usually formidable influence on employment, supply lines and the large, multiplier effects throughout the country; tourism cannot afford to be anything but pragmatic.

We see the bigger picture and are remaining steadfastly focused on what must happen first before we can get back to doing what we do best.

But first, we must survive and we must help our communities survive.

We will not have a tourism industry without our people.

We will not have our people with COVID still here.

We might be able to live with COVID eventually, but not before we make that possible on our terms only. And science tells us that this means vaccinating so that we are immune to its deadly consequences.

Why we cannot get the rest of Fiji to understand this is beyond our understanding.

For Fiji, ever Fiji as our lovely national anthem reminds us.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 29 July 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Do what you can

Tourism Talanoa: Do what you can

FHTA, 22 July 2021 – Last week saw the announcement of the much-anticipated Fijian National Budget for 2021/2022. That evening every concerned citizen was attentively glued to their TV and phone, trying to work out how each new measure and initiative being announced was going to affect them, their business, community, industry and eventually how this was all going to help us get our economy back into shape.

Some wise person noted correctly that “The biggest communication problem is that we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply.”

I would like to imagine that many of us in hearing the budget, first tried to understand it and while I also imagine there probably has never existed a perfect budget, I have no doubt there is always fault to find if that is what one seeks only to find.

Let’s face it, the country isn’t in the best fiscal shape, so it is not a huge stretch of the imagination to recognise that given we’ve just had an economic contraction of 15.7 percent in 2020, with a further 4.1 percent contraction projected for this year, (and a loss of over $2 billion in GDP), we need some pragmatic use of what little we do have.

From the early days of this pandemic, the industry had opined quietly but determinedly, that vaccination would be the essential driver in getting the country to the new-normal COVID-19 was enforcing on us globally.

The Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) is, therefore, very encouraged to see that this is one of the 2021/2022 National Budget’s key focus areas with the Ministry of Health & Medical Services being allocated what we hope is what they needed.

Key initiatives announced are expected to address the economic shortfalls with many support programs being continued from last year that is still needed, and new ones being introduced for the unemployed.

As one of the largest employers that were forced to shed workers immediately after borders shut, the focus on income support for the unemployed acknowledges that we still have thousands of Fijians out of work who still need to be provided for.

Continuing in the background with very little acknowledgement or publicity, many tourism operators have been providing for their staff who have been the backbone of the industry with their warmth and smiles, and we are delighted to see that they will receive more assistance in the coming months.

We have no doubt though, that they would rather be back at work earning a living and doing what they love best.

While our economy is not expected to rebound to 2019 levels for at least three years, we remain a little more optimistic. How could we not be in an industry that sells happiness, rest and recreation?

FHTA acknowledges of course, that several key milestones must be achieved beforehand and more business supportive policies introduced or continued to enable a faster industry turnaround.

The focus on vaccination as a condition of employment is the biggest milestone to achieve for Fiji, to get its largest industry back to work under safer work conditions.

Additionally, as a small and developing island nation, Fiji might be getting crushed by this pandemic now, but we have an unwavering belief in the resilience of our people and our ability to get back up again, pick up the pieces and move on forward.

We have seen this time and again over the decades, the industry has continued its progressive and determined growth. Through the worst storms, cyclones, floods, political upheavals and economic downturns.

We are still here and we need to get back to work and the only way to safely manage reopening borders and any interaction with incoming visitors is to ensure that as many people as possible have been vaccinated and therefore stand the best chance of avoiding getting sick or making anyone else sick.

Under the business revival strategies, FHTA welcomes the retention of tax reforms that were introduced last year that the industry has not been able to take advantage of with closed borders and the rippling effect of closed tourism businesses.

From the removal of taxes like STT (6%), the reduction in others like the Environment Climate Adaptation Levy (ECAL) from 10% to 5%, the reduction in departure and alcohol taxes, as well as on import tariffs on around 2,000 items; it is critical to both businesses and supply lines that taxes and consequently contract rates remaining steady, provided the prerequisite business confidence for Fiji to compete internationally.

Welcome news also, was the inclusion this year of other business support measures where fees and charges for licensing and compliance are either being waived or will be paid for by Government through its COVID-19 recovery credit guarantee scheme.

Tourism is never just about hotel rooms near beautiful beaches. If it were, we would never have seen the growth we have had that has contributed to 40% of GDP.

The ability of a tropical destination in a prime location to offer a range of holidays options with a variety of activities in adventure, eco, cultural, marine and nature-based options is what has driven tourism’s phenomenal growth.

Obviously having the friendliest people in the world delivering these options, a world-class national airline and decent infrastructure for a developing island nation press home our advantage.

But it is essentially the large number of SME businesses that both create and drive these opportunities in offering variety and choice to our markets.

So, the supportive initiatives announced to help SME’s meet their operational needs, including payment of wages and salaries, rental cost, utility bills, purchase of stocks and other working capital requirements are far more important than many might otherwise realise.

The Association had identified a need for existing tourism businesses to get reopening-ready and this was granted where depending on the size of the investment, 5-year income tax holidays and customs duty exemptions have been made possible for refurbishing and renovations.

We are preparing for borders to reopen later this year if the 80% adult population vaccination requirement is reached. Anyone who has been closed for over 12 months, in hibernation or operating intermittently at a fraction of their size must plan how they will reopen.

They must grapple with issues like staff access and retraining in new COVID-safe protocols, how much they spend on replenishing food and beverage stocks, whether they renovate and refurbish all their rooms that have been closed or just some, to replace or fix equipment and machinery, landscape overgrown gardens and set up a maintenance program for pools, buildings and seawalls.

If they were transfer providers with either vessels or vehicles; these too will need maintenance and completion of compliance requirements.

In addressing a range of Ease of Doing Business Reforms, the Budget also recognised the need to continue on-going efforts that have no doubt been appreciated by many other businesses and industries.

The further deferral of the VAT Monitoring System (VMS) to Jan 2024 makes practical sense that has been incentivised with businesses voluntarily implementing it is provided with a 300 percent tax deduction for associated costs.

Some initiatives announced to support the current limited cash flow challenges being agonised over by many, so tax penalty waivers on repayment of real tax through payment arrangements will be appreciated.

While others simply make sense, like the implementation and use of EFTPOS machines in all Government agencies where payments and fees are required to be made.

The budget gets reviewed in 6 months.

In the meantime, as Theodore Roosevelt said ” Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”.

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

Tourism Talanoa: The Second Half

Tourism Talanoa: The Second Half

FHTA, 15 July 2021 – Last Saturday, we forgot for a brief 80 minutes about COVID-19 and its terrifying grip on our beautiful island nation.

And oh, how the Flying Fijians put it to the mighty All Blacks!

They started the match with a hiss and a roar but the Kiwis eventually proved steadier and better in the latter stages of the first match.

In the end, it didn’t matter what the scoreboard said. A Tier 2 nation provided a gutsy performance in what was always going to be a tough clash against a Tier 1 nation.

This weekend will see the second Test match get underway and we might want to hit the second half of the match the same way we started last week so that things might come out different.

What was never in any doubt though, was the collective national spirit and unbridled patriotism that was being felt around the country by those who could see the eventful match and by every other rugby-mad Fijian around the world.

If only every Fijian in Fiji could have witnessed it as well. But, that’s another story.

As we enter the second half of the year that is fiscally the start of a brand-new financial year for the public sector; anticipation is building as we look forward to the annual National Budget that will be announced by Government tomorrow.

Fiji, now deep into the second wave of COVID-19 infections which has gripped the nation with almost 12,000 total confirmed cases and 58 deaths since March 2020, is in critical need of a clear pathway out of this crisis.

And many hope that pathway, along with getting 80% of our adult population vaccinated, will be defined in the upcoming budget. Or at the very least provides the needed impetus to see our way through it.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association presented its Budget submission to the Ministry of Economy and is hoping, like many other industries who have presented theirs, that we will get some confirmation that we can plan for a more positive second half.

With some pragmatic outcomes to support industries to survive the current crisis and clear strategies for reviving the economy, we can eventually put the last 16 months behind us.

Far too many businesses have been forced to close their doors during this past year and we know too well the effect this has had on increasing unemployment numbers and the subsequent impact on families and livelihoods.

SME’s have been the most impacted and we fear many may have closed their businesses for good.

What is not always recognised is that SME’s make up a large proportion of tourism and other critical industries, and the impact they have on our economy. They play a crucial role in providing job opportunities to the different strata of society and this ensures the flow of money across these many levels.

The tourism industry must be supported by a viable national airline, quality infrastructure and communication networks and globally recognised accommodation brands.

But that is not all a popular holiday destination like Fiji requires to be sustainable and successful, even though we are naturally blessed with over 300 beautiful islands and an abundance of sunshine and friendly people.

We also need many categories of accommodation providers to suit the different budget demands and we need as many varieties of activities and entertainment options located in and around Fiji’s beautiful locations to suit a variety of discerning visitors.

And with this, we need to have a range of transportation options so visitors can get around, and let’s not forget the need for suppliers of food, beverages, fresh produce and training courses, amongst many others.

Hence, the importance of SME’s.

Last year’s budget saw the welcome rescinding of the Service Turnover Tax (STT) and reduction of Environment & Climate Adaptation Levy (ECAL) to 5%, along with the reductions in fiscal and import duties.

However, these initiatives could not make the intended impact they might have, without international visitors while borders remained closed.

So, they need to remain to have the intended impact.

Since its introduction in the 2017-2018 financial year, ECAL collections have totalled F$270.2M of which FJ $255.9 has been used to finance 102 projects that addressed issues like climate change, environmental conservation, and infrastructure. ECAL was largely collected from tourism operators.

As the earner of 46 percent of the country’s total Gross Domestic Product in 2019, tourism has taken an enormous hit that has not just been felt economically.

The bigger impact has been felt and continues to drastically impact the communities that tourism businesses operate from, because of tourism’s large, multiplier effect.

With increased unemployment and lower demand for materials, resources, and fresh produce; there is also reduced economic activity in the communities where tourism is the key employer because of lower or lost incomes.

With the introduction of new traffic light systems, travel corridors and any travel bubbles that may henceforth define what our future tourism outlook might look like, the focus on vaccination programs remains key for Fiji like many other countries.

So, we sincerely hope that the Ministry of Health gets a well-deserved increase in its allocated budget to deal with its now much higher demand on service and operational activities.

For the tourism sector, FHTA has identified the need for critical financial support for businesses to be reopening-ready, prepare to access new markets, consider business diversifications and improve online-commerce capabilities.

Every business regardless of size must be ready to access their staff to refresh and retrain them in the new COVID safe service requirements and be prepared to restock their bars and restaurants, upgrade and service any transport fleet, refurbish rooms and lobbies, mend seawalls and empty swimming pools, trim trees and landscape overgrown gardens.

Fiji will be no different to many other destinations rethinking strategies and reviewing our thinking about where we expect changes might come from so that we grab opportunities to capture new markets if and when presented.

And without any previous experience to base new strategies on, we should consider that the world’s most developed countries have made errors too when addressing or trying to contain this ever-evolving virus. Many of whom are seeing their second or third waves.

We are struggling as well to correctly judge how far ahead to plan for. Whether to start slow and build momentum or fully open with all hands on deck. To trust current trends and focus on traditional markets that may themselves not be ready for us, or take chances on new markets with our rapidly reducing resources.

The world we knew is almost unrecognisable now.

For now, caring about not letting more people die, stopping the spread and vaccinating should be the number one priority for the planet and not just Fiji.

In unsteady waters, we need a steady beacon to guide us back.

Then we can forget the scoreboard and start again.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 15 July 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: We All Know What To Do

Tourism Talanoa: We All Know What To Do

FHTA, 8 July 2021 – As we move into another week of this second wave of high volumes of COVID-19 infections, Suva City has introduced an innovative drive-through vaccination option to cope with the influx of people seeking protection from the deadly virus.

The line of vehicles lining up to access this service at Suva’s Albert Park pavilion is inspiring to see and we applaud all those citizens that are making use of this opportunity to get vaccinated.

It’s highly plausible that Fiji will reach its targeted vaccination target of eligible adults in the coming months if the demand remains at current levels. We have achieved 54 per cent of first-doses for the target population while a total of 9 per cent have now received both doses and are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 once they move past the 2 weeks post receiving the last vaccination.

Vaccines are effective at preventing COVID-19 disease, especially severe illness and death and reduce the risk of people spreading the disease further.

Some people have shared the experiences of getting their elderly parents and even grandmothers making the often-difficult effort to get vaccinated, including a young lady with her 101-year-old grandmother. All shared the same concern about doing their bit and caring that those around them are protected.

A remarkable effort indeed from senior citizens that puts to shame some members of our society with little to no regard for their fellow citizens, members of their community or their families.

If the elderly and compromised can get the vaccine, your excuse ‘not’ to be vaccinated is invalid, inconsiderate, uninformed and unpatriotic.

The 7-day average of new cases per day in Fiji has increased to 383 cases per day or 433 cases per million population per day.

With the increasing case numbers, there have been also been increasing numbers of people with severe effects and far too more deaths in the Suva-Nausori containment zone.

This is of deep concern to many of us doing all we can to practice and adopt the protocols that keep us safer.

The tourism industry has seen many of its workers get inoculated and several hotel properties have joined the increasing numbers of businesses jubilantly confirming that they are 100 per cent vaccinated.

We thank them for their perseverance and patriotism in seeing that all who were eligible received the vaccines because we understand that this has not been easy to achieve.

As the annual National Budget announcement by the Government looms near, the tourism industry is refocusing efforts to ensure we can lay critical pathways in preparation for the much-awaited reopening of borders.

There has never been any doubt that a vaccinated workforce will be a critical factor in a border reopening framework, with the reciprocal expectation of international visitors being able to confirm their vaccinated and COVID free status.

Still, the misinformation exists and is perpetuated by those who remain vehemently against getting the jab. Their choice to not be vaccinated is their universal right of refusal but they shouldn’t be influencing those around them who may be more gullible.

If their family or friends choose not to be vaccinated due to their misinformation and fall ill and possible die, the onus must be on the carrier of fake news to shoulder that guilt.

Our villages and settlements are rife with murmurings to that effect and this could hamper Fiji’s drive to reach our target population requirement of 80%.

Due to current regulations on social distancing, the Ministry of Health & Medical Services is actively recruiting COVID Ambassadors who will ensure that all health protocols set by MOHMS is adhered to and the correct protection is being worn in all areas following the reopening of many businesses.

Despite these innovative moves to ensure compliance, if the naysayers achieve what they set out for, which is standing against vaccination, Fiji will have no other option than to move into the next phase.

That would be moving our focus and resources from total virus suppression to entirely virus management.

That is not the preferred scenario obviously because the only losers will be unvaccinated.

Israel has been serving as an example to other countries as it went through a similar second wave of Delta-variant COVID infections recently.

Israeli health officials were more focused on hospitalisations and deaths, which has remained relatively low and in the past two weeks, their health ministry has recorded only one death from COVID-19. In January, at the height of the country’s second wave, it was recording close to 80 deaths per day.

When we read these staggering figures, we simply cannot imagine that happening in Fiji.

We must NOT let that happen.

Our level of civil disobedience and breaking of national regulations therefore should be of great concern to more people.

We do not just want to protect our families, our people and our communities from getting sick. Neither is it just about getting to a point where we can reopen our borders safely and get back to business and kickstarting our struggling economy.

These are certainly important milestones.

However, many more people are missing their loved ones because the current situation has forced them to stay apart because of work in high-risk areas like medical and emergency services, or because of the containment zones restricting movement, while closed borders for 16 months have forced millions around the world apart.

And let’s not forget the current inability to feel “human” again that includes being able to give and see a smile without masks, to shake hands and embrace, to share stories, food, kava and love with family and friends on special occasions.

To be able to see a sick loved one in a hospital or pay our respects in our own personal, traditional ways at a funeral, wedding or birth.

Those small but very important elements make us feel like we are part of society or communities and make us feel inherently connected.

Let’s not allow this virus to take those things away from us that connected us and made us who we still are.
We know what to do.

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

Tourism Talanoa: Stemming the Flow

Tourism Talanoa: Stemming the Flow

FHTA, 1 July 2021 – Hindsight, they say, is 20/20.

The ability to sit back and analyse and dissect past events or instances is a joy that most, especially critics, can find solace (or pleasure!) in doing.

There has been quite a few should-have, could-have and would-have but they don’t change the fact that we are where we are right now.

This second wave has consistently recorded 300 plus confirmed COVID cases daily for the past few days and that tells us that the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 is no average virus for which most vaccines were initially planned to protect us from.

Even our neighbour to the West, Australia, is grappling with several community outbreaks of the extremely contagious out Delta variant, with a wave of restrictions rolling across the country and plunging some cities into lockdown for the first time since the pandemic began.

Sydney, Darwin and Perth have gone into full-blown lockdowns and light restrictions have been implemented in Adelaide and Canberra.

Australia has not reached our numbers of infections and confirmed cases in the current situation and the rapid response with mitigative measures have been put into place to counter their currently low vaccination numbers.

Fiji’s total vaccinated adults is around 7 percent of the target recipients, or 80% of our total population, with 49 percent having received the first dose of vaccine by the 29th of June.

The outbreak in Australia pales in comparison to Fiji’s but both nations enjoyed a charmed life in the early days despite the global pandemic due to the rigid rules that were implemented from when international borders closed.

New Zealand has paused its Trans-Tasman bubble for a few days as Australia manages this new wave of infections and we have no doubt that Fiji is paying close attention because these two nations are our tourism industry’s key target markets.

Visitors from these countries accounted for at least 75 percent of total visitors into Fiji pre-COVID.

We believe we were actually getting closer to being included in the Trans-Tasman bubble until the current wave started. Or at the very least, being considered.

So, we know what we’re capable of, what is required of us and, we have a fairly good grasp of what lies ahead.

We just need to tame this beast in front of us.

How? And this might start to sound like we are repeating ourselves (and we are), but it is clear to those of us in the tourism industry that getting vaccinated, following the current health regulations and changing our current behaviour is our only chance to get out of this.

By staying in our own bubbles, washing or sanitising our hands, keeping our distance from others and avoiding crowds. By calling 158 or 917 if you see gatherings or other violations of Fiji’s health measures. By being the best patriotic versions of ourselves and doing the right thing, at the right time.

Many of us fail to realise how difficult this might be for many people to actually do though.

If the only way you know to survive is to go out and sell your fresh produce, the baked goods you prepare daily, the items you sew each night or to do work you are paid daily for; your alternative options are limited.

If you choose to stay home because it is deemed safer, or because they locked down your residential area, then you must rely on others to provide the food you can no longer buy, with money you could not earn.

The reliance on others to support you and your family may impact your self-esteem and if this support comes late or intermittently, can also affect your mental health.

Just a few areas that many of us that are more fortunate may not fully appreciate.

On the positive side, our rugby 7s teams, both the men’s and women’s teams, had a wonderful weekend of rugby this past week and they have provided some very positive messaging for fans to follow in their successful strides by getting fully vaccinated.

Even our rugby champions have been vaccinated to not only protect themselves, their teammates and families, but to ensure they could travel abroad and play against any other team.

And yet, we are still seeing resistance in many of our communities.

The tourism industry has been at the forefront of getting all employees vaccinated and this has probably been easier to implement in an industry that has had to implement the COVID safe protocols early.

That is not to say we have not faced some resistance, but only that we have had more time to work on our collective communication efforts and monitor where we need to work harder on efforts.

This is despite the vast amounts of misinformation and well shared false claims on the virus and/or the vaccine. Suddenly social media is awash with overnight medical ‘experts’ extolling the virtues of not getting the vaccine.

These false prophets might be harmless enough but can be disruptive if they are believed and become self-professed influencers.

But we can and must learn from them to derail them at their own games.

What can each of us do to get the right messages out and ensure we protect Fiji?

Speak out on the positives. Share your stories and why protecting your family, friends, colleagues or customers is important.

Share your pictures. Explain the science and provide the evidence. Talanoa, listen and discuss the concerns people have and help them to understand.

In the language of preference, by people they respect and will heed or at the very least to consider.

While we still have some way to go for a fully vaccinated industry, there are many operators who are already happy to share their success because they know they have a critical layer of protection in place, and can now focus on their reopening strategies.

We are extremely proud of the bulk of our tourism staff who have been loyal and fully onboard with what it means to be vaccinated. Thousands of them rushed to their nearest vaccination station and did their bit despite the naysayers.

And that’s how the entire tourism fraternity continues to plan for receiving international guests, despite the current wave of infections and negative press.

We are focusing on survival.

We are focusing on recovery.

We are focusing on coming back better and stronger.

We need our staff to get back to work.

We need our tourism business machinery to start humming again to make Fiji the destination of choice again.

We need our suppliers to get to work so our once fruitful relationships can recommence.

We need all the ancillary SME businesses we cannot do without to be back up and running again.

Bottom line, we need our national economy to begin to hum again.

Sounds simple? That’s because it actually is.

Spread that positive vaccination message.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 1 July 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: It’s Worth Your Consideration

Tourism Talanoa: It’s Worth Your Consideration

FHTA, 24 June 2021 – As Fiji crossed the 2,000 mark this week in total COVID positive cases, one thing has become glaringly clear in these past few months of second wave transmissions and infections.

There is a critical need to ramp up our vaccinations and share more widely, the very real repercussions if we do not succeed in doing so.

We realise that we have many people who have accepted that this is the safest and most sensible thing to do, just as much as we acknowledge that there are slightly more people that still need to be convinced, are not sure or simply have not made a decision because they do not appreciate the tenuous situation Fiji is in.

Those unwilling have been resolute in their beliefs, and we respect their decision.

But how do we get the willing (and yet to be vaccinated) and those still on the fence to get vaccinated?

From free beers to lottery tickets, many locations around the world have introduced vaccine incentives.

A village in Indonesia is giving out live chickens. A town in the Netherlands is offering fish and even the state of Ohio in America allows vaccinated adults to enter the draw for five US$1 million cash prizes.

Yes, US$5 million in cash. For a needle in your arm that could ultimately save your life, the lives of those around you and determine whether Fiji will be able to open up her borders again.

From one end of the spectrum to the other, the need to make vaccines appealing and a must-have for adults is as necessary as ever, especially for Fiji.

As incentives go, these examples may just be the beginning of where things may move so we can eventually “get on with our lives”.

Countries around the world have practised hard lockdowns in various forms and these have been challenging for families, businesses and entire cities both financially, economically and psychologically.

Whether impacted by the trauma of sickness and death from COVID around them or having to suffer through lockdowns and restricted movements; once the vaccines became available, it appeared easier to convince the larger proportion of most of these affected populations to get vaccinated to get their curtailed freedoms back and ensure they could save more people from contracting the virus.

Despite calls from many avenues for harder lockdowns in Fiji, doing so ignores what the fabric of our society is really made up of.

If for example only 30% of our population pays taxes and around 40% are below the tax bracket, what is the size of our informal sector who depend on daily wages to provide food and shelter for their families?

Remove the ability to access this daily wage because of the current restrictions and business closures, and we put an already fragile part of the population at greater risk.

So, lockdowns might work in developed countries with access to easy credit, wage support and insurance amongst other supportive programs; but unless we have better social nets to support our own less fortunate people, we are simply pretending they don’t exist, or do not appreciate the need for more support from those of us fortunate enough to still have a job and bank accounts.

We must therefore all collectively convince those who are undecided or against being vaccinated, just why they should vaccinate or must make up their minds and get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Because surely, that should be the far simpler and less traumatic thing to do than locking us all up and telling us not to move around, while many of our own people will be forced to rely on the goodwill of social workers and the Government to provide food and medicine.

What would incentivise more people to accept being vaccinated? An incentive is something that motivates, rouses or encourages and convinces us that we should make a decision or take a recommended action.

What has motivated people in Fiji before?

Rugby teams winning in grand style, religious leaders moving their congregations because their words have touched people’s hearts or musicians singing rousing renditions of old favourites that bring tears to the eyes?

What incentivised the recent causes of queues stretching for blocks in towns and cities around Fiji, with people waiting patiently for hours in the sun and rain?

From access to work to entry into restaurants, free coffee and the chance to win money, the list is steadily growing for innovative incentives to get people to get vaccinated or ensure they complete their second dose.

In Fiji’s case, that means two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, spaced out between eight to ten weeks.

As the tourism industry continues to thrash out detailed plans for a safe post-pandemic return to some form of new-normalcy, one important piece of the puzzle is employee vaccinations.

We are also recognising that some of our tourism workforces have also been hesitant about getting vaccinated for some reason or another, and we continue to diligently provide support and access to factual information to ensure they have everything they need to make their decisions.

But, when all is said and done, we will support our industry’s employers to access the best advice on the policies they must have in place to ensure they can confirm that only vaccinated workers, and therefore a safer workforce, is in place before those borders reopen.

It then falls onto the employers to remind their employees that taking the vaccine isn’t just a positive individual action, but rather a collective embrace of the greater good for the nation.

That might be a lot of pressure.

In comparison to Fiji’s borders remaining closed for the rest of the year and even next year, however, that pressure does not come close.

These are difficult times we all agreed in 2020 when COVID first shut international borders. It is now a whole year on and we are losing our grip on keeping our communities safe, with infections rising and already far too many deaths.

Local employment experts indicate that while the personal choice and freedom of an individual are well protected, employers are within their rights to cease employment if being vaccinated is essential to carrying out one’s duties.

That would be the case with many tourism operations that have a majority of staff that interact with or share spaces with guests. The vaccination requirement will be added to the list of protection tourism workers will need to come to work along with safety shoes, face masks, uniforms and relevant work tools.

What has been a positive for the industry so far, is the general acceptance, understanding and eagerness of the majority of our industry staff to be a part of the vaccinated statistics.

That’s Fiji’s tourism sector in a nutshell – always looking to go above and beyond to get the industry moving in the right direction.

We know there is no other way that the borders will reopen until the target of 80 per cent is reached.

We can incentivise the vaccinations, make it a simpler process, communicate at the levels that our people need to be engaged with and appeal to everyone to spread positive information on getting vaccinated.

It makes economic sense and will shorten our current, collective pain eventually.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 24 June 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Are You Vaccinated?

Tourism Talanoa: Are You Vaccinated?

FHTA, 17 June 2021 – This is has become the start of many conversations around Fiji whether catching up on a Zoom meeting, on Viber message groups and family catch-ups or lining up in the marked out 2-metre spaces at supermarkets, coffee shops, doctors and mobile network outlets.

And if the answer is yes, the conversation moves on to “So, when is your second jab due?”, “Where did you go?”, and eventually, “How long were you in line for?”.

When vaccinations commenced on 9th March this year, Fiji became the first Pacific Island country to begin vaccinations for COVID-19.

Fijian businesses along with thousands of Fijians gratefully acknowledge the vaccine donations from Australia, India, the COVAX facility and soon, New Zealand and China.

Herd immunity is the current buzzword even though it is still unclear to many just how this will help protect us from becoming severely ill and even dying of COVID-19.

It has been mentioned a few times during the early press conferences of this second wave of COVID infections, but perhaps not enough emphasis is provided for a larger proportion of our population to really grasp the meaning and intention of the herd immunity goals.

The 80 per cent immunity targets often discussed needs to be taken into the context of coverage of the adult population, and while this appears a big ask, is definitely achievable with far more innovative communication efforts aimed at ensuring that our communities that cannot usually access newspapers, TV and regular internet services are not left out.

The only real issue then would be ensuring we have sufficient vaccines to cover the population effectively with two doses. And the good doctor has confirmed we will.

Our Ministry of Health & Medical Services’ target for vaccinations is 587,651 of which 237,940 people have apparently received their first doses so far. So, people of Fiji – if we want to have these movement restrictions lifted, we need another 350,000 people to get vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Most of those in the tourism industry who chose to be vaccinated early is included in that 237,940, after very focused plans and concentrated activity by tourism stakeholders from mid-April to get as many of their staff protected against the virus.

In the months during the vaccination drive, the industry’s stakeholders did a series of outreaches to their staff and the communities they lived in.

Many of these communities are out in the maritime islands of the Mamanucas, Yasawa Islands and up North from Savusavu to Taveuni. They are also spread out from the Coral Coast, moving along the western coastline and all the way to the hotter regions from Vuda to the Sun Coast.

In most areas where there is a resort or tourism-related business, the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) has encouraged sharing information, holding awareness sessions and ensuring tourism staff, their families and their communities have been provided clear information on the new COVID safe work guidelines and how vaccines can add that critical, extra layer of protection.

We have no doubt that a critical part of the information being shared in the vernacular languages whenever required, helped to get tourism workers in the right frame of mind to agree to be vaccinated.

The recent announcement that the Ministry of Health was rolling out plans to work with the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs to raise awareness of the importance of the vaccine was certainly positive news.

This is an initiative that we have no doubt will make better progress in reducing misinformation and allow many of our people who otherwise might not get a chance, to hear first-hand what this is all about and to ask the niggling questions for themselves.

While tourism businesses still cannot say they have everyone vaccinated yet, there is better understanding even from workers not currently employed, that they can register and change their minds whenever they believe they are ready.

It is a process for many. To understand, accept and then agree that the negative things you heard are actually not true, with tourism employers doing everything they can to support this process.

Employers are in a Catch 22 position over the vaccination issue, especially in what are considered high-risk industries and businesses, with tourism only a step down in risk categories from medical and aged care workers.

On the one hand, they have an obligation to protect their workers and their customers, but on the other hand, must also consider the individual right of the worker to choose.

Many tourism workers are now coming up to their recommended time for second doses and they are understandably excited to complete their vaccination programme for maximum possible protection.

For those who have not had the opportunity or have opted out for whatever reason, they are being urged not to let misinformation and fake news stop them from getting their doses of the vaccine.

The messaging has been simple. That everyone understands that when you get vaccinated, you not only protect yourself from infection, but you also protect those around you, including your close family that you live with first, and then your co-workers, your public transport drivers, your favourite market vendors and supermarket cashiers and anyone you could very quickly infect without even realising.

As more and more people in a community vaccinate, the virus will have a harder and harder time spreading.
Because COVID-19 is such a stealthy virus — it spreads quickly and silently — it is not expected to ever go away so until the vast majority of our people are immunized, we are all unsafe.

Until then, schools, non-essential businesses and houses of worship cannot open.

And while we miss the ability to gather for weddings, birthdays, funerals or work conferences, we should be ready to accept those restrictions will continue to apply in some measure until we have the required number of vaccinations to reduce the virus’s hold on our lives.

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

We realise things will not magically return to how they were pre-COVID as the virus will never really be eradicated.

We must simply learn to live with it by continuing to observe the COVID-safe guidelines of reduced crowding, social distancing, wearing protective masks, hand washing and sanitizing.

Border closures for months or even years is not an option for this industry. Or for Fiji’s economic recovery.

So, this is our new normal and we have had over twelve months to get to grips with what is required.

Fiji can and will be on par with the world in terms of keeping our people safe and being ready to confirm our COVID-contained vaccinated status and ready for international travel again.

We are quite looking forward to that day as I am sure many of you are as well.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 17 June 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: A Sea of Hope

Tourism Talanoa: A Sea of Hope

FHTA, 10 June 2021 – This week saw the commemoration of World Oceans Day.

As an island nation, we know that the sea supports us with food and as a source of income for many, amongst its many other bountiful benefits here in the Pacific.

The seas are home to marine life that sustains livelihoods and feeds billions. They are the lungs of the planet, keeping our atmosphere habitable by sucking out vast amounts of harmful carbon.

It is our responsibility to protect the ocean.

Our marine and hospitality members ensure that they use sustainable practices when sailing, diving or simply utilising the ecosystem without which their livelihoods could not survive, and we must continue to support and promote that this is standard practice throughout the industry.

This is one more reason that the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) is conducting a brief survey on our members with marine vessels. We need to ensure that every vessel is compliant and ready for business if and when the borders open up again.

Renowned humanitarian Mother Teresa said that “We ourselves feel what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean.”

“But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

Oh, how true that rings today!

It speaks to us as individuals and businesses that must approach our COVID-safe measures during the current wave of infections to ensure we take responsibility for keeping our staff and customers safe, and that we are also providing confidence to the ministries tasked with providing the approvals to open or to travel, that we do know what to do, to play our part in reducing the spread of the virus.

While it often feels that what we’re doing may not be enough, or as effective, it is the collective effort of everyone doing all the little things right that will support our eventually getting ahead of this situation.

The Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus which is currently in Fiji is far more transmissible than other strains which means we can get it far easier and therefore must make considerably more effort to try to avoid catching it.

With even the World Health Organisation acknowledging that it needs to do far more research on this variant to tackle it better.

Our authorities in Fiji are working overtime to try and flatten the curve and, regardless of our individual beliefs and personal (usually non-medical) theories, we really would be better focused to all lend a hand by at least pulling in the same direction.

For the tourism industry, that includes ensuring that our COVID-safe protocols are being followed more stringently by both staff and guests and that it is monitored and enforced.

Easier said than done obviously, but still a focused and concerted effort by all concerned because the end game of a safer reopening somewhere down the line is still the ultimate goal.

When the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) was rolled out, many tourism operators prepared to adapt to the new normal and adjust their standard operating procedures to the minimum required standard from Government, in anticipation of what would be required to welcome visitors back to their properties.

While many operators have been using these new-normal protocols for longer than non-tourism industry businesses, they were never simple or easy to implement.

The process included communication with and training of their staff for the enhanced requirements in hygiene and sanitization of rooms and public access areas. For a large resort, this means you have a separate and specific protocol for every restaurant, bar, shop, swimming pool, kitchen, spa, sports area, kids club, staff canteen, maintenance area etc.

This also included the implementation of new policies to guide the business at all times and to be prepared for an active case of COVID-19 were it to take place.

It involved openly discussing the need for vaccinations, their importance as an added protection measure and the role the industry could play in ensuring those borders would eventually open up for us.

It meant being honest with tourism staff about the possibility of businesses not reopening and of the potential for even more job losses.

There was dialogue with communities that relied on tourism in their areas. People were hired to communicate important messaging in the vernacular, and staff were encouraged to ask questions so that incorrect information from social media could be correctly responded to.

There has been much concern raised by commercial businesses and the many small, medium and micro-sized businesses who are bemoaning the new-normal requirements being demanded of them.

It was never easy to implement these far more stringent demands for our tourism members. But they were understood, accepted and adopted. And meant added costs.

Many of the open hotel properties today have lent their premises to be isolation or quarantine facilities, and while we thank them for supporting the authorities in this fight against the virus; we understand the extra miles they had to go to get their protocols into place.

While vaccination programmes are being rolled out and vaccines continue to arrive from generous donors, it just isn’t getting to everyone quick enough.

We would like to see vaccinations continue in the West, for example, having been halted recently.

Restrictions on unnecessary movement are still in place and while people are being encouraged to get vaccinated, it appears we need far more management of crowds in vaccination locales. It should not be that difficult to train a few volunteers who are currently out of work, in basic crowd control in return for a meal voucher or two.

There is no doubt we could find private sector support for the meal vouchers. The outcome would be a more efficient vaccination process with a far safer, socially distanced crowd and less chance of spreading the virus.

We are supporting vaccinations for as many people as possible and hope that there can be some meaningful discussions around the protection of the employee’s rights to make their own choices, as well as the employer’s responsibility to keep their staff and customers safe.

We realise it is a sensitive subject being discussed globally, but discuss it we must, as we have never doubted this would impact the future of travel.

New normal? We have not seen the full impact of what this will mean yet. For tourism. For Fiji. For the world.

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.

But with Fiji’s communal living framework, we can ensure that estimation does not happen here.

Tourism is a lifeline, offering workers a chance to earn a living where they live, or get a skill and use it to travel further for a richer experience.

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

We look out to sea and take it for granted. But for travellers, it can seem like a dream to work towards.

But first, we need to get our little Paradise in order and make it safe again.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 10 June 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Not Out of the Woods Yet

Tourism Talanoa: Not Out of the Woods Yet

FHTA, 3 June 2021 – As the skies rain down due to a deep low-pressure system over the Fiji group, the weather appears to mirror our collective gloom as we head into our seventh week of restricted movement and containment within specific areas.

Our active COVID case numbers continue to increase; an alarming confirmation that the virus is moving through far too many communities around the country, far too quickly.

Which unfortunately means we are still not heeding the medical advice to stay at home to avoid crowds, sanitise or wash hands often, mask up correctly and stop sharing everything as is our island inclination as caring Fijians.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, change over time. Most changes have little to no impact on the virus’ properties. However, some changes affect the virus’s propensity to spread more easily, impact humans more severely, or affect the performance of vaccines, therapeutic medicines, diagnostic tools, or other public health and social measures.

Due to the many variants of COVID-19 in the world right now, a new naming system has been put into place by WHO to correctly distinguish individual variants.

The variant currently in Fiji has been identified as the India variant of COVID-19 and is now officially referred to as COVID-19 Delta.

We certainly did not need a mercenary sounding name to make a havoc-causing virus that has held a bewildered population hostage for nigh on 2 months now, any more sinister.

This particular variant of COVID-19 that is running amok in our communities is highly transmissible and has increased in virulence. But the untold woe it has also caused the economy is just beginning to dawn on commercial and business interests that have not been impacted up to now.

Closed businesses must now apply to reopen after they have had to adapt to the current national regulations governing their operations and this is inconvenient and burdensome for many.

If you are a small operator, you must find a way to separate workers when they take meal breaks, constantly wipe down surfaces, provide accessible handwash stations with soap, make sanitisers available, take temperature tests at the business entrances and check that CareFiji Apps are on and operational with the use of mandatory smartphones.

This is neither simple to do, nor economical for a small garage with only 3 people working in it, or a small bakery with 5 workers and cramped space to sell baked goods from, or as a food restaurant responding to the demand for cheaper food options.

The bakers need curfew passes now to get to work by 4 am so that our fresh bread is ready when we wake up each morning.

Proprietors must now go online to apply for passes and organise transport for their staff to get to and from work. Large factories must rearrange workspaces, review delivery timetables, manage larger groups of workers to enable safer working environments and keep an eye on hygiene and correct mask-wearing to avoid planned on the spot fines.

Everyone applying to reopen their business must upload a copy of their COVID safe SOP’s. This key part of the requirement is not understood by many as being a critical part for the relevant ministries to be sufficiently confident that you have a guideline document in place, and more importantly, know how to go about keeping your staff and customers safe.

Unfortunately, there is insufficient help for small businesses to put this together along with training to ensure everyone does know what to do.

New protocols on reopening businesses have been rolled out but there is still widespread confusion on who needs to get approvals to reopen, and in the absence of known categories for trade, the majority of SME’s do not understand whether they are included in essential service listings, supplier listings or as support services.

For example, people must bury their deceased loved ones, so they must access mortuary services, who in turn need coffins made for them by suppliers, and for which carpenters need access to timber. However, the carpenters supplying coffins are unaware they are providing a support service for an essential service provider and timber suppliers are closed.

In the same manner that petrol stations were unaware they could be considered as support services for emergency service providers to refuel crucial transport lines.

Now might be the time for commerce and trade and all manner of businesses to gain a better understanding to being better prepared for business resilience for longer-term disasters, be aware of where they fit into supply chains and adopt plans to enable online connections and access clear communications.

For tourism businesses, navigating the wide range of business needs for SME’s, accommodation, activity and transport providers as well as suppliers to these and other forms of business within the tourism domain; requires understanding these separate but clear categorisations.

This allowed the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) to wade through the many requirements and clarify what needed to be done by who and how. Further bolstered by the already-in-place COVID safe operating procedures being practised that have been tested at various degrees of severity over the last 12 months.

But amidst the uncertainty of how we now operate under the new conditions and using the new normal ways to do business in such a way that we maintain some semblance of ensuring the economy continues to move in the right direction; we need to evaluate what speed with which we wish to move.

And more fundamentally, WHEN we decide we should be moving as a nation.

Moving back to work, to school and back home. To our families we miss and those communities we left and our island homes far away.

All still free of any COVID infections.

The pain tourism has experienced with the industry brought to its knees a year ago is as raw as ever, with severely diminished revenue streams and operational costs in play.

But no one doubts the risks COVID infections running through our communities would inflict, the disastrous impact on our population and how extremely difficult it would be to come back from that dark place that nations far more advanced than ours have found themselves in.

We do not believe we are quite out of the woods yet. And the rising infection rates certainly do not provide any confidence that giving in to economic pressure now is going to help the large community.

Lockdowns and containment areas are uncomfortable, puts pressure on already limited resources and pushes our informal sectors into desperate situations with access to food and medicine.

These are the areas we must focus on first.

Kudos to the Australian Government and other donor agencies for the generous support going directly to these needy communities through the CSO’s doing their very best with what they have, to reach those who need help the most.

Thanks also to those providing generously of their own time and funding to do what they can, including the provision of mental health support.

We also welcome the recent announcement by the Reserve Bank of Fiji approving another reduction in the interest rate charged on financial institutions that borrow under its Import Substitution and Export Finance Facility (ISEFF), Disaster Rehabilitation and Containment Facility (DRCF) and the Housing Facility (HF).

Financial institutions (commercial banks, license credit institutions and others) can pass on the reduction in interest rates to eligible businesses and households that have been struggling to manage during this crisis. The usual rate of 5percent will now be 3.99 per cent per annum effective from the start of this month.

Vaccination programs have been ratcheted up around the country and appear to be progressing well with more people recognising that being vaccinated can add a critical additional layer of protection. For them, their families and anyone they interact with.

With sufficient vaccinations, we could effectively reduce transmission, reduce the virus’s current strength and allow us to really open up safely.

We can open up safely soon enough. Let’s not rush this and regret it more painfully.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 3 June 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Difficult but Doable

Tourism Talanoa: Difficult but Doable

FHTA, 27 May 2021 – As the figures of our active COVID-19 cases reach three digits for the first time in Fiji, we are reminded once again of the importance of following the standing health regulations and protocols.

Fiji is teetering on a knife edge of a full-blown explosion of positive COVID cases that reinforces how critical Government’s vaccination programs are now even more than ever.

As we endure another week of restricted movement in our various containment areas, the tourism sector continues to work behind the scenes on the survival, revival and revitalisation of the industry given its well recognised importance to the economy, underpinned in no small part by how quickly more Fijians would get their jobs back once fully operational.

Our tourism fraternity has been engaged in supporting the various agencies with their logistical needs and we re-emphasise our appreciation to our members for doing so.

The national economy has been struggling under the immense pressure of not having tourism’s earning power and the industry’s thousands of supply lines and unemployed staff are bearing this same pain.

While individual business revenues directly and indirectly involved in the sector have sharply declined, fixed costs remain while critical cash flows rapidly deplete.

The Pacific Trade Invest issued its Pacific Business Monitor for this month making for more sobering reading. And while there are some bright spots, is still concerning nonetheless.

The report indicates the more prevalent business outlook that there will not be a return to pre-COVID revenue anytime soon until 2022 or later. Additionally, it notes that the extent and severity of COVID-19 on Pacific businesses has remained stable (as opposed to worsening), with 84 percent reporting a negative impact.

FHTA has shared through this forum, that we need to adapt our business practices to minimize potential exposure to infection for the medium to long term future, while ensuring that these practices impact our eventual recovery.

Travel and tourism organisations around the world collectively support the thinking that this will be the key to getting the industry out of the current crisis, with the global vaccination drive being the key to supporting this.

There is also no doubt that continued testing still plays an important role, as will building the confidence with future travellers into and out of Fiji that once we have reached the optimum vaccination levels that risks are reduced, will consequently be a natural segue way into improved confidence for borders reopening between regions.

There is more research suggesting that travel and tourism will bounce back quickly just as soon as the restrictive barriers that have enveloped the industry for more than a year start to be removed.

At the same time, we note the Cook Islands travel industry has not yet seen the immediate effect of borders reopening except for the VFR market (visiting friends & relatives) movement.

Australia has indicated that they are not willing to open their borders until mid-2022 due largely to the unfortunate stalling of their vaccination programs. While concerning for Fiji and the region, a positive might be that we will probably be on the receiving end of their now excess numbers of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines that are not so popular with their citizens.

For now, our focus is supporting Fiji get its vaccination numbers to herd immunity and whatever magic number is rated sufficient for our population to be considered immune enough for the disease, and a key component for the closed border situations to be reviewed.

No doubt, with the introduction of new traffic light systems, travel corridors and bubbles that will henceforth define what our future mobility will look like, the focus on vaccination programs remains key for most countries.

Most, if not all, of our tourism SME’s will need assistance to get back on their feet when the time is right and the PTI report supports our own views that there will be need for critical financial support, access to new markets, business diversifications and improved online-commerce capabilities.

We know that all segments of tourism are reviewing their business strategies.

Airlines are relooking at routes that have historically been built on solid data from travel demand, travel demographics and flight connections. Even then much of what happened immediately was never really a reliable sign of what would happen in the future, and now after the worst health crisis in modern times, much of this information is considered even more irrelevant.

Demand is now being influenced demographically and global tourism is experiencing never before seen changes from traditional source markets.

Fiji will be no different and if we are too rigid in our thinking about where we expect changes might come from, we may lose some opportunities to capture new markets that may not have a choice of how far they can travel from their homes.

Or consider safety in their travel plans as a major reason for confirming a future booking.

Like it or not, we must learn to live with COVID and the threat it holds on us for the foreseeable future.

We have now received a little over 200,000 vaccines from COVAX and donor countries and we expect to receive more in the coming months. Fiji’s vaccination target is around 600,000 people which amounts to 1.2 million vaccines for two doses per person without any wastage.

Whatever the magic number, it is indeed a huge expectation, but assuredly not impossible to achieve with recognised support from Australia and more promised from New Zealand to look forward to.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the medical staff need more active support and less keyboard warrior criticism. It is a tough job to convince a population of just under 1 million that the procedures developed are the best for the majority.

And without any precedents to base decisions on, it might be valid to keep in mind that the world’s most developed countries made some of the biggest mistakes in their own applications to addressing this virus.

Caring about not letting more people die, stopping the spread and vaccinating should be the number one priority strategy line for every country, business, and household.

All other decisions, action plans and activities simply flow on from these.

Difficult. But doable.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 27 May 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Preparing to Live With COVID

Tourism Talanoa: Preparing to Live With COVID

FHTA, 20 May 2021 – Zimbabwean author Matshona Dhliwayo said that “When all seems to be against you, remember, a ship sometimes has to sail against the current, not with it.”

Life, as we know it, is getting tougher as we navigate this pandemic with wariness and often increasing pessimism that things are indeed going to get worse before they get better. And one might be forgiven for thinking that we had already hit rock bottom by late last year and that surely, the only place left to go was up.

Alas, there was a basement level we forgot existed.

The well-documented effects of the border closures and subsequent flatlining of Fiji’s tourism industry have been heard about often enough.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA), through this weekly column, has endeavoured to provide background and insight into the industry’s workings, the multiplier effect it has throughout the economy, the impact of COVID more recently and how the industry was forced to respond, as well as the enormous repercussions of industry standing still for so long.

But in the background, far from that stillness, there are always discussions, planning and meetings still going on, to work on ways to support stem the outbreak worsening, prepare for the second vaccine jabs and review safe reopening preparations, amongst other challenges.

The capital city meanwhile, is in a state of collective shock with the lockdowns forcing family groups to stay within their bubbles, deal with the frequent rain, grumpy children in cramped yards and mountains of damp clothes, while their pantries had no doubt run out of food before the second day of lockdown had started.

In a population of 902,000, one out of three Fijians lives between Lami and Nausori with the bulk of low-cost housing and informal settlements located within this division.

No one understands why the few vehicles on the road are speeding or using sirens that scream incessantly and probably unnecessarily throughout the night. But it reminds everyone in the neighbourhoods they travel through even more poignantly, that everyone is locked in because this is supposed to help stop that sneaky virus.

How prepared will Fiji be for an inevitable reopening? Initially reopening sections in our cities, then regions and eventually our borders will have to be ready.

We can better understand now, the impact of not taking the virus as seriously as it should have been. It is now wreaking even more economic damage with other industries being forced to close. It is making more poor people go hungry and those on the margins of poverty slip further into it.

If you were able to plan your entire week’s meals during this week’s lockdowns and enjoyed those meals with a beer or a wine, consider yourself blessed and very lucky.

Those tourism workers that lost their jobs over the last twelve months have certainly not had this privilege. Their food handouts ceased many months ago unless they are still part of a resort or business community that still gets consistent support.

So, no resting for the businesses in the industry that will be at the forefront of any safe reopening strategies.
If the new thinking is to be believed and accepted more widely, Fiji needs to learn to live with COVID.

The COVID experts, growing by the thousands daily, advise that the first step is rapidly detecting people with infection, outbreaks and sites of increased transmission. We can check that off because this is what the controls in place now and lockdowns are all about.

The next 2 steps include isolating and managing infected people as well as investigating outbreaks. We can check these off as well because our nightly updates from the good doctors confirm this.

The ensuing measures of decreasing community transmission and strengthening control measures are probably the more difficult aspects to impose on our society.

Contact tracing, trusting people to self-isolate and insisting on mask-wearing, social distancing and enhanced hygiene can be difficult when people still believe they could not possibly get a virus they cannot see, do not understand and seriously doubt exists. Hygiene needs to be made more difficult no doubt when many parts of Suva still suffer intermittent water supplies.

We know the next three steps are in place which includes ensuring testing is strategic, protecting the health and social care systems and continuing mitigations of general risks. We certainly hope they are successfully done.

Involve the business and private sectors notes the next step and to a certain extent, we can certainly say we have seen this as well. Our COVID Safe Guidelines, the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) that all tourism businesses must comply with and our internal action plans have all been done in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

But a comprehensive response is not the only preparation that is required of countries around the world. And Fiji will be no different if we plan to re-engage with the world at some stage, as we must.

Learning to live with COVID means that we get used to snap-lockdowns, wearing masks in public and travelling with a keener eye on hygiene as part of our safety checks.

Even other risk mitigation strategies like PCR testing and voluntary or mandatory quarantine will not be sufficient because there is no optimum way to prevent COVID from being imported into a country, no matter how vigorously our testing protocols are applied at borders.

With sufficient numbers of people around the world vaccinated, we may reduce the virus to other flu-like occurrences it is hoped.

In being anticipatory to the fluid demands of business operations in this COVID environment, we are getting ready for our second jabs and working collectively on how long it might take to get an entire industry ready for reopening.

We are working to get everyone in the industry vaccinated, as lofty as that may sound. After all, if you could add another protective layer that could avoid you getting hurt, why wouldn’t you?

Resorts and hotels have already been working on their compliance requirements to have domestic and international guests accommodated safely.

And we have commenced gauging the needs of our marine operators to determine what it would require to get everyone operational and safety compliant.

Every vessel that expects to be operating safely on or in the water is being asked to check their equipment replacement or repair needs, safety certificates and crew training needs, so that we can support their efforts towards compliance and border reopening preparations.

Learning to live and do business with COVID might be strange but we may not have a choice in the matter. Better to stop fighting it, adapt quickly and learn to live with it.

This is our strategy for getting ready. Every industry needs to be working on theirs.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 20 May 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Getting Our People Back to Work

Tourism Talanoa: Getting Our People Back to Work

FHTA, 13 May 2021 – Besides the obvious loss of revenue to their bottom line, many would not be aware of the other missing factor that tourism operators consistently fret about losing during this pandemic and the subsequent border closures.

Their loyal and skilled staff. Many of them as familiar and close to them as family.

The famous tourism workers that beam with smiles that greet visitors on arrival, onboard transfer vessels and planes, or those with the soothing voices that monitor the reservations desks or even those with the experienced, calm dispositions overseeing large events or frenetic dinner services.

These include the hardworking ancillary staff that maintain the manicured lawns, golf courses and shrubbery, and the porters who gladly haul your luggage from one end of a property to the other while singing some glorious hymn, or these can be the polite wait-staff who process your meal orders and return with wonderful meals.

And let’s not forget those wonderful, maternal “Bubu’s” who collect the excited children and babies and take them off for hours of fun so that their parents can take a break.

These hospitality workers have been trained and moulded according to the standards of the various brands and when combined with their natural, genuine Fijian hospitality traits, is the reason that Fiji is Fiji, and why many tourism reliant countries consider this particular competitive edge a distinct and difficult factor to beat.

When the borders closed, tourism businesses had little choice but to close their doors, anchor their vessels, park their planes and store all the activity support gear when the stream of steady international visitors quickly dried up.

Consequently, that also meant furloughing the bulk of their staff on leave without pay, redundancy and termination. A small number would have been initially kept on for security and maintenance purposes.

Eventually, these numbers would be slowly added as the months progressed and weekends and public holidays allowed domestic tourism to provide an intermittent but welcome resumption.

This was then joined by destination marketing initiatives like the Blue Lane and Vacations in Paradise (VIP) travel options to gradually provide some respite to an industry that had almost shut down completely. Almost.

With the closures and the ensuing layoffs, staff returned to the nearby communities or villages, sought employment elsewhere or engaged in entrepreneurial enterprises.

While far more have remained unemployed, many long-term employees still within the communities or villages close to their previous workplaces are fortunate to be still getting support from their previous employers with food packs and monetary assistance, which is further boosted by the rotational work provided intermittently.

Often working only 2 days a week; it can be a tough choice for a skilled tradesperson to continue to work for his longtime employer or choose to take up an offer in a different industry that will move him away from his home but pay him a full week’s wage.

But then, this is a time for difficult choices, where years of training and loyalty may be traded for family support and pressure from financial institutions for repayments and hungry mouths to feed.

Human Resources Managers, often working reduced hours themselves are having to deal with accessing skilled staff at the drop of a hat, because that is almost literally how local bookings get done or making the many calls to staff to advise no work is available.

They must stay in contact despite either situation to ensure administrative requirements like redundancy packages and termination letters are processed correctly, extend furloughs, provide the required support for FNPF processing and be able to bring staff in for standard and COVID safe training.

The use of hotels for quarantine purposes for inbound repatriated Fijians has followed global practices for efficient management and the staffing requirements to support this has provided a much-needed boost for more tourism workers to get more hours in or get their jobs back.

As the nation currently ponders a total lockdown that will surely take place if we are to get the better of the current spreading of this virus, many tourism businesses must wearily go back to their Plan B’s or even Plan C’s, because domestic bookings are being cancelled and no new ones are being received.

Now central division accommodation providers are considering the merits and viability of being used as isolation facilities for potential primary and secondary contacts.

Along with the many conditions they must be compliant with, this will also provide an opportunity to bring back their workers. Not just staff within the accommodation facility, but also maintenance, laundry, housekeeping, food preparation, cleaning, serving, gardening and tradespeople like plumbers, electricians and carpenters.

Work rosters and staff adjustments continue to take place depending on where the focus of the lockdowns are and their consequential impact on businesses within the industry and those far larger number of businesses supporting the industry.

Many may not realise the comprehensive efforts required for island resorts that have staff located there for weeks and even months now after the movement restrictions were imposed. Staff who have been away from home and cannot return because they need their jobs and their homes are located within locked down zones.

Staff who cannot be replaced and are trained, experienced and relied on to ensure the resort is managed, any guests are safe, equipment is working and communication and transport are efficient.

And even while the lockdowns have thrown up their challenges to managing staff numbers relevant to working hours, accessing worksites and supply lines continuing; behind-the-scenes planning continues at the same unabated pace for borders reopening somewhere soon that keeps moving out of our collective grasp.

The tracks have been laid as they were, for a return to our perennial position as the must-visit tourist destination in the Pacific. There is no deviating from this focus. Never has been.

There is a constant need to ensure staff stay on track with the ‘new-normal procedures and protocols that have been drawn up for the safety of the visitor, the staff and the country.

We still need a more defined timeline for when our borders will reopen and a formalised, widely communicated strategy for the key elements that have to be in place before this can take place.

Understanding exactly what must take place, be achieved, ticked off or sufficiently managed are critical elements for businesses, their staff and their suppliers to work towards as larger connected teams.

Even more critically, is ensuring the wider communities, industries and stakeholders are involved in understanding these conditions before we can say that everyone in Fiji is acutely aware of exactly what is at stake.

As we deal individually and within the context of our families or businesses with the increasingly changing situation between working from home, staying within known bubbles and maintaining lockdown protocols, spare a thought for many others in worse situations than your own.

Those unable to get to work and therefore cannot earn any money to provide for families and manage their debts. Many like medical staff, disciplined forces personnel, tourism and other industry staff who are at work but cannot leave to go home.

Because if they went home, they could not return.

For those small businesses that have been forced to close for months now because they have no international visitors and have had to send all their staff home.

Consider the numbers of even smaller businesses that are being added to this list because of closed supply chains, locations within critical locked down zones or by the nature of their trade are no longer able to entertain crowds or allow crowding.

And think about our fresh produce suppliers, farmers and market vendors with dwindling resources and limited to no customers.

An extremely bad situation – our border closures that brought an industry to a halt, has been worsened to nightmare proportions to lockdowns and the entire country coming to an eventual standstill.

Never have so many been relied on to collectively do what they must.

We have no other choice but to work together towards a safer Fiji because everyone is now affected somehow. Not just the tourism industry.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 13 May 2021)

Tourism Talanoa: Taking Change Seriously

Tourism Talanoa: Taking Change Seriously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not just recovery for recovery’s sake.

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

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

And exactly how do we do this?

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

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

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

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

Tourism Talanoa: Stay Home to Save Lives

Tourism Talanoa: Stay Home to Save Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tourism Talanoa: No Time for Complacency

Tourism Talanoa: No Time for Complacency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our economy is struggling and there is increased unemployment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tourism Talanoa: The Fragility of Bubbles

Tourism Talanoa: The Fragility of Bubbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This cannot be emphasized enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tourism Talanoa: Tourism – One Year On

Tourism Talanoa: Tourism – One Year On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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