Fiji urged to tread carefully

Fiji urged to tread carefully

Fiji Times 5 June 2020 – Fiji must have measures in place to ensure it is able to effectively handle COVID-19 cases once borders are open.

This was the view of one of the tourism industry’s biggest players, Rosie Travel Group managing director Tony Whitton.

He said successfully managing and treating Fiji’s 18 COVID-19 cases was a huge achievement but how well it would play out for the tourism sector would depend on how educated and prepared Fijians were to participate in a COVID-19 world.

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Tourism Talanoa: Plan First, Travel Later

Tourism Talanoa: Plan First, Travel Later

FHTA, 5 June 2020 – The pressure is palpable. As a global economic recession starts to unfold and unemployment numbers steadily rise to record levels, an air of uncertainty and great anxiety continues to grow steadily around the country.

Fiji’s entire tourism sector took a nosedive as the borders were closed off and planes were grounded. The same of which was seen around the world as the current health crisis tightened its grip on global travel.

Most of the tourism hot spots like Denarau, Nadi, Taveuni et al are reeling from the effects even though the flow-on consequences have yet to make any real mark on the capital city, Suva.

As tourism’s revenue has been nullified for the first half of the year, the ripples will inevitably trickle down to Suva and throughout Fiji as Government’s main source of GDP earnings dries up.

The rapidly growing outreach programs for community assistance that includes food drop-offs, religious, charity and organizational support for the mounting numbers of the needy, the increasing demand for bartering programs and the huge demand on social services and access to the pension funds show a critical, underlying societal challenge created directly from unemployment.

While it has been over 40 days since new cases of COVID-19 have been reported, we still have three cases that are still recovering from the virus. Once these patients are given the all-clear, can we then begin seriously planning for a staggered return to what the new normal will look like? Or should we begin planning for that now?

Some plans have already been put into place. These include a date for schools to start and some relaxing of earlier restrictions like curfew hours, restaurants opening, some contact-less sports allowed, people have returned to work where work is still available, while buses and minivans have continued to operate at nearly normal levels.

We know that Fiji just cannot afford to have another outbreak of the virus. Apart from being a real threat to people’s lives and a real fear that it could overwhelm our health system with an all-out outbreak, it would also destroy any chance the country has in instilling confidence in potential travellers considering visiting visit our shores when the border restrictions are eventually relaxed.

No-one wants the virus to return and threaten lives and no-one wants to go back into full lockdown again. But what about the growing number of unemployment creating our rising demand for support for food, to pay electricity and water bills, manage loans, get rents and leases in order and send kids to school soon with lunches?

What is being done strategically to get people back their jobs and what are these plans and timeframes? We know that the fastest way to kickstart Fiji’s economy is to get tourism back on track and this, in turn, needs us to consider how we open up our borders and to which countries, so we continue to keep our population safe.

As the trans-Tasman bubble discussions continue, both New Zealand and Australia are firmly of the belief that they do not wish to spread the virus to the smaller island states in the region, while Fiji would want to ensure we could keep their citizens safe while here.

New players have now arisen in the Tasman bubble talks with Japan, Thailand and Vietnam weighing in with options like access to business travel only, noting no fatalities (Vietnam) and well-planned travel requirements.

Across the world, changes are also being seen already, even in places that suffered many casualties and had widespread infection. European countries are staggering their border openings to one another with tourism-dependent Mediterranean countries already opened with specific conditions in place. Many of them have outlined clear border control requirements and put in place strict public conditions like the wearing of face masks, social distancing rules and mandatory sanitation regulations.

Japan is reportedly budgeting around US$3 trillion in economic stimulus to help the country weather this health catastrophe. This is an astonishing amount as it is around 40 per cent of Japan’s annual GDP. However, the world’s third-largest economy is now in a recession and needs all the help it can get. That is why they are seriously looking at business bubbles and moving their economy forward in a stagnant market.

As these countries get their ducks in a row, Fiji is also kicking into gear, just not as quickly.

The Care Fiji app is expected to make its appearance this week following the completion of tests by mobile app stores and is expected to be the main tool in the fight against COVID-19 and the lifeline for the country’s tourism sector. We think.

We have yet to hear what plans are being considered to get the rest of Fiji COVID-Safe and whether there is a plan that discusses border opening times, under what specific conditions and whether the public in Fiji might need to change their behaviour to adhere to any new rules that may have to be put into place as a lead up to the opening dates. Like wearing masks in public, making soap and sanitisers compulsory in schools, reducing seats in buses, or enforcing social distancing rules at restaurants, in hospitals and waiting lines at supermarkets.

The tourism industry is ready and has been practicing COVID-safe rules for some time with planned training for staff considered once they open and currently working with Government ministries on a guidance document. Around the world, the aviation industry including the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and airlines have been gearing up with their own COVID-safe changes to operating and service procedures. Hotels and restaurants have their own guidance manuals in place and training institutions are catching up quickly.

Everyone wants to get back to business and get people working again. We just have to get these plans structured, budgeted for and operational so that everyone in Fiji understands what they must do to change and what needs to happen before we can declare any borders open. We will then start to reduce the rising unemployment levels and help our economy get back on track.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 5 June 2020 

“Our Bula Spirit Awaits You”

“Our Bula Spirit Awaits You”

Tourism Fiji 28 May 2020 –Following ongoing optimism and easing of restrictions across Tourism Fiji’s source markets it has progressed today into Stage Two of its Market Re-entry Plan.

Tourism Fiji, the destination marketing arm of the Fijian Government, developed their Market Re-entry Plan to coordinate an aligned return to market across all its international destinations in the wake of COVID-19. Stage One of the Market Re-entry Model focused on staying in the hearts and minds of consumers through its “Sota tale” messaging.

However, as the destination enters Stage Two the organisation’s marketing message has now changed to Our ‘Bula Spirit’ awaits you.”

Tourism Fiji’s Chief Executive Officer Mr Matthew Stoeckel explained that “It is an optimistic message that will rebuild consumer confidence and anticipation of a holiday to Fiji. What I like about it the most is that it focuses on what makes Fiji so special—our people.”

“Stage One was all about inspiring consumers to dream about a trip to Fiji. Now, as we transition to Stage Two, it is all about giving reasons for visitors to choose Fiji for their next holiday and giving them the confidence to start planning for it,” continues Stoeckel.

To drive this message, Tourism Fiji is launching a range of digital initiatives, which includes a ‘Bula Series’ that is airing across all social media channels, along with their own positive news segment called “Happy Hour TV”, which both bring to life Fiji’s “Bula Spirit” that the destination is world re-known for.

As well as changing the message for international markets, Tourism Fiji is also working on a campaign to promote domestic tourism in Fiji.  The Love our Locals campaign already has around 50 special offers ready to entice local travellers and Tourism Fiji will launch it in conjunction with the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport to local Fijians in the coming week.

Tourism Fiji Director of Marketing Emma Campbell says, “The domestic tourism initiative is the first steps towards getting our tourism industry back on its feet and have had a great response from those operators who are able to participate in it.”

Tourism Fiji has also provided a platform for its industry partners to participate directly in activities around the new messaging of Stage Two and encourage them to align with the messaging so the destination’s voice is incredibly strong at this time.

Expect More Layoffs in Tourism Industry

Expect More Layoffs in Tourism Industry

FHTA 26 May 2020 – Following last week’s discussions with the Ministry of Employment and tourism businesses in Nadi that included 5 face-to-face sessions and a Webinar to allow stakeholders who could not attend to also register their issues, the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) notes the increasing anxiety of their tourism members as the current options of reduced hours and Leave Without Pay timeframes are due for review in the next few weeks.

While revenue earnings have ground to a halt since Government shut the borders to protect Fiji’s population, expenses and operating costs still remain and there is a great concern for businesses remaining viable during what is now looking to be a long drawn out hibernation period.

With travel and tourism being very labour intensive it is expected that not only are many more jobs at risk but that this will be felt throughout the whole tourism value chain.

“Of even greater concern is that we can also expect that this will affect the most vulnerable groups of the population such as women, youth and rural communities” CEO for FHTA, Fantasha Lockington noted.

“We are hopeful that the Tourism Bubble discussions between our Governments continue positively but there is a need to understand that this is not going to happen anytime soon until safety concerns are adequately addressed and in the meantime, every business is continually reviewing their operations to simply survive”.

As the business transition into the next phase of survival, they will be considering extended leave without pay options and terminations and redundancies will be more common in the coming weeks because tourism operators are struggling to continue holding on to staff with their current arrangements.

“We are optimistic that things will pick up eventually, however, this may take months and even years to get to the visitor arrival levels that Fiji was used to. So we are expecting a slow start, which in turn will translate to a smaller uptake in employment until the demand grows,” Ms Lockington added.

Tourism has a proven capacity to bounce back and drive the recovery of other sectors. For this to take place, Fiji needs strong tourism businesses, a viable national airline and an innovative national tourism office; all of whom need nationwide support.

Fiji Airways Extends International Flight Cancellations to End of July

Fiji Airways Extends International Flight Cancellations to End of July

Fiji Airways 27 May 2020 – Fiji Airways, Fiji’s national airline, has announced the cancellation of all international scheduled flights through to the end of July. The cancellations are due to prolonged border closures and travel restrictions as a consequence of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The airline had announced the cancellation of June international services earlier this month. A limited number of domestic Fiji Link services will continue to operate.

Mr. Andre Viljoen, Fiji Airways Managing Director and CEO said: “Given that there is still next to no demand for international air travel in the region, regrettably, we have been forced to cancel our July schedules, with further reductions expected in August 2020. Most of our international fleet remains in storage, except for aircraft utilised for freighter services. These services are keeping vital supply lines open between Fiji and its key trading partners. Border restrictions will need to ease in order for travel demand to return and international services to resume.”

Fiji Airways is contacting impacted guests who are booked to travel in July. Guests booked through travel agents and third parties will be contacted by those parties.

Tourism Talanoa: Can Tourism Pivot?

Tourism Talanoa: Can Tourism Pivot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both objectives require us to start now.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 28 May 2020 

More job lay offs expected in the coming weeks in the tourism industry

More job lay offs expected in the coming weeks in the tourism industry

FijiVillage 26 May 2020 – As the tourism and hotel business transitions into the next phase of survival, operators involved in the tourism industry will be considering extended Leave Without Pay options, terminations and redundancies in the coming weeks.

More than 150,000 people are directly or indirectly employed in the tourism industry.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association says tourism operators are struggling to continue holding on to staff with their current arrangements.

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Fiji Airways Announces Further Measures Due to COVID-19 Crisis

Fiji Airways Announces Further Measures Due to COVID-19 Crisis

Fiji Airways 25 May 2020 – Fiji Airways, Fiji’s national airline, has today announced workforce adjustments as a consequence of the current and foreseeable operating environment. The adjustments are necessary and unavoidable as the COVID-19 crisis endures, causing the further suspension of scheduled international services and ensuring that the airline will receive virtually zero revenue in the coming months. Fiji Airways is also negotiating with its lenders and aircraft lessors for loan and lease payment deferrals and arranging debt finance from a number of financial institutions.

Mr. Andre Viljoen, Fiji Airways Managing Director & CEO, said: “This is a very difficult announcement, and one we are only making after exhausting all other options. The sad reality of prolonged flight suspensions means that we simply do not have work for a large segment of our workforce now, and for the foreseeable future. We have no other option but to terminate the employment of staff to whom we cannot provide work, which is an unfortunate but vital step we must take in order to protect our cash position and to preserve as many jobs as possible for those staff who the business needs in order to function today.”

Fiji Airways has recently extended the suspension of international flights through to the end of June and is in the process of reducing scheduled flights for July and August.

Mr Viljoen added: “When the first flight suspensions were announced in March 2020, we implemented a series of actions aimed at tiding us through the April to June period, in the hope that the crisis would abate and some level of demand would return. Most of our workforce agreed to a temporary 30-35% pay reduction. However, regrettably, all of our international passenger services remain suspended, and it is simply not sustainable to continue to pay staff who are at home and not working, even at reduced salary levels. We have a responsibility to our shareholders, and to the Fijian people, to ensure that Fiji Airways survives this crisis.”

In order to ensure the airline’s survival, given its critical and strategic importance to the Fijian economy, the following workforce measures have been implemented:

  • Eight expatriate executives have had their employment terminated, with five expatriate staff remaining, including the CEO. The airline has six local executives, who will all retain their jobs and now constitute the majority of the leadership team. The responsibilities of the remaining executives and management have been expanded to absorb the work of those terminated.
  • All 79 expatriate pilots have had their contracts terminated.
  • 51% (758) of employees from across the Airline Group who do not have work today or in the foreseeable future have had their employment terminated. They will be paid a minimum notice period of 1 month (despite most employees having a two-week notice period), plus any accumulated leave and other entitlements.

Mr Viljoen explained: “These employee terminations are based on work available today and for the foreseeable future. These decisions have been carefully considered, and we have retained staff in operational areas who have critical skills, training and experience, including those who are required to carry out ongoing aircraft maintenance programmes, as well as all regulatory and safety-related post-holder positions as per Civil Aviation Authority requirements.  There is, of course, a minimal level of staff required in non-operational areas of the business in order to keep it functioning.  In all areas, we have retained staff based on objective and fair criteria such as performance, disciplinary record, and aptitude for the role.”

A 20% permanent salary reduction has been implemented for all retained employees effective 1 June 2020. In the short term, retained staff will work between 2-5 days per week, and will only be paid for actual days or hours worked. Employees will be permitted to utilise annual leave days on days not worked, in order to ‘top-up’ their weekly pay.

These workforce reduction measures will result in a circa 50% reduction in the Company’s payroll cost base.

Mr Viljoen concluded: “Many of our dear colleagues affected by these reductions have contributed enormously to our airline over many years, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. The measures we have announced today are painful and difficult, but ultimately necessary for our airline’s survival. Tourism is the backbone of the Fijian economy, and it is dependent on a strong and sustainable national carrier. Fiji Airways will be vital in leading Fiji’s economic recovery post-COVID-19, and we take that obligation to the Fijian people very seriously. We have taken these difficult actions now, in order to safeguard our airline’s future. Many large and respected airlines around the world are collapsing as a consequence of this unprecedented crisis. However, we will do everything within our power to ensure that Fiji Airways does not suffer the same fate.”

Government announces concessional loans for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises

Government announces concessional loans for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises

FijiVillage 25 May 2020 – Minister for Economy Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has today announced concessional loans for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, and people can put in their applications from 7th June.

Sayed-Khaiyum says that for new and existing micro-enterprises, they will be able to access up to $7,000 in a way of loan and the interest rate will be 0.5.

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Tourism Talanoa: Bubbles and Opportunities

Tourism Talanoa: Bubbles and Opportunities

FHTA, 21 May 2020 – Last week we looked into what the global tourism family, and of course our own tourism sector will have to look forward to, as restrictions on movement and eventually travel begin to ease off.

Because this has been on everyone’s mind of late and because everyone is looking forward to something more positive and concrete in these uncertain times that appear to have no end in sight, we will look at the Tasman bubble (including Fiji) and Destination Fiji’s marketing goals.

Discussions between Australia and New Zealand are progressing albeit slowly and with keen interest to get things right the first time around and a watchful eye on potential flare-ups. Unfortunately, that’s the only certainty we have so far as the world takes its first unsteady steps towards opening up in the new way of doing business, travelling and loving generally.

Fiji’s representatives have been firmly pushing for the Pacific Islands, especially Fiji, to be included in both discussions and plans for the bubble.

Baltic states Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have already reopened shared borders to each other in Europe’s first travel bubble. Germany, Austria and Switzerland are looking at a similar arrangement starting this weekend.

Fiji continues to watch intently the improving infection rates in our trans-Tasman neighbours and how this will progress our own adoption of health guidelines for businesses, schools, public transport and travel.

Although almost every sector feels some repercussions, few have been as hard hit as the airline and travel sector. The sudden, sharp decrease in travel demand is much worse than that seen after September 11, 2001, and the 2008 financial crisis, combined. Airlines had more robust balance sheets when COVID19 emerged, compared with previous crises, but a slowdown of this magnitude leaves even the strongest players vulnerable.

In 2019 Fiji received more than 367,000 visitors from Australia which was 41% of our total tourist arrivals for that year. Around 206,000 travellers arrived from New Zealand making up 23% of total tourist arrivals for 2019.

With a combined 64% of arrivals into Fiji for 2019, it is not hard to see why we regard our two neighbours highly where tourism is concerned. It also not difficult to understand tourism stakeholders when they say that the fastest way to assist Fiji is through the tourism dollar that has a triple multiplier effect throughout the country from the deep rural areas out to the furthest maritime islands hosting resorts and employing communities out there.

The entire Pacific Islands region could potentially be next on the list for inclusion into the travel bubble and Fiji’s tourism operators and stakeholders are already planning how they will work together to ensure the opportunities are not missed once presented.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has repeatedly stated that she was not keen on opening the doors to the Pacific Islands and be responsible for a new occurrence of COVID-19 in island states where, to date, the virus has been well-managed or non-existent.

Somewhere in the midst of all the discussions will be the prickly point of the quarantine periods. Currently, both New Zealand and Australia have 14-day quarantines for repatriated citizens while Fiji’s quarantine period is 28 days, which is 14 days in a Government-mandated facility and then 14 days at home if without symptoms.

This is one of the main reasons why the Australian government released its COVIDSafe phone app which is a Bluetooth contact tracing tool that speeds up the identification and contacting of people who may have been exposed to confirmed carriers.

New Zealand will release a similar app this week while Fiji’s app is being worked on for release in June. From a destination marketing perspective, any controls that reduce the need for compulsory quarantines post-travel would be welcomed.

Both New Zealand and Australia will be working hard to ensure that the controls at the borders are tightened up and that transportation networks, airlines, airports and hotels are working on the new health measures to be implemented.

The Trans-Tasman Safe Border Group brings together both their governments, Air New Zealand, Qantas and the three biggest airports on each side of the ditch. Fiji Airways, Fiji Airports Ltd and Air Terminal Services will no doubt be having similar discussions to that effect and will be busy drawing up new policies and regulations to meet both airport and aviation requirements, as well as new health requirements.

Even before the Tasman-bubble is declared operational, Fiji’s marketing machine will move into gear to prepare for Fiji’s reopening. Timing is critical.

Many travellers will be thinking twice about travelling abroad so confidence-boosting will be part of the marketing messaging.

Fijian tourism businesses will be counting on our ability to convince people who have been in lockdowns and had to live through weeks and months of restricted movement to want to get away to beautiful beaches, with swaying palms and clean, fresh air.

For now, while some parts of the industry focus on marketing preparations domestically and overseas, other parts of the industry are focusing intently on the current welfare and future of our nearly 100,000 employees who have no jobs and therefore no wages. Decades of working closely with the communities tourism businesses are intrinsically connected to, mean that even when not employed staff welfare is always a concern.

Support continues to be provided through food packaging, redeployment into maintenance, security areas and resort farms for work options as well as cash assistance to ensure staff continue to get some assistance.

At the same time, businesses directly affected and throughout the supply chains that exist because of tourism are consulting with the relevant Government ministries to discuss challenges, recommend solutions and ensure workers rights are protected and labour legislations are clarified.

The crisis is not just a medical emergency. It has thrown our economy into a tailspin, pushed the boundaries of regulations, forced us to confront expectations of freedom and made us re-evaluate how we treat one another and our environment. Business rivals, employer and employee dealings, diplomatic relationships and even neighbours are reaching out to one another to cope.

Private and public sector relationships have also become more communicative and consultative. It is true then what they say about that silver lining.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 21 May 2020 

Tourism Talanoa: The New Normal

Tourism Talanoa: The New Normal

FHTA, 23 April 2020 – A pandemic is raging around the globe. Borders have been closed. Planes have
been grounded. People around the world have been asked to stop moving around and stay indoors.

No matter where or who you are, the questions and frustrations are the same. “When will all this end? When will we get back to normal? When will the borders open up? How do we survive the waiting period?”

The answers are no clearer today than they were yesterday or last week. The fact is, nobody knows when this global health crisis will end. But each week we are seeing the effects of a world brought to a standstill and tourism brought to its knees with 50 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industry affected and its 10% contribution to global GDP severely eroded.

This week Virgin Australia, with its 20-year history of operating in Australia announced it had gone into voluntary administration. While no redundancies are planned for now, 15,000 airline employees as well as the airlines supply chain workers must obviously be anxious about their futures.

Back home in Fiji, over 90% of the 40,000 workers directly employed in tourism are already involved in finding alternative solutions to supporting themselves and their families. These include subsistence farming, selling food, fishing, carpentry or returning to their villages and communities to wait out this pandemic.

We are hearing firsthand the frustrations and anxiety of these workers that the funds they have been able to access along with their leave pay is quickly running out. That they’re having to review their accommodation options as they can no longer afford their rents, pay off their car loans or support their extended family members.

We are seeing the result of the impact on the supply chain workers that includes transportation with more and more taxis and buses (and planes) parked. It is no surprise then that the world’s biggest suppliers of crude oil are seeing a huge increase in supplies as worldwide demand drops to an all-time low. So too with farmers and fresh produce suppliers of fruit, vegetable, seafood and meat having excess produce now available that used to be used by tourism. The current spike in vegetable prices is not therefore sustainable in the long term and will be forced to go down based on lower demand and higher supplies.

And while we are also hearing from all businesses affected by the downturn in tourism looking for advice and support to understand all the new and constantly changing requirements for lockdowns, curfews, border controls, hygiene protocols and general movement restrictions, we are also hearing the quiet frustrations and deep anxieties of small business owners not being able to see their way out of this situation if tourism remains in this “holding pattern” indefinitely.

The longer we stay closed, the safer we will be in terms of flattening the curve and keeping this pandemic from affecting more people and overwhelming our health systems.

But the longer this takes, the more impact it is having on SME’s being able to survive the time it may take to be declared safe enough for things to start moving again. This may be as early as later this year or even as far away as next year. One thing that most industry experts around the world are certain of though, is that even when the borders do open up, people are not going to immediately travel in droves as they used to.

The “new normal” will require us to rethink the way we do business in the near future. For example, many countries are thinking about how far domestic tourism can sustain them, even if as a short term measure. In countries as large as Australia with a population of approximately 25 million there are certainly far more opportunities, locations and activity choices with enviable infrastructure supporting sophisticated transportation systems.

For Fiji, there are definitely benefits to be explored and certainly some limitations we would have to work through to make domestic tourism as effective. Targeting those segments of the workforce that have not been laid off, taken a pay cut and can afford to travel in-country might be a limited number though. People in Fiji will generally travel to visit friends and relatives and maybe even splurge for special occasions, but not to just ”sara sara vanua”. We are going to have to worker harder to make this work.

While we’re working harder on new ways to do business in this “new normal”, we might also have to rethink our key markets and how we work with them and who they are. Whether our low and high seasons will stay the same and consider whether our flight frequencies to some destinations might need to be changed to suit the economic situation in those countries.

To build visitor confidence, we are also going to have to review how we market the safety of travelling to Fiji in terms of our hygiene and cleaning processes. From border controls, to aircraft interiors, food preparation, accommodation and activities. Sanitation in transportation, restaurants, bars, swimming pools, gyms, sporting arenas, schools and meeting rooms will have to be able to inspire confidence in future and potential travelers that support what has been one of Fiji’s key tourism drawcards – safety.

The “new normal” might also start with being invited into the “Tasman Bubble” that is at this point in time, an initial discussion between the Australian and New Zealand Governments to open the borders between them with specific travel requirements agreed to. Fiji and other Pacific Islands have been less drastically impacted by the virus thus far with early interventions put into place. What might these travel requirements include that Fiji could comply with that would allow us an earlier window of opportunity, that no matter how small, is still an opportunity worth pursuing.

These are the weirdest of times for us. If we raise our concerns and worry about how bad things have the potential to be, we appear negative and alarmist. If we don’t say anything as we spiral slowly downwards, we appear to be out of touch and uncaring. It is difficult to stay neutral in this industry where so many lives and economies in Fiji and the Pacific are dependent on the tourism industry doing well. So, while raising concern and looking for opportunities, we are also trying to ensure we convince policy makers that we have to be ready to change direction as soon as the winds change.

And the winds are not only changing, they’re getting harder to predict and we don’t have the tools we usually rely on to tell us how it is all going to turn out. Common sense, empathy and reaching out to one another with compassion might have to be the new tools we have to work with to figure this new world out.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 23 April 2020 

Paradise Beverages starts production of free hand-sanitisers

Paradise Beverages

FIJIVILLAGE 16 April 2020 – Fiji’s leading alcohol beverages manufacturer, Paradise Beverages has worked with some businesses and commenced producing more than 25,000 litres of  for distribution for free to the people of Fiji.

The 25,000 litre batch of hand sanitiser will be delivered by Coca-Cola Amatil Fiji to hospitals, medical centres, and villages in 1000 litre and 20-litre vessels.

The company’s distillery in Lautoka, which is mostly known for its spirits with brands including Bounty Rum, Regal Gin and Whiskey, will shift its production to alcohol-based hand sanitisers to help address the supply issues currently faced by most Fijians.

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Consumer Council of Fiji urging Fijians to be careful of COVID-19 charity scam

Consumer Council of Fiji urging Fijians to be careful of COVID-19 charity scam

FIJIVILLAGE 16 April 2020 – The Consumer Council of Fiji is urging Fijians to be careful of COVID-19 charity scam.

This is after the Council received a complaint from a consumer where a trader had posted on social media that a certain amount from the total purchase will be given to donor agent to provide relief to those affected by impact of COVID–19.

However, the Council says investigations revealed that there were no such arrangements between the donor agent and the trader involved.

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Marine notice – MSAF

artime Safety Authority of Fiji

FIJI TIMES 16 April 2020 – ALL of Fiji’s ports have resume clearance and are now open according to the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji.

Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji’s manager qualification and licensing and officer-in-charge, Captain Tomasi Kete confirmed the authority’s marine notice (no:13) had cleared all ports including Southern Lau which wasn’t cleared last week.

The authority had notified all ship masters, ship owners and ship agents for foreign and local ships, pilots, port management companies, operators, marinas and yacht clubs about the clearance.

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Maximum of three passengers on fishing boat during curfew

Maximum of three passengers on fishing boat during curfew

FIJI TIMES 16 April 2020 – THE Ministry of Fisheries has urged the public specifically fishermen to contact their nearest Fisheries Service Centre should they need clarification and advise on fishing during curfew hours.

The Ministry highlighted that fishermen were to fish only in iqoliqoli areas or fishing grounds that are clearly specified on their licenses.

“The Ministry of Fisheries wishes to reiterate the need for co-operation during these challenging times and for fishermen to please respect the various commodity bans that are still in place,” the ministry said.

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Tourism Talanoa: Cyclones & King Tides

Tourism Talanoa: Cyclones & King Tides

FHTA, 16 April 2020 – Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold has come and gone. This cyclone ripped through our outer islands and caused significant damages to structures and food supplies.

But one lesser known impact of cyclones lies beneath the ocean waves.

Severe weather patterns can cause extensive damage to individual corals and to the structure of the reef. These impacts are known to last a long time.

The powerful waves generated during these cyclones can cause serious damage to our habitats and landforms, especially our coral reefs and shorelines. The strong winds of a cyclone can also cause significant changes to ocean currents and increase inshore ocean turbidity through suspension of sediments.

These cyclones also have long-lasting effects on our reef fish stocks. Coral provides important fish habitat and protection for reef fish such as coral trout so when a cyclone affects reefs, it affects the ability of these fish to protect themselves and these causes a dwindling in numbers.

Along with severe weather, our coral reefs face a massive threat by way of bleaching.

We have an amazing 10,000 square kilometres of coral reefs flourishing in our waters. About 42 percent of the world’s coral species can be found right here in Fijian waters.

These reefs provide a buffer, protecting the coasts from waves and storms. They are formed from important reef builders, corals, who secrete calcium carbonate to form coral reefs.

The corals form barriers to protect the shoreline. Corals live in a mutualistic relationship with symbiotic algae, which use sunlight to produce food for corals and get shelter in return. When water is too warm, corals will expel the algae
(zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. This is called coral bleaching.

Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality. This not only has negative impacts on coral communities, but they also impact fish communities and the human communities that depend on coral reefs and associated fisheries for livelihoods and well-being.

The bleached corals are likely to have reduced growth rates, decreased reproductive capacity, increased susceptibility to diseases and elevated mortality rates.

Tropical Cyclone Harold struck Fiji on the day of an especially high spring tide, known as a king tide. These tides occur a few times every year, when the gravitational pull of the sun and moon upon the earth is strongest. This results in higher-than-usual water levels during high tides.

Island resorts around the Sun Coast, Coral Coast and in the Mamanuca Islands experienced more damages from storm surges from higher than usual water levels brought about by the king tide, than TC Harold. This brought seawater onto their properties, washed away roads, damages sea walls and jetties and caused water-damage in areas that wouldn’t normally be submerged under water.

General Manager of Fiji’s first landowner-owned four-star resort Nakelo Treasure Island’s Jim Saukuru shared details of the damage caused by the unusually high sea level on his property.

“Our seawall has been washed away and the water levels have damaged our helipad and all our trees near the beach area.”

He says that even their desalination plant, which pumped seawater from the lagoon for processing, suffered irreparable damage as the seawater submerged the essentials motors and it’s housing.

Jim estimates that his resort suffered more than $3M in damages from both the cyclone and the king tide. This comes in the middle of a $2.3M refurbishment works being conducted on the island and exacerbates the pain of having no incoming revenue from visitors to Fiji since the beginning of April and throughout the next 3 months.

Other island resorts also reported their beaches being washed away as well as their seawalls inundated with seawater and jetties shifting due to the tide. Damage to many of the outer island jetties that are critical to our maritime communities has been noted by the Fiji Roads Authority to run into the millions.

The inundating effects from the biannual king tides is usually stopped by the construction of concrete sea walls in strategic parts of an island. And for the most part these would be sufficient to hold back storm surges.

Changes in coral communities also affect the species that depend on them, such as the fish and invertebrates that rely on live coral for food, shelter, or recruitment habitat.

Change in the abundance and composition of reef fish assemblages may occur when corals die as a result of coral bleaching.

As mentioned, something as simple as the sea water heating up past its normal temperature has ripple effects that cascade outward. Add cyclones and storm surges and coral damage is increased exponentially.

Fishermen from island villages whose families rely on them to provide sustenance rely heavily on fish stock levels staying constant. Reduced fish stocks affect the communities that rely on this food and livelihood source.

Imagine the divemaster who is awaiting the end of coronavirus to get his much loved job back of taking PADI-certified tourists scuba diving. There would be no diving and no tourists if Fiji’s coral reefs started losing their world renown colours and viridity. It would add another layer to the disturbing reality happening under the ocean’s surface.

As the world’s borders remain closed for an indefinite period and everyone stays home, perhaps we too will start to see a period of healing and repairing taking place below our now calm waters.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 16 April 2020 

Tourism Talanoa: A Pandemic & A Cyclone

Tourism Talanoa: A Pandemic & A Cyclone

FHTA, 9 April 2020 – In last week’s Tourism Talanoa, we shared the heartache that the workers of Fiji’s
tourism industry were enduring. This week, we look at how some tourism properties are coping.

Like the rest of Fiji, they are hoping and praying for this medical crisis that has forced a world-wide economic downturn to be over sooner rather than later, or risk running out of what little they already have.

With the complete shutdown of global travel, the entire tourism industry is counting down to a time when everything returns to normalcy. That may be anything from six months to eight months or stretch from twelve to eighteen months. While there is much speculation, no-one really knows.

What is known is that unprecedented societal changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are dramatically affecting tourism. It is too early to know the full nature and impact of these changes, but it is clear that they will be transformative for the entire planet, and every destination will need to re-create its tourism from the ground up.
Shadna Naicker, General Manager of Gecko’s Resort along the Coral Coast, is giving her best estimate for six to seven months.

At full manning capacity, the Gecko’s Resort had 30 full-time staff taking care of their guests. That number is currently at 3 staff, and while their occupancy is at zero percent right now, they still have their hands full with securing their property for the anticipated onslaught of Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold.

Their staff were put on reduced hours before going on leave without pay. While every effort is being explored to helping staff members access Government’s COVID-19 Assistance through FNPF, Shadna knows this is still not enough.

“This FNPF Assistance will not last long” she says, understanding her staff needs well.

Many of them are from the surrounding villages and communities along the winding Coral Coast and she fervently hopes they will be able to return to regular work soon.

She also hopes that Government will assist workers when the FNPF funds are no longer available.

In the Mamanuca Islands, a long-time favourite playground for tourism activities and where things are at a complete standstill currently, Jim Saukuru has had more pressing issues piled onto his already full set of complexities.

The General Manager of Nakelo Treasure Island Resort & Spa was watching the approach of TC Harold, like the rest of the country.

He believes they feel the effects of the cyclones most noting that Tropical Cyclone Sarai (late December 2019) and Tino (mid-January 2020) cost them 2.3 million dollars (Fijian) in damage.

Their staffing numbers at full manning was 143 full-timers which has now been reduced to 16 remaining staff for security, maintenance and basic operational requirements.

The rest of their staff have returned home since their last guest left on March 14th but 31 staff had to remain on the island due to the lockdown that Lautoka has only just recently lifted last Tuesday. They have since been transferred back to the mainland to their homes and families after being looked after by the resort for 21 days.

The resort has stowed their barge, speedboats and glass-bottom boat at the Vuda Marina to wait out the storm. All their room bookings were suspended until June 1st in anticipation of the end of COVID-19 in the country but TC Harold has forced Jim to be more realistic with his estimate.

He says it may result in a complete resort shutdown for six months to bring the resort back to its former glory, depending on the damage it may or may not sustain in the cyclone’s wake, notwithstanding the effects on international travel by COVID-19.

“Our workers are on indefinite leave without pay, while Management is on 50% pay cut,” he says.

While he is grateful for the 6-month repayment holidays given for loans and to financiers for hoteliers, Jim is seeking more assistance from Government by accessing some of the recently advised 60-million-dollar allocation from the COVID-19 Supplementary Budget so that his resort does not have to close down for longer than necessary.

He is hoping that Government speeds up the approval process for their request for funding through the Fiji Development Bank so that Treasure Island can continue to operate and face a COVID-19-free world at the tail end of this current health crisis.

“Our Marketing Team needs funds to start marketing Treasure Island and Fiji to the world so that when COVID-19 goes away, bookings will be made faster by travelers.”

He insists marketing needs to take place now and not later.

Tourism will definitely need far more impetus. It is crucial for many countries in the Pacific. For Fiji, tourism is the nation’s economic lifeblood. Our neighbours Australia have been discussing the provision of longer-term economic support to the region through the Vuvale Partnership. New Zealand has reached out with similar offerings.

There are some obvious options available for consideration that would strengthen this partnership as trade partners that include humanitarian and direct aid.

The Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers met recently in Suva to discuss a coordinated response and assistance for the region, with Dame Meg Taylor Secretary General to the Forum calling for “strong solidarity to overcome a direct and immediate threat to the lives of our people”.

Just as we have been constantly reminded that “we are in this together”, so should our response to the crisis both medical and climatic be. Consultative, inclusive and cooperative. As Dame Taylor notes, “the time is now”

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 9 April 2020 

Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Staff Struggles are Real

Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Staff Struggles are Real

FHTA, 30 March 2020 – “The hardest part about all this is not being able to buy sugar, flour, rice, you know…the basics.”

Those were the sentiments of former tourism industry employee, Bio Mataitini. He has spent the better part of the past decade as a dive instructor for Reef Safari Fiji.

He has now been sent home, along with numerous others, due to the impact of the current health crisis that has gripped the world.

His passion for showing off Fiji’s unique sea life to visitors is evident when conversing with him but he feels there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

Now farming near Mulomulo, Nadi is his current only focus, as he attempts to scrape by with what little funds, he has to help support his household, which include his parents and other family members.

His four brothers are also from the tourism industry and they too have been hard hit by the industry cutbacks. Together they are working on an ambitious plan to plant subsistent crops that will be divided between business and private consumption. This is their only source of income that he says he can contribute to right now.

Assistance from the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) for tourism industry workers has been made available and Bio has already lodged his application in anticipation. Because he has sufficient funds, he will be able to withdraw his full amount without requiring any topping up from Government.

He does worry that while he is able to use his own savings to get him through this difficult time, his balance is going down, he won’t be getting anything added till he gets his job back and this will affect his pension withdrawal once he reaches retirement age. But for now, it is something to look forward to.

Muni Shobna of the Octopus Resort in Waya Island is concerned about the same issue. She is currently on leave without pay and she knows that the allocated sum from FNPF will not last long.

She has been at the Octopus Resort for over 15 years in various capacities and is currently the Reservations Head and Operations Supervisor. She knows that the $1000 withdrawal will not stretch far during the coming months.

“I have to pay rent, pay the electricity, do the shopping. After that how much is left? It won’t be enough for the second and third month,” Shobna bemoans.

“Lucky it’s just me and my daughter. Imagine those with big families. Those who had to return to the village. It’s going to be really hard for them.”

At full capacity, the Octopus Resort had around 125 staff manning the resort. Currently only the resort’s General Manager and two security staff are left looking after the property and they are doing so without remuneration. They keep the property maintained, secure and ensure generators and other equipment are looked after.

Their final guest left on March 22 and the resort closed its doors the next day. All other staff members rushed to board boats back to the mainland as the nation’s ban on passenger travel between islands came into effect on Sunday 29 March.

Shobna points out that in doing so, staff residing in Lautoka were caught outside the city lockdown cordon and were left in a lurch.

She has had to assist some of her colleagues find temporary accommodation in order to wait out the lockdown. “It’s hard, you know,” she says, while understanding the need. “They just want to see their families.”

She knows it will be difficult to seek new employment during the crisis as the influx of recently unemployed tourism industry workers will also be looking for work as well and no-one will be looking to hire new staff in this current economic climate.

Her phone continues to ring with colleagues asking her when the resort will be open again for business.

“The staff keep calling me and to enquire about financial assistance,” she says “It’s so hard for them. I wish the Government will take a survey of the impact of (job losses due to) the COVID-19 has in the villages.”

That struggle is the same on Taveuni where Akanisi Rawalai, or Taka as she is known to friends, is based. Amongst other duties, she is the personal assistant to the Directors of Paradise Taveuni, a dive resort. From a full manning of 62, the resort has 17 staff members still on the premises, the majority of whom reside at the staff quarters and are all on leave without pay. They do odd jobs around the property for a few hours a day and are paid with meals that come mainly from the resorts own farm that has pigs, chickens, vegetables and a large variety of fruit. Staff are also provided fuel to allow them to fish occassionally to add to their meals.

“Our resort directors are so kind. They’re supporting all the staff who are unable to return home” said the Matuku, Lau native.

She has five dependent family members at home relying on her as the sole breadwinner, but she’s glad for repayment holidays on both bank loans and Court’s Hire Purchase. She is unsure about her next step as she knows they cannot rely on the resort’s owners for too long.

“Tourism is the only thing we know on Taveuni (if you don’t farm). I don’t have any other source of income here” she said.

Bio, Shobna and Taka’s options are few and their future and that of the families they support look bleak while they cope as best they can.

Like the rest of Fiji, they’re hoping and praying for this medical crisis that has forced a world-wide economic downturn to be over sooner rather than later, or risk running out of what little they already have.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 30 March 2020