FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Moving to the Next Phase

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Moving to the Next Phase

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

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

Especially as these prospects still appear murky at best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And move right on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So next phase, here we come.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Travel Data & the Insights They Provide

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Travel Data & the Insights They Provide

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Complicated Travel Rules

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Complicated Travel Rules

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

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

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

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

This has come into effect from Sunday 23 January 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We agree.

We are also expecting more cyclones till at least April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody seems very sure.

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

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Plans for 2022

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Plans for 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tourism might be a lifeline offering workers a chance to earn a living where they live, or get a skill and use it to travel further for a richer experience, but it is also the most diverse of industries with far-reaching impacts, tiered segments and geographical spread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every. Single. Day.

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

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: How Grateful Are You?

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: How Grateful Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, eagerly!

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

We are, after all, Fijian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are therefore grateful for this and many other things.

For new beginnings.

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

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

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

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

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tis The Season

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Tis The Season

FHTA, 16 December 2021 – Seasonality has always been a key component of life in the Isles of Fiji (and the Pacific!)

We have specific seasons for fruits and vegetables, root crops, marine life, flora and animal breeding.

There are even fashion fads that come and go with the seasons, but it is at this time of the year that you pull out your loudest Bula shirt!

The most serious of Pacific periodic activity is the Cyclone season, which usually begins around November and ends in the first quarter of the new year.

The Fiji Met office had earlier estimated that Fiji should expect one or two severe tropical cyclones this season but has since updated that estimation to note that two out of the three would be very strong storms.

Storms or cyclones; either will have environmental impacts on populations, trade, food production and businesses that are located along with coastal areas, on islands and in heavily populated regions that are always impacted by heavy rainfalls.

While Category 3 formations and above have been historically worrying for Fiji because they could potentially cause catastrophic flooding, landslides and widespread loss of power throughout our islands; with growing populations and sea-level rise, even shorter bursts of heavy rains and heavy storm surges during full moons and higher than normal tides have brought climate change impacts more forcefully into our usually idyllic Pacific back yards.

Everyone in the country should have some sort of level of preparedness as we inch closer to a Tropical Depression or Cyclone forming around Fiji.

As Cyclone Ruby battered New Caledonia earlier this week, the tourism industry reviewed emergency plans even as it was dealing with increasing numbers of visitors coming in for holidays or to visit friends and families, they had not seen for nearly 2 years.

Even if we emerge from this season unscathed, there is still a lot of precipitation forecast for the next few months.

We know that hotels, event planners, ferry services and outdoor activities usually work with an alternative “rain” option factored in, even while ensuring that the proper measures and processes have been put into place to ensure that guest and staff safety is always paramount.

The last quarter of the year is typically the off-peak season for Fijian tourism for a few reasons, including the fact that this is our cyclone season.

Yachts and vessels of all sizes ensure they are never far from a “bolt hole” or cyclone berth, charters tend not to take place around this time and it is traditionally a time when potential visitors prefer to spend time at home with family and friends anyway.

But since the reopening of our borders from 1st December, we may be seeing a slight shift in tourism’s off-peak seasons due to a combination of availability, Fiji trending on the list of safer places to go to post-COVID and populations weary of lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Australians (mostly from New South Wales at the moment) are finding it easier to fly overseas than to visit family and friends in other Australian states and as a result, we are seeing family reunions and groups using Fiji as a meeting place.

On the cusp of the cyclone season, we prepare to farewell a year that tested everyone’s patience and respond to the vicissitudes of an industry that has been in a constant state of flux for almost 2 years.

As committed as we are to recovering lost ground and making the new but always evolving COVID safety measures work; at this time of the year especially, the industry starts to move to a different beat.

Staff rosters get adjusted as more staff and hours are factored in, furniture is moved around and marquees and wet weather alternatives start to pop up around resorts.

Everything starts to shift into a higher gear as orders for everything start to increase.

More wines, more food, more chairs, more transport, more flowers and entertainers, bigger speakers, brighter lights, longer days and even longer nights.

As the humidity spikes and temperatures soar, afternoon thunderstorms become the norm at this time of the year and event planners become weather watchers who can time when to rush tables in or umbrellas out.

This year the “silly season” will have even more challenges to deal with.

Adjusting to higher traffic from local and international visitors means everyone is tapping into suppliers at the same time, while the suppliers are dealing with freight and importation challenges exacerbated by decreased imports from China and reduced freight capacity around the world.

This is driving prices up so that the inroads made from the budget incentives from reduced tariffs and import taxes are being lost.

It is also during this time of the year and in the ensuing heat and humidity that electrical equipment ups and dies. Aided in no small way by the unexplained, but consistent power surges being experienced around the country.

Generators refuse to start; air conditioning units and coolers give up and sensitive equipment like server units and freezers are adversely affected by fluctuating power.

In the meantime, fresh food producers are not all ready for tourism’s increasing demand or were not aware that borders were reopening, so import substitutes are turned to that cost much more but are delivered in the quantities and quality expected.

More on this later.

But how can an industry so heavily relied on, get better support to access locally produced fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood in the quantities and quality it demands?

Back to the festive season and the preparations underway to be ready for cyclones in the medium term or sudden, crashing thunderstorms in the short term.

To keep customers safe within the COVID safe guidelines, remind visitors to get their rapid antigen or PCR tests while ensuring their passport numbers are filled in correctly for their departure confirmation while being on constant alert for social distancing and mask-wearing.

And as we count down to Christmas, to ensure everyone has a great time celebrating their get-togethers, special events, first holiday in 2 years or simply getting some time out after being locked up for so long.

All while ensuring there are sufficient amounts of food, drinks and sanitisers.

And of course, an overflowing abundance of our Bula Spirit is being shared widely.

Tis the season after all.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Working With The Media

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Working With The Media

FHTA, 09 December 2021 – Often referred to as the Fourth Estate, the media are often considered the watchdogs of society.

Their purpose is to provide (correct) information on current news both locally and internationally and this can include a wide spectrum of subjects, often given prominence based on what they believe the public and society want to or should know.

The media is supposed to be objective, but can often be subjective based on what they believe (rightly or wrongly) the public actually want to hear or read about.

The power of the media, therefore, cannot be overstated and in the increasing influencing power of social media, technology and lightning speed of most delivery platforms; never more powerful than it is now.

Its impact on the various aspects of our lives, regardless of where we work, what we do, or where we live, has been nothing short of phenomenal when we consider that we could educate and improve our knowledge, change our perspectives, beliefs and even our religions based on what we consume, believe we read, see or hear in the media.

How we decipher the nuances in the manner communication is delivered to us has been the subject of books, movies and far too many documentaries.

Destination marketing, on the other hand, is generally about promoting a destination’s attractiveness to specific overseas markets to increase visitor arrivals – a role that has evolved to ensure messaging opportunities can be cleverly dressed up as information, advertising and consumerism.

Simply putting up large billboards and full-page advertisements in magazines and newspapers is only a fraction of what is required to get peoples “real” attention now.

There are so much sensory overload and people have far too many things going on at the same time now, that to get someone’s attention for long enough to make an impact takes a lot more effort or as marketing people know – you have to repeat, repeat, repeat.

And not just in the same format to get your message across.

To get the undivided attention of people in the media, therefore, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) hosted members of Fiji’s major media organisations to its annual information session and discussion earlier this week.

This allows us to talk about what has been going on behind the scenes, what challenges we have faced and how we have been able to address them, and where relevant, the successes and milestones achieved.

By creating better awareness and understanding of tourism businesses and the environments they operate in, as well as highlighting the industry’s challenges and opportunities, we always hope that these sessions develop insight into how the many segments of the industry work and how each of these connects to the many ministries, agencies and regulatory bodies we are inextricably connected to.

And consequently, how this drives much of the focus for us as a private-sector organisation driving our tourism development strategies and the way these shape our lobbying efforts for tourism to remain a sustainable industry.

The media can contribute more positively towards shaping tourism into a responsible industry by promoting the protection of the environment and addressing the negative social impact of tourism as just a few examples of what it can do.

But they need to know where to look and why, and what questions to ask where and when.

And to do this effectively, they need context and background.

Because as those of us in the industry know, there is far more to this complex industry than luxurious hotels next to endless pristine beaches with swaying palm trees.

Local media organisations can explain through interesting local stories how tourism has a multiplier effect that can positively impact many other sectors, and how this can more actively tackle poverty through the demand for fresh produce in agriculture and aquaculture and also in energy, transportation and infrastructure.

There are stories to be told in labour mobility both internally and externally through our regions and how tourism affects small communities in our furthest islands.

And there are as yet many untold stories about import substitution that is being widely practised both by the industry as well as through the connections within the communities near tourism hubs that have yet to see the light of day, that could effectively balance the consistent cries for the industry to “buy more local”.

With a bit more innovative research, our local media could share with the public the reports provided by the International Finance Corporation (IFC – From the Farm to The Tourist’s Table), as just one example, that explains where the gaps in fresh produce production are that forces hotels and restaurants around Fiji (not just in tourism), and Fijians domestically, to use imported produce.

Sharing this information widely could incentivise new investors and existing farmers to venture into new business opportunities to close these already identified gaps and make a real difference to the often unconstructive criticism that completely misses the reasons for those gaps.

They would also help interested stakeholders and visitors understand the local, cultural, social and environmental issues that get discussed often but without offering possible solutions that often need collective discourse and wider support from our communities that contribute to the challenges, often without realising how they do so.

Discussions threw up many more compelling subjects and excellent opportunities for investigative journalism and qualitative research into how we address non-licensed accommodation providers flying “under the radar”, and whether Airbnb providers can be regulated because they are after all catering to demand in the market.

And more importantly, exactly whose actual responsibility these were in the grand scheme of things.

As expected in our media session, the interest zoomed in on the recent reopening and the industry’s expectations for 2022.

And why not?

Fiji so badly needed something positive to focus on as we emerged out of one of the country’s most testing, and darkest of 20 months.

But we also took the time to take participants through the often-arduous process and a seemingly unending list of challenges of getting to where we are today.

Convincing and then training hotels to replicate procedures usually performed in medical environments as they take on the responsibility of being diligent gatekeepers for the Ministry of Health, has tested an industry that is used to always planning for the worst and hoping for the best.

Despite the elated and heartfelt welcomes for our long-awaited visitors, we know we still have some way to go before we can relax our collective guards.

New protocols and processes are still being tested and fine-tuned until they become a part of those COVID safe “normal” operations that took 20 months to get used to after so many adjustments, given that the virus and our understanding of it kept evolving.

Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill was also invited to talk about the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) for hotels and tourism suppliers and provide the much-anticipated expectations on forward bookings, how Fiji was trending with overseas markets and the recently released Destination Fiji marketing promotion with Rebel Wilson.

And of course, we discussed the new Omicron variant and how science still doesn’t have all the answers, so for now we follow what we do know – and that is to continue to practice everything we have learnt so far in terms of masking up in confined shared spaces, washing or sanitising hands often and social distancing where possible.

One thing is increasingly obvious in talking with non-industry people that are often forgotten.

That we are now operating in a highly vaccinated environment -completely different from where we were 10-20 months ago, and that the most highly vaccinated area in Fiji is the Western Division, or more specifically Nadi.

The planning, preparations, CFC compliance and certification and requirement for a minimum 3 night stay in a hotel for all incoming international visitors from green zone (partner) countries, with a 2nd-day rapid antigen test to provide the necessary oversight for our health ministry might appear overly cautious, with lots of checks along the way; but we accept that it is better than any alternative requiring full and formal quarantine.

So, we continue to support and work hard on getting it right, as uneasy as this new responsibility rests so heavily on our collective shoulders.

But one we are taking ever so seriously nonetheless. We can only hope that our communication is being effective enough and that the time we’re spending working hard on getting our messaging right is going to be worth it.

Getting the media onboard to support efforts would be icing on a cake we hope everyone can get a slice of.

Ensuring the context is understood by sharing background and opening up about our real challenges will we hope, get the real stories about tourism out there for the Fijian population to appreciate, understand and be proud of.

Our success in getting this right is eventually Fiji’s success, and we know the world watches ever so critically.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 09 December 2021)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji is Open

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji is Open

FHTA, 02 December 2021 – After 20 long months, Fiji is now finally open.

Cautiously perhaps, but open nonetheless.

International visitors from Travel Partner countries started flying into Fiji yesterday (Wednesday 1st Dec) to enjoy our famous Fijian hospitality after almost two years of being forced to isolate from the world.

Our tourism industry has logged many hours during the lockdowns, in meaningful discussions and meetings to try and stem the flow.

Many people from different sections work together and focus on one common goal – reopening safely in a new COVID world.

For supporting the industry to survive the crisis when it hit us hard early last year, we owe deep gratitude to the Fiji Revenue & Customs Service, the Land Transport Authority, the Reserve Bank of Fiji, the Association of Banks in Fiji, the iTaukei Land Trust Board and the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji.

Then working closely with the industry and its wide range of stakeholders to develop safe guidelines that evolved to become what has become a critical part of our Reopening Framework.

For this, we are grateful for the understanding and support from our honourable Government leaders including the Prime Minister, the Minister for Economy, the Minister for Commerce, Trade, Tourism & Transport, the Permanent Secretaries for Health, Tourism and Economy and the many Directors and ministerial support staff that we engaged closely with to provide industry background and context to roll our often complicated protocols within the hospitality space in collective efforts to manage safety and control the risks.

Gratitude for the collaboration and support would not be complete without also mentioning the huge teams of people who were constantly on the ground managing the operational aspects of the mammoth exercise that contained COVID became.

These included the Ministry of Health’s many doctors and nurses, the military and navy personnel that joined the Fiji Police, Immigration, airport and security people to form the very effective Border Control group under the Ministry of Defense.

Working alongside the Border Control has been the High Commissioners for Australia, New Zealand, USA and India, amongst others, to provide Fiji with the critically needed vaccines that allowed Fiji to reach its high vaccination record.

And it goes without saying that the national airline Fiji Airways, our hard-working national tourism office staff at Tourism Fiji (TF), hundreds of tourism businesses and the thousands that support them have all been part of this exhausting journey that often seemed like it would not end.

Vinaka vakalevu! To all of these people and the supporting agencies, too many to mention, who provided resources, funding and technical expertise to get us to where we are now.

As countries around the world react strongly to the new Omicron variant, Fiji’s reopening is continuing as planned because we believe our preparation to this point can support what the science has determined thus far – that more research was still required but that the basics were still required even in this new scenario.

While Omicron must be taken seriously because its features are worrying, there are still large gaps in what we know so far.

Further analyses are still needed that will take two weeks at the very least to get the first indicative updates, but strong medical advice is that the variant should be controlled with testing, tracing isolation, applying known public health measures, and ongoing surveillance.

And that is what we already have in place in Fiji, and prepared and trained for.

This is even more reason for continued vigilance and to not let our guards down. And this has been exactly what has been the hardest part of the COVID “journey” – complacency.

At each stage of the many challenges in this long trek through COVID that we have felt we gained even the smallest win; we have inadvertently relaxed our guards.

From unpopular hotel quarantines that were never designed to accommodate this as an option, complex lockdowns, curfews that started at 6pm (remember those?) and the range of “new” requirements that eventually simply become part of our lives.

These included downloading the CareFiji App, scanning in and out everywhere, sanitizing, social distancing (or never leaving home), long queues that made us rethink our reasons for leaving home, masking up and as much as possible -remaining in our bubbles.

Turns out that the best advice for staying safe has actually not changed much at all.

Stay home, wash your hands frequently, mask up in confined spaces, sanitize and keep your distance – are all still very much applicable even with new strains Hotels have taken vaccination verification, the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) protocols, second-day guest & monthly staff testing protocols, enhanced sanitation, social distancing and mask-wearing measures as part of their responsibilities now.

We could quarantine all our incoming visitors for three days and make them miserable; or we could provide them with some freedom of movement within CFC-confirmed areas until they return a negative Rapid Antigen Test on their second day and make the hotels responsible (remind the guests, manage the tests, provide results) so that the Ministry of Health can continue to have the oversight of all incoming visitors for at least the first three days in Fiji.

We chose to do the latter. Hence, our constant reminders for everyone’s continued commitment and compliance to support keeping Fiji safe, keeping in mind the many sacrifices and the collective efforts of getting us to where we are now.

With Fiji’s reopening announced, there was only one change to the framework that had already been put into place when Omicron was acknowledged as a virus “of concern”.

For Non-Partner (Red Zone) Countries; quarantine timeframes that had been reduced to 10 days were returned to 14 days.
Returning Australian citizens now also need to home isolate for a few days and while this caused some consternation initially, did not eventually cause a discernable impact on inbound bookings.

The new COVID variant Omicron that sounds like it was named after a nasty robot, has early reports indicating that it may be more transmissible or virulent than the Delta variant that plagued Fiji not too long ago.

Only real data will tell, and any predictions about this new COVID variant’s virulence and impact remains speculative at this stage.

However, Fiji is in a very different position now when compared to April 2021.

We did not have vaccines then, whereas we are now over 90% fully vaccinated with children getting vaccinated now and booster shots confirmed as being available.

Our COVID-safe protocols weren’t as robust as they are now and businesses have accepted the new COVID safe rules as part of their “new normal”.

Now we need everybody, not just the tourism industry workers, to continue to get vaccinated, continue wearing masks, continue social distancing and continue to wear masks.

We experienced first-hand what happens when a process or a step is not followed and being a small island nation, we saw how quickly things could get out of control.

All the necessary steps have been taken to ensure that international visitors can be received in a safe and controlled manner.

The Reopening Framework is just that, a framework.

Preparations and alternatives are already in place to review processes and make improvements where required.

Our tourism front-liners have been briefed and have been training for the past few months.

Our industry colleagues at TF have a comprehensive FAQ section that you should refer to for clarity around general travel requirements.

This can be accessed on fiji.travel/FAQ and includes information on booking conditions, vaccination rates, travelling with children, selecting resorts, testing and returning home, amongst other information.

Everybody should have a read of the information and be aware of what is expected from the guests, the hotels and the workers.

Our compliance and support of these measures as an industry ensure we remain committed to getting tourism back up again, while keeping the people we are responsible for as safe as possible.

All of our members and tourism stakeholder are reminded that embedding layers of controls against pandemic disease into their businesses, such as safe air and masking when needed, will make it far more likely that your business will remain open, not be subject to disruptions, nor lose key staff or clients to illness.

This is because, despite vaccination levels, all controls are important to protect health as immunity to the vaccine wanes, and reduce transmission that can occur despite vaccination.

For now, all incoming traffic from green countries will spend three nights in CFC-certified hotels while free to move around the hotel premises.

They will do a Rapid Antigen Test on 48 hours or the second day and will be free to travel to green zones freely after a negative result.

They will need RT-PCR tests to return (to Australia) or do Rapid Antigen tests (to return to the USA) so they must organise this in advance so there isn’t a bottleneck at testing facilities around the tourism hotspots.
f we all play our parts, we CAN make this work.

You only have to hear our famous Bula! song to agree.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 02 December 2021)

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: On The Final Stretch

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: On The Final Stretch

FHTA, 25 November 2021 – With only a few days to go to 1 December, the Fiji Tourism industry is buzzing.

Busy and abuzz with anticipation and some trepidation that they can roll out the myriad lists of health and safety protocols, as well as the usual nerves with the opening to a full house after almost 2 years of intermittent opening and closing with reduced room inventories and smaller staff numbers.

We have been planning for this since March 2020 when flights stopped because the borders were closed and hotels and resorts and most businesses dependent on international tourism were forced to close their doors or only open a fraction of their usual operations.

It has been a long road to get to where we are today, with months of uncertainty and our own version of lockdowns eventually giving way to some glimmer of hope as vaccination numbers increased and infections and deaths decreased.

The global pandemic has changed the face of travel everywhere and Fiji is no different. A quick review of how countries around the world are planning to, or have reopened show that current challenges, difficult to understand reasoning around introduced protocols and the eventual settling down into what becomes everyone’s “new normal” is not unusual.

But protesting change apparently is normal.

The entire world protested the introduced heightened protocols for safe travel post 9/11, but now we all stand in line and take off our shoes, belts, remove our laptops, toss out our liquids and succumb to the frisking, scanning and pat-downs required at airports globally.

And that was 20 years ago!

From the early days when Fiji would send COVID-19 tests overseas to the present time where our Ministry of Health (MOHMS) and Fiji Centre for Disease Control (FCDC) can conduct their own C19 testing at high quantities and faster turnaround times.

This ability and our COVID-safe Protocols have almost flatlined our second wave and buoyed Tourism’s efforts to bolster its planning for the eventual reopening of borders.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA), as we have continually shared in this forum, has strived to work with Government and other related stakeholders to ensure that our industry is ready to come on 1st December.

And that means that we work together to get the industry and our economy back on track.

The overall counter for the amount of in-person and virtual meetings to hash out all things related to the tourism framework for reopening is in the red as we have logged thousands of hours of discussion, debate and consultation.

Tourism Fiji’s (TF) Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) is in high gear as every accommodation provider preparing for opening by 01 December comes on board and the certification process gets rolled out; and this is being followed by training for all interested restaurants, transport providers, retailers and suppliers to the industry who want to be able to be instantly recognized by our international visitors as being confirmed as a safe business.

Launched in October 2020, the CFC program ensures that tourism businesses adopt enhanced safety standards by upskilling operators in COVID-19 mitigation practices and protocols to ensure guest and staff safety.

In the last 6 months, added layers to the protocols now ensure hotels can support the Ministry of Health with post-arrival and pre-departure testing requirements with COVID safe practices built into guest comfort, services and experiences.

Statutory bodies and NGOs have come forward to tender their interest in conducting training for tourism staff and we are currently in the process of planning this exercise for as many workers as possible.

This is tourism’s collective commitment to reopening safely.

We have been working hard to ensure that all the necessary steps have been taken so that international guests and returning Fijians, can be welcomed back safely and in a controlled manner.

To that end, we have sought to understand the many new health, immigration, airline and country requirements, and then break these down through training, procedural explanations or planning logistics around how they can take place as efficiently as possible.

Flexibility will be key as we adapt to the new way of doing things and we have no doubt there will be teething problems, the need to re-evaluate some areas and improve, refine or downgrade others moving forward.

While we celebrate Fiji’s 90 percent and rising vaccination figures, the embedded controls are considered vitally important to protect the health of tourism staff, visitors and our communities, as immunity to the vaccines is expected to wane and more variants emerge.

But, with every new risk that COVID never seems to run out; new mitigative measures and solutions have also emerged including recommendations for booster shots, mandated vaccinations in countries initially against this as an option and the consistent reminders that we not become complacent and get used to this new way of going about our lives.

In the same way, we simply got used to travelling internationally the way we do now through metal detectors and X-ray machines that see through everything.

You might need to spend 3 days in a hotel on your arrival to ensure you can get a Rapid Antigen Test on your second day before you can travel further afield, but at least you can move about and enjoy restaurants and activities in the highly vaccinated areas in
and around your CFC approved hotel. And this is the same for anyone coming in from a partner or “green” country – international visitor or returning Fijian.

Travelling from a non-partner or “red” zone country requires a stay in a managed quarantine facility regardless of whether you are an international visitor or returning Fijian.

This and other travel-related information is covered in Tourism Fiji’s very comprehensive website under the FAQ’s section, to assist potential travellers to understand the new rules around travel.

And just like other countries opening up around the world, there will be challenges with finding accommodation for both managed quarantine as well as holiday options adding to people’s frustrations on trying to get to Fiji earlier, to return to loved ones and to get on with their normal lives.

But we are not “normal” anymore, so we must be aware of the new rules and try to understand why we are reopening more cautiously than larger nations with far better health systems than ours.

There is no room for complacency and more than the usual reasons for getting on board with compliance.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: 2021 FHTA Annual General Meeting & Tourism Talanoa

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: 2021 FHTA Annual General Meeting & Tourism Talanoa

FHTA, 18 November 2021 – Despite the heady heights we have climbed to in achieving so much in this increasingly digital business world we live in; nothing quite beats meeting people face-to-face.

As Forbes magazine succinctly puts it, “there are occasions when physical attendance is necessary. Whether for team building, motivation, clarity, or accountability reasons; being in the same room still matters in many professional circumstances.”

This rang true for the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association as we successfully held our 56th Annual General Meeting late last week.

Held at the Radisson Blu Resort, the AGM was well-attended by members and associate members who have not had the luxury (it is indeed a luxury now) to be in the same room at the same time for a long time now.

These members and those that were only able to Zoom in were briefed on the Association’s past twelve months of lobbying and member support activities and took the opportunity to raise queries and vote in new board members to replace outgoing ones.

Brian Kirsch of Likuri Island Resort was re-elected as the FHTA President and will serve another 3-year term.

He will be assisted by Vice Presidents, Tammie Tam of Warwick Hotels & Resorts and Narend Kumar of Tanoa Hotel Group.

“The past year and a half have been the most challenging for the tourism industry in Fiji. But we have made sure that the downtime has been used industriously and have been involved in supporting our members to survive the crisis as well as the planning and implementation of the new COVID-safe protocols, said Mr Kirsch.

He added, “This has included supporting members in navigating a broad range of issues from keeping our employees and customers safe, managing cash flows, reorienting operations in the new normal to planning for the border reopening.”

These challenges, he noted, were addressed in various forms and FHTA endeavoured to support its membership in continuing to address these, providing clarity and advice on constantly changing situations and ensuring that communication was efficient and proactive, which was even more critical for the Association to provide.

Other new board appointments were: Josephine Smith (Musket Cove Resort), James McCann (Yasawa Island Resort), Adam Wade (Vuda Marina), and Brad Rutherford (South Sea Island Cruises).

The full 16-member board that reflect the many tourism segments and regions they work in and are part of will take the helm as part of the industry’s preparation for a safe reopening on 1 December, making a comeback from the most difficult period that the industry has ever faced.

We also launched a new award during the AGM, in recognition of services to Fiji’s tourism sector – the FHTA Inspirational Award.

This year we awarded it to the family of our past president and tourism stalwart, the late Mr Dixon Seeto.

Dixon was the President of FHTA for over sixteen (16) years and in that time his leadership, diplomacy and friendship was unmatched.

He strengthened the relationship of FHTA with the Government and other stakeholders to make the Association more relevant as a lobbying body.

This was enabled with more partnership programs entered into as well as ensuring tourism was always included as part of any collaboration or consultation for constructive developmental input.

He was a friend, advisor and leader in the industry.

He earned many friends in various circles and he was the face and voice of the Association.

His hard work and commitment ensured that the tourism operators and owners had an avenue to express themselves in the public arena, with Government, regional organisations, relevant stakeholders and the community at large.

So, at this time when the tourism family is inspired by the future of the industry, it was fitting that we awarded the first-ever FHTA Inspirational Award to his widow, Ms Jenny Seeto in remembrance of Dixon’s sacrifice and toil for Fiji’s tourism industry.

Following the FHTA AGM, and with a wide range of tourism operators already present, it was determined that the opportunity to address issues of widespread interest should be taken advantage of.

To this end, we hosted a panel discussion to discuss tourism specific and reopening concerns, so that queries and clarifications could be addressed.

We were privileged to have the Permanent Secretary of Health Dr James Fong and the Permanent Secretary of Tourism Shaheen Ali join Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill, APTC Acting Country Director Gareth McGrath, Fiji Airways Executive Manager Digital Channels & Tourism Partnerships Akuila Batiweti, FHTA President Brian Kirsch and myself to address reopening plans, training, flights and booking information with questions from on-line and in-person tourism stakeholders for the session.

We sincerely thank the panellists and in particular the Permanent Secretaries for availing themselves for this tourism event and we look forward to working closely with their ministries and organisations to ensure that the return to business for tourism is as smooth as possible.

There is no doubt that the session would have also provided some great insight to the speakers based on the issues raised, and where tourism stakeholders still needed further clarification and what were genuine concerns that might be hindering the reopening process.

FHTA has been actively vocal and instrumental in the drafting of Fiji’s Reopening Framework that will govern how accommodation providers and other tourism businesses will cater to guests safely and consistently.

We are aware of the risks of letting our guard down and take seriously our responsibilities for ensuring we get the reopening safety protocols right whilst still ensuring we keep our collective “Bula Spirit” alive and well.

After all, it is the “Bula Spirit” that is what our international visitors will be coming to Fiji for. The safety mechanisms at play while they’re here simply form the added layers to what we can offer as a destination.

We will also lend manpower and resources to the team that will conduct the final step of Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) certification, including ensuring the individual properties can deliver the required levels of implementation and compliance.

FHTA firmly believes that there are unique opportunities to invigorate the economy by introducing policies that provide stimulus and accelerate growth by incentivising job retention, sustaining tourism SME’s and protecting vulnerable groups, while also promoting more investment in the industry.

But first, we must show that we can get our reopening right.

Then we can continue to drive efforts to create opportunities, consult widely and lobby strongly for our members by liaising with relevant Government Ministries, agencies and statutory bodies to ensure that all tourism businesses get the support they need to develop in the industry and grow the economy.

As Dixon often said, “It is good for tourism only if it is good for Fiji and the economy.”

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Getting our Communication Aligned

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Getting our Communication Aligned

FHTA, 4 November 2021 – Someone recently likened the layers of protection against COVID as slices of Swiss cheese stacked beside each other. Social distancing, personal hygiene, mask-wearing, contact tracing and vaccination are just some of the imperfect layers (Swiss cheese has holes) that do not provide full protection alone but when stacked together form an almost impenetrable wall guarding against the onslaught of COVID.

When you think of COVID Safe practices in that context, you can appreciate why there is a need to retain restrictive measures and heightened hygiene standards, despite our excellent local vaccination levels, as we welcome international visitors back.

Exciting times lie ahead for Fiji. If we get things right.

How do we get things right? Just like the Swiss cheese wall, we align our practices across the industry, across the private and public sector and between countries.

We have been working hard to ensure that all the necessary steps have been taken so that international visitors can be received in a safe and controlled manner.

There are still many queries coming in from our industry stakeholders both to our Secretariat and Tourism Fiji as the national tourism office, regarding aspects of the Reopening Framework that have proven tricky to comprehend or need a fuller explanation on how they will be applied.

To that end, we have sought to understand the many new health, immigration, airline and country requirements, and then break these down through training, procedural explanations or planning logistics around how they can take place as efficiently as possible.

Testing protocols and the logistical details of performing the test, reading and actioning the results as well as getting the tests to the nearest labs and then accessing the subsequent reports are being worked through. Once confirmed they will be shared widely so that all the connected travel and testing processes enable visitors to get the best experience that they are all ultimately here for.

People booking their flights to Fiji are coming for a tropical holiday, a break from work, catching up with friends and relatives or simply finally returning home.
Whatever the reason; it is our job to make their trip as safe and as seamless as possible.

Our industry colleagues at Tourism Fiji have a comprehensive FAQ section that you should refer to for clarity around general travel requirements. You can access this on https://fiji.travel./FAQ and it includes information on booking conditions, vaccination rates, travelling with children, selecting resorts, testing and returning home and other relevant information.

We continue to remind everyone in the industry that the stipulated requirements for reopening to international travel must be viewed as precautionary measures deemed necessary by the Ministry of Health & Medical Services, at this time, to keep our communities, staff and guests safer (necessary slices of Swiss cheese).

Our compliance and support of these measures as an industry ensure we remain committed to getting tourism back up again while keeping the people we are responsible for as safe as possible (like an impenetrable Swiss cheese wall).

All of our members and tourism stakeholders have been reminded that embedding layers of controls against pandemic disease into their businesses, such as safe air and masking when needed, will make it far more likely that your business will remain open, not be subject to disruptions, nor lose key staff or guests to illness.

This is because, despite vaccination levels, all controls are important to protect health as immunity to the vaccine wanes, and reduce transmission that can occur despite vaccination.

We hope the requirements reduce or get removed eventually. But for now, we must all work towards compliance.

Based on the number of enquiries we have received, there is confusion around who can come in and how between now and December. So here is the breakdown:

From now until 10th November, only returning vaccinated Fiji residents, citizens and work permit holders can come in (unless you have been approved as a visitor to come in via VIP or Blue Lanes) and should be coming in from a “green zone” partner country.

This category of inbound arrivals will be required to spend 7 days in a Fiji Managed Quarantine facility (FMQ) and several hotels offer this accommodation service that can be found on Fiji Airway’s website https://fijimanagedquarantine.com/

They cannot leave their rooms like any other managed quarantine and need negative RT-PCR tests confirmed to leave quarantine before moving into the community.

If coming in from a “red zone”, non-partner country or coming in as an unvaccinated passenger, the quarantine time is 14 days. This information is available on the Ministry of Tourism website https://www.mcttt.gov.fj/home/traveltofiji/international-travel/

From 11th November to 31st November, only vaccinated, returning citizens, residents and permit holders coming from green countries get 3 days in FMQs. To leave quarantine, a negative RT-PCR test is needed. Everyone else must stay 7 days with 2 tests required.

Then for the official Fijian border reopening day of 1st December, all incoming visitors from green countries are allowed quarantine free entry and will only need to spend a minimum of 3 days in Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) certified hotels.

On the 3rd day (or 48 hours after arrival), a negative Rapid Antigen Test ensures they have free rein to travel anywhere they wish, although we will be advising international visitors against going into communities with recorded low vaccination rates.

During the 3 days, they can still move around any CFC certified or approved businesses, activities and outlets, travel to the North to spend the bulk of their holiday there, go on a day trip or go diving.

International visitors include those coming in for a holiday, coming for business, attending a conference or visiting friends and relatives. Everyone in this category will be required to provide a confirmation of paid accommodation at a CFC certified property and should be getting transported by CFC approved transportation (including taxies) to get a confirmed airline seat.

Why? Because the Ministry of Health needs to ensure that since your last 72hour RT-PCR test prior to arrival into Fiji, you did not get exposed and contracted COVID. The Ministry needs to reduce the risk of transmission further because even though you are already vaccinated, you could still pose a risk.

If a positive result comes back from the post-48-hour Rapid Antigen Test, a follow-up RT-PCR test will be required and hotels must have these procedures in place with access to test kits and confirmation of exactly where they can get PCR swabs done, the labs that will provide the results and what a confirmed positive or negative test looks like.

Hotel staff are getting ready to be trained to process the test results, monitor guests and escalate processes when required, while we work on getting a better understanding of which labs can process PCR test results, how we get the samples to them from across all of Fiji’s tourism networks, what their turnaround time for tests and confirmed results will be and how these will be communicated back to the guest.

Turnaround times are critical to the industry because we want to ensure our visitors can get back on their departing flights when they are supposed to.

Every international visitor leaving Fiji eventually will require proof of a negative test to be presented to the airline they will travel on, to be able to get back into their country. Depending on their country’s requirement (not Fiji’s), this test might be a Rapid Antigen Test (e.g. USA) or an RT-PCR test (e.g. Australia).

To add another layer of compliance complication, some countries have outlined specific test types (e.g. USA), want their own reporting forms (e.g. Japan) or want specific information provided on the negative reports (everybody else).

Suppliers of test kits, like the suppliers of hand sanitisers, have flourished almost overnight, however tourism operators should proceed with caution and not be blinded by cheap prices. There is a list of approved test kits and the importation of these require specific approvals too (Ministry of Health).

We will leave out the escalation processes for positive cases, the need for hotels to be prepared for guests to stay longer, the very critical need for travel insurance to cover for a longer stay than might have been envisaged and the logistics that still have to be worked out to get test samples from maritime islands to labs on the mainland.

Suffice to say that we are wading through these as a collective tourism group and trying to stay focused on getting our border reopening right.
It is clear, however, that we must continue to update and better articulate the very important messaging on what to expect over the next few months.

As Fiji’s national tourism office, Tourism Fiji is this country’s destination marketing agency that ensures any information about Fiji uses all of its communication channels available, to clarify and update what visitors need to know if considering a holiday to Fiji.

And they ARE doing this better than anyone else.

If there is confusion or conflicting information from some of the Government department messages, social media sites and mainstream media; simply check Tourism Fiji’s website for the clarity you will need.

FHTA’s focus is ensuring our tourism members and the industry’s suppliers that are also members, are consistently updated on these same communication efforts, provide clarity and training and ensure overall compliance.

If you are not our member (yet) and you are struggling to understand the changes; you have a lot to catch up on.

Communication is often considered the most important aspect of success.

Right now, as we wait on the brink of reopening after almost 2 years of being shut off from the world, we need the right communication and the collective presence of mind to get correct information from legitimate and expert sources to successfully reopen.

Now is not the time to be adding to the already complicated situation of reopening our fragile country into a new COVID safe world by being the mouse of misinformation weakening our Swiss cheese wall of COVID protection.

If we want to hear the most important word in tourism by the 1st of December, we need to ALL work on getting this border reopening right.

And we can’t wait to hear ‘BULA!!’ ringing out every day, across Fiji.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Resilience and Adaptability

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Resilience and Adaptability

FHTA, 28 October 2021 – The ramp-up of activity in the tourism sector has been jolting but expected.

There has been a flurry of queries and requests for clarifications on the myriad list of requirements for reopening from across the tourism family – the accommodation providers, the suppliers, the contractors and even potential visitors coming directly to the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) website.

Tourism staff have started returning to full-time work while others who had moved on into other industries are being contacted with new offers so that the preparation of closed or semi-open resorts can reopen with full inventory being made available and all systems firing for full operational status.

But while many tourism businesses have been open for months now, getting to full reopening status is still an ongoing challenge for hundreds of other resorts located on islands other than on the main island of Viti Levu.

With lower vaccination levels on the outer islands still being addressed, many people may not be aware that getting staff out to these resorts is a logistical process that requires many complicated steps.

As enquiries from potential visitors turn to confirmed bookings, the rush to get reopening ready by 1st December is still a challenge for many island resorts trying to get tradespeople like carpenters, builders, electricians, engineers and plumbers out because this had not been possible before with lockdowns still in place for maritime travel.

And adding to the list of things that need to be addressed by resort operators that have had properties closed with only the required machinery running, is the storm surge damage from the cyclone last year that has often required the rebuilding and reinforcement of sea walls and other infrastructure.

In the list of people required in the clean-up and maintenance process, apart from resort staff for manning requirements, are also the regulatory and compliance officers who must ensure licensing and approvals are in place before reopening.

Vessel and vehicle safety inspections, OHS, hotel licencing, fire services, HR trainers and any other agencies with a need to poke around a tourism business to ensure compliance.

The massive task and associated costs of getting reopening ready, therefore, despite requiring stepping through a range of constantly evolving COVID safe requirements is difficult to appreciate unless one gets out to an island resort to see it first-hand.

Thousands of local travellers in Fiji have been able to do exactly this and experience for themselves through exciting gatherings set against the most amazing ocean views and awe-inspiring sunsets, then sharing these widely on every available social media platform; further boosting Fijian tourism images for a country still prepping to make things even more perfect and just a little safer.

And ready they will be for whichever date each resort has targeted for its reopening. Many have confirmed they will be ready over the next few weeks, while far more have already been opened and where possible, already enjoying domestic tourism.

So come 1st December, who exactly is coming in or looking to book a seat on those flights that are selling so quickly that Qantas and Jetstar have decided to bring forward their own scheduled flights to Fiji.

Travel gurus have made all sorts of assumptions, while wholesalers and marketing experts have weighed in with their own theories based on historical travel data on Pacific Islands travel.

But COVID has been that once in a lifetime curveball that put our world off-kilter for a while and forced a refocus on clean hands, fresh air and open spaces; the global travel industry is still ambivalent on how things will pan out.

Resilience and adaptability have been identified as the two fundamental characteristics that the travel industry must adopt for a successful rebirth because these will ensure we are ready for anything.

As Australia slowly reopens by state and their citizens who have traditionally made up 42 percent of Fiji’s visitor market share flex their travel freedoms, we are seeing a tremendous surge of interest and bookings for a variety of reasons.

We can expect that there will be more families and groups of friends choosing to travel together, having been apart for months (and even years) with restrictions on travel and crowds in place until only recently.

Millennials are also expected to be a stronger segment of travellers who are recognised digital natives with a wealth of power as a generation that can find information and move quickly as a result.

These younger travellers on the lookout for experiences, generally trust each other’s opinions over any marketing spiels or industry advice, with social media platforms driving their reasons for selecting a product, service or experience.

Understanding how and why these traveller segments book, should drive how we market our own products and services.

And threading through all the information being pored through by travel-hungry populations emerging from long lockdowns and nervousness around COVID safety is the need for reassurance that where they are going is considered safe, can keep them safe and that they will be able to return home safely.

Fiji has many mechanisms now in place to deal with all the moving parts of the resurrection of tourism as the biggest employer and the largest contributor of national revenue.

This includes the tax breaks and incentives announced in the last few national budgets to support the industry’s recovery, the COVID Risk Management Taskforce, the Tourism Recovery Team and the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) – forums that have allowed wider consultation for tourism’s safer recovery process and the reopening framework.

The collaboration with the national tourism office, the private sector and the medical services people have now moved to ensure we have sufficient supplies for testing kits, that we can turn around test results for the thousands of visitors that will be moving through our systems, along with the thousands more tourism staff that will require regular testing as well, until these requirements for testing reduce or are eventually removed.

With testing kits suddenly tripling in cost, we may need to request assistance with price regulation to ensure we stay on track with getting reopening ready.

So, with the addition of even more now to the moving parts that is normal for an industry that is coming back on to its usual non-stop operational nature; and to the question of whether Fiji will be ready for reopening and whether tourism will bounce back to its pre-pandemic highs; the response is that we are still hopeful we can yes to both.

Of even more interest, based on the current booking trends, is whether COVID has impacted our traditional “off-season” – the sudden drop in bookings we usually expect after Christmas, which lasts until the first school holidays in Australia and New Zealand around April.

Because it is looking like January, February and March bookings for Fiji are scaling upwards and are not going according to what has taken place historically or pre-COVID.

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

We are still apprehensively watching our increasing and commendable national vaccination numbers because we want to reduce the number of ‘no-go’ areas that will identify lower vaccinated areas.

We are working to come up with innovative solutions to the logistic challenges of getting test swabs to labs and getting reports turned around faster.

There are still safety protocols and onerous conditions that appear overly cautious or burdensome especially for SME’s, that require clarity or flexibility so that the many segments in tourism can comply and be included in the reopening because tourism has never been a “one size fits all” type of industry.

However, the industry breathed a sigh of relief this week when restrictions were amended to enable more convenient travel pathways.

Along with applying resilience and adaptability, we can also add flexibility.

Like a coconut tree – exemplifying all three characteristics and forever here in the tropics.

So too will tourism if we can help it.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Come On Over

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Come On Over

FHTA, 21 October 2021 – If indications of recent online activity are anything to go by, Fiji is looking good for the planned official border reopening on 1st December.

Our tourism family has been overwhelmed by the number of bookings coming in, especially from our Vuvale partner Australia.

This comes in the wake of Government’s recent Fiji Day announcement on the firm dates for our borders opening up again for international visitors.

Our borders will open up to fully vaccinated travellers from the United States, United Kingdom Australia, New Zealand, most Pacific Islands countries and others, with the “green zone” country list advised as being expanded and updated consistently.

Visitors must have a negative COVID test three days before arrival and also return a negative rapid test 48 hours post-arrival to warrant unrestrained travel anywhere in Fiji.

Tourists and returning residents will need to do at least a three-day hotel stay to have their whereabouts accounted for before that test, during which they will still be able to enjoy COVID-safe approved sights and activities for the duration of their observation period.

While the New Zealand government is advising its citizens not to travel internationally (and we understand their current hesitancy), we are working hard to prove that we can maintain a safe environment for all travellers should they decide to pack a bag and head off our way for some fun and sun.

As we watch vaccination levels move slowly around the world, New Zealand’s fully vaccinated rate sits at 55 percent this week and across the Tasman Sea, Australia’s vaccination total is 56 percent for fully vaccinated adults.

Media reports in Australia note that many families there looking for a tropical getaway are feeling more and more confident planning a holiday to Fiji than domestically, and this is largely due to our commendable vaccination rate now at around 84 percent for eligible adults (and still rising), and may also be an acknowledgement that we are remaining cautious with our current demand for COVID -safe practices for work, play and public behaviour.

There will be several ‘no-go’ areas for travellers but thanks to our vaccination rate, these will continue to reduce and visitors can still visit a large number of tourist hotspots around the country.

Kudos to the great work from the teams at the Ministry of Health and Medical Services and the Fiji Government for this achievement that has laid a sturdy foundation with which the tourism industry has built its COVID-safe protocols to be able to finally reopen.

We are now looking forward to all that hard work for a safe reopening paying off.

The framework for the reopening isn’t set in stone, and it certainly should not be, but it does provide a solid base to build confidence.

During these past two years with the tourism sector grinding to a halt, far too many lives and businesses have been affected in the process.

In the Pacific, livelihoods were more than just curtailed when incomes collapsed. It had a crippling effect on families forced to make decisions about where they lived and what they had to sacrifice to earn a living.

The access to the land, sea and the strong bonds of family or vuvale kicked in to look after one another either directly or through remittances being sent home, which for Fiji has seen the biggest increase – overtaking tourism earnings in the last month while tourism remained stalled.

But as we have pondered what level tourism comes back on and which safety frameworks must be in place; it has been a complicated and exhausting series of deciding between planning for the worst-case scenarios or adopting a cautionary approach with several safety nets ready to go.

Suffice to say that with just under 2 months to reopening, we have a little of both in place with discussions still ongoing that we can drop, amend or adopt alternative health measures based on a mixture of the evolving science, country-to-country agreements and the good doctors’ increased confidence level with the industry doing what it says it can, and will.

Our readiness levels are high, our national airline is primed, our accommodation providers, tourism stakeholders and suppliers are bursting ready.

Ready also because most of the last 22 months has been spent understanding the changing science around COVID, and studying the unfortunate mistakes of countries around the world dealing with a virus that has been able to stay alive thus far.

We will consistently maintain as we have done before, that businesses, tourism or otherwise; must realise that entrenching layers of strict controls against (pandemic) disease into their operations, such as safe air, increased ventilation and masking when needed, will ensure that their businesses are far more likely
to remain open and not be subject to disruptions, nor lose key staff or customers to illness.

Of the many things that will change and evolve as the months move on, this preparation will remain constant for some time yet.

We have seen some massive vaccination figures come through in the last few months, solidifying a national effort to kick COVID to the curb and get those international borders back open again.

As bookings roll in for the peak Dec period and look to be changing even into our traditional trough months of January and February, excitement is rippling through many tourism businesses as they increase their staff numbers, spruce up their resorts and get their vessels, vehicles and activity products compliant.

Everyone wants to make the reopening work.

And everyone with any attachment to the industry is busy making sure they know what to expect and include the safety compliance requirements that now go with getting a Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) certification or approval to indicate they are ready for visitors.

Without a CFC certification or approval, visitors will be advised to avoid doing business with you.

That’s how serious the industry is.

We need Fiji back in the Best Places to Go for A Holiday list and for anyone worrying about how safe it is to travel to select Fiji based on our preparations to welcome them back safer.

Fiji’s tourism mantra is ‘Let Happiness Find You’ and we know our visitors will find that happiness when they get here.

And when they’re happy and safe, Fiji will be happier. And safer.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Protecting Our Vulnerable

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Protecting Our Vulnerable

FHTA, 14 October 2021 – A year ago, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) was talking about Fiji’s readiness to welcome back international visitors when our borders reopened.

At the time, Fiji had just opened up its Blue Lane initiative and launched its VIP Lane, which when fully operational were extremely popular with high-end visitors eager to sit out COVID somewhere private and quiet.

Between then and now, there have been countless studies relating to travel restarting and traveller impacts in a pandemic world and the results have not always made positive reading.

However, that was in a world without a COVID vaccine and its ensuing impacts.

So, while the data and information from the various academic and economic modelling and studies have remained conservative or cautiously optimistic at best, the increased vaccine uptake and subsequent reduction in severe illness and death have now instilled more confidence in potential travellers about the safety of tourism hotspots like Fiji.

Spikes in traveller interest and confirmed bookings provide actual data to support this.

And after much anticipation and more pain than anyone cares to remember, the Fijian tourism industry finally heard the Border Reopening Framework announced on perhaps the most appropriate day – Fiji Day.

FHTA has been a very active part of the consultations that took place to get the framework confirmed and as laid out right now, it may look like we’re being overly cautious, but the framework (and the Prime Minister’s announcement), does carry a clear disclaimer that nothing in the framework is irreversible.

But reopening with a more cautionary framework that can be rolled back with some discretion is necessary for this continuing journey of learning to live with COVID.

Plus, we have almost 2 months to get the framework adjusted.

Fiji’s Independence Day celebrations last weekend might have been more muted than in past years, but it certainly proved a great occasion for the announcement for a travel-safe reopening framework, our planned economic recovery and some updated COVID-safety measures as public movement restrictions got lifted.

The lifting of mandatory measures to reduce travel between mainland Viti Levu and other islands received the biggest applause as local families were able to be reunited.

It was also an opportune time to thank Fijians for achieving their 80 percent target for fully vaccinated adults, a whole 3 weeks earlier than anticipated.

With smaller pockets of lower vaccination levels more easily identifiable around the country now, there is widespread hope that coupled with refocused efforts by the Ministry of Health and support from tourism businesses in those areas, we can incentivize those communities to increase their vaccination levels.

While ensuring that these community’s vulnerable members are as protected as possible, declaring these identified areas as “No-Go” zones to all visitors will undoubtedly create further incentives for tourism workers and businesses in the area to support the vaccination messaging.

Fiji still has pockets of low vaccinated numbers due to a mixture of vaccine resistance as well as logistical challenges for getting the vaccines out there, considering the spread of the population along the many inhabited regions in our over 300 group of islands.

But as the good doctor has reminded us often enough, the larger the number of fully vaccinated individuals, the better the protection created for the smaller numbers of unvaccinated and the more vulnerable members of our communities.

Which include our valued senior citizens, our pregnant mothers, our younger children and those with comorbidity issues.

That means that despite relaxed restrictions and more freedom of movement, we cannot let our guards down and must continue to practice social distancing where possible, hand sanitising at every opportunity and mask-wearing as part of everyday habits whenever leaving our bubbles.

With many businesses reopening after months of closure or considering opening and with more staff getting used to working from home, it can be extremely challenging to keep up with the changing requirements.

The key requirements are still in place and the tourism industry is being consistently reminded, even unfairly scrutinized for compliance many believe, to ensure that COVID-safe measures are followed and that complacency not be allowed to creep in.

With Fiji possibly being most recognized for its laid-back approach to living; it can be extremely challenging to reaffirm the need for maintaining vigilance around all things COVID safe – almost an anti-thesis for our most basic belief in “sega na leqa” (no worries).

But that’s what the new normal expects of us now.

Businesses, tourism or otherwise, must realise that entrenching layers of strict controls against (pandemic) disease into their operations, such as safe air, increased ventilation and masking when needed, will ensure that their businesses are far more likely to remain open and not be subject to disruptions, nor lose key staff or customers to illness.

Despite the nation’s vaccination figures, all embedded controls are considered vitally important to protect the health of both staff and customers as immunity to the vaccines is expected to wane and more variants emerge.

Vaccination alone won’t guarantee a COVID-safe workplace.

Science (and experience!!) has shown that even fully vaccinated people can be infected (albeit at a much lower rate) and they can be carriers of the virus (again, at a much lower rate).

We need to continually respect that risk and play our part to ensure that we stop the virus dead in its tracks, at all possible times, whenever and however we can.

In outlining a requirement to have incoming visitors test negative post-arrival before they are allowed unfettered access to any part of Fiji, Fiji’s medical service people are simply trying to protect our vulnerable communities.

This may change as vaccination levels continue to rise and is considered a far better option than controlling what areas visitors were allowed access to.

The Care Fiji Commitment from Tourism Fiji is being updated and strengthened to ensure that we have a reference toolkit and the relevant training on the safety measures that are our first and best line of defence against the virus.

The Fijian tourism industry was built on the lucky combination of a perfect location and the world’s friendliest people.

As Fijians, we are warm, fun-loving and happy.

We make friends with total strangers and welcome people with smiles, kisses, hugs and reassuring embraces.

It has been a difficult ask, but we have had to adjust our usual welcoming and trusting instincts to keep our communities safe.

Now our smiles are from behind a mask.

Not visible but you will see the happiness in our eyes and hear the same warm and friendly welcoming “BULA!”

The changes will not define us and they don’t make us any less welcoming as a people, an industry and a country.

They certainly don’t make us any less Fijian.

If anything, it will show that our smiles have gotten bigger and our appreciation more profound.

We are ready to welcome the world back and with any luck (and more vaccinations completed) will be doing so with visible smiles and warm hugs soon enough.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji’s Day

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji’s Day

FHTA, 8 October 2021 – Our tiny, fascinating nation celebrates 51 years of independence this week.

What a journey it has been and what a journey it continues to be!

Good, bad or ugly; the experiences we have undertaken as a nation continue to harden our resolve to persevere, to overcome and to succeed.

Tourism has grown in leaps and bounds from its early pioneering days and rising to become an undeniable force in Fiji’s revenue-earning potential and is now recognized as a fundamental cornerstone of the country’s economic development.

Contributing $3.8b to the country’s total Gross Domestic Product in 2019, $1b to government’s tax revenue, over $2b in foreign exchange earnings and employing around 30 percent of the total workforce (and impacting employment levels almost as much indirectly); Fiji’s heavy reliance on tourism received a devastating blow when the pandemic closed borders, now going on 18 months.

The ‘Fiji’ brand is distinctly recognized by its idyllic beaches, swaying palm trees and smiling, friendly people, reinforced by other strong export brands and formidable foreign exchange-earners like our natural mineral water, a bold national airline, coconut-based beauty products and talented rugby players.

Adding to this ever-strengthening mix of industries that are developing and growing at a formidable pace are manufacturing, business process outsourcing and IT, among others.

So as 18 months of restrictions in some form or other start to get scaled back, this Fiji Day celebration might just be the time for some well-placed patriotism to be shining through with grateful relief that we might be coming to the end of a time we would be happy to put behind us.

After months of working from home if you still had a job, restricted movements within containment areas and no access to entertainment, sports, religious activities or gatherings of any sort; the slow reopening of everything but bars, has been like newfound freedom.

But it is a freedom that has come at a very high cost to Fijians economically, financially and personally.

As vaccination targets reach 80 percent and a reopening framework announcement is imminent to confirm when and how Fijian borders will be reopened, the celebration of “Fiji Day” on the 10th of October should be quite a celebration.

The first step to reopening at 70 percent vaccination targets being reached had allowed the return of domestic tourism earlier, with many families escaping the confines of their homes for beaches and pools to get their first taste of travel freedoms in months.

In the background over the last few months and in contrast to the quieter, slower-paced city life, there have been long hours of discussions, exchanges and heated debates going on in the background to determine how we reopen, and under exactly which conditions.

Compliance fatigue and the difficulty to enforce the ever-present threat of penalties for non-compliance is moving to concerns that lifting restrictions will be interpreted incorrectly by many to mean that our COVID enforced new behaviours can stop.

Initially difficult to bring about, our eventual collective ability to change how we interact with one another, our general behaviour and widespread acceptance of the vaccine, have been critical to reducing transmissions and getting to where we are now.

It has been a long road to getting to a point where with enough of the population vaccinated, we would consider that our borders could be reopened, but still difficult to imagine we might be able to look forward to getting our lives back, even though it means we have to live differently henceforth.

The last few months have been harrowing for our small island nation and, understandably, the scars are still raw, so planning to move to steadily reducing or removing restrictions may still feel too early for those who have had to deal more intimately with the health impacts of the pandemic.

And in the months that follow, there will no doubt be many studies undertaken on the impact of the pandemic, whether the restrictions were too harsh or not sufficiently imposed, what the evolving science has taught us and the reasons some things worked or did not.

Some countries will be applauded for taking the right steps earlier and others will be criticized for not doing enough or imposing harsher restrictions that in hindsight might be considered unnecessary or excessive.

No one should doubt by now though, that people’s health and safety has always been at the heart of these reasons.

But around the world, as borders have gradually opened or have planned to reopen, there have been increasing calls to reassess the conditions for how people returned home, for travel to ease into less restrictive pathways, especially now with larger proportions of populations vaccinated and all the safety measures becoming part of how we all live, work, play or pray.

Key amongst the widespread calls for more pragmatic approaches to reopening is the collective understanding that any sort of quarantine requirement on arrival into a country would deter all but the most critical requirements for travel.

Tourism industry stakeholders understand that whatever timeframe we choose to reopen as a country, that becomes the only opportunity to get things right the first time around.

Visitors will book a holiday or their return home to see friends and relatives based on their ability to access the main reason for that travel in the easiest possible way.

If they are vaccinated, can provide this proof as part of their usual travel documents and understand implicitly that they will not be allowed to return to their home country without a negative test (where required), they will comply with any travel behaviour expected of them.

With countries like Australia considering home quarantine post overseas travel, we are seeing Governments place more trust in public behaviour patterns being shaped by better communication efforts and understanding how virus transmissions have been effectively reduced.

Many more countries have moved to either very few restrictions or removed restrictions completely, but these tend to be countries with far superior health systems in place that can manage outbreaks if they occurred.

In many cases, it appears that restrictive measures correlate almost directly to a country’s health systems ability to manage the risk of infection flare-ups.

The more restrictive the measures, the lower the confidence level that the risk can be effectively dealt with.

What may be missing in these considerations is the element of trust.

Trust in the population’s ability to follow the now required new behavioural patterns of continued social distancing, sanitizing and masking up where required; given that continued education and communication on why we should all be vaccinated is maintained.

Trust as well in the various industries complying with health and safety protocols so that they can get their workers back in and their businesses back on track.

The private sector and more specifically the tourism industry has the most skin in the game as they await the formal announcement for reopening Fijis borders.

Currently grappling with how many of their 2019 level staff numbers they bring back now, in 2 months or even later, or whether they prepare their businesses to be fully operational or at a fraction initially; decisions are being delayed because while overseas visitor interest has increased, there is still considerable uncertainty around what the travel conditions will be.

And let’s face it, would you personally make a booking to travel overseas for a 5-day holiday if you weren’t sure how many of those days you might be forced to stay in your room?

Fiji will get one shot at reopening under the right conditions to get the first real sparks of economic activity and thousands of jobs back online.

We will not get another opportunity to get this reopening right.

Happy Fiji Day, everyone! Enjoy responsibly!

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: World Tourism Day

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: World Tourism Day

FHTA, 1 October 2021 – This week saw the commemoration of World Tourism Day with its theme of “Tourism for Inclusive Growth.”

The World Tourism Organization designated October 27 annually as an opportunity to look beyond tourism statistics and acknowledge that, behind every number, there is a person.

While it might feel that Fiji’s tourism sector does not have any reason to celebrate World Tourism Day just yet, we believe otherwise.

The inclusive growth of the industry has seen a burgeoning landscape of travel experiences, budget options and widespread tourism development throughout the islands that have encouraged more locally-owned enterprises than ever before.

This might therefore be as good a time as any, with vaccination levels at 70 percent, to set the launch point from where we prepare to return to some sense of normalcy once international visitors are given the green light.

Even though any version of “normalcy” is never going to be what it used to be.

That is if we can actually remember what it was like without social distancing, masks, constant sanitising and having to scan in and out of everyday situations that requires queuing for that service first.

Many things have and will continue to evolve once international tourism is rebooted in Fiji, and in and around the Pacific as we catch up to the rest of the world.

And while the travel landscape continues to evolve, we are learning to get used to new ways of doing things that involve living and working in a world with COVID in it.

Right now, everyone is waiting for that Reopening Framework to be announced and implemented before we can really say who is going to be able to be reopening ready and really prepared to welcome guests.

Much work still needs to be completed before then besides just dusting off implements, prepping properties and equipment, getting much-needed supplies, locating staff, and getting regulatory compliances in order.

Preparations and understanding the conditions of travel are also critical to confirm bookings.

The more complicated and/or later the framework is, the fewer bookings can be confirmed with the booking windows for our further markets getting smaller.

Many await confirmation to respond to queries on quarantine requirements, in-country testing, the freedom to travel around the islands, the ability to plan their wedding or special event and even whether they can visit their favourite village community to check on old friends.

Generally, visitors will only get a few weeks of leave from work if they’re lucky, while some will get between 5 and 7 days only.

So, spending as much of that time doing everything you could not do for nearly 2 years is a potential visitor’s dream that everyone in tourism is keen to make come true.

And part of everyone’s job will be to make that journey as memorable and as effortless as possible, because if you had a choice to travel somewhere that offered far fewer restrictions, why would you choose Fiji?

Regions like Europe, the US and the UK do not currently require fully vaccinated travellers to quarantine and instead require a negative COVID-19 test, 72 hours before arrival.

And as the weeks and days go by and vaccination levels rise, restrictions reduce proportionally.

Fiji has had its fair share of situations that have disrupted tourism (and other industries) in the past, whether meteorological, economic, or political.

We are not therefore new to the concept of ‘waiting out the storm’ as it were; usually just keep our heads down as safely as possible and doing what we can to survive until the all-clear is given to resume normal duties.

At the start of the pandemic and border closures, early estimations were quite optimistic and tourism operators continued with domestic tourism, adjusting business needs to demand or downsized with a skeleton staff to maintain operations.

If you were small enough to hibernate the business, you parked your equipment beneath a heavy tarp or stored it in a friend’s garage to reduce costs, let your staff go and looked for another way to sustain yourself.

But as the pandemic dragged on, our tourism members large and small, took more drastic steps to address cash flows that were hitting rock bottom and operational costs that didn’t just all go away the way their revenue streams had.

Domestic tourism opportunities were off, on-again, then back off for most businesses with containment zones effectively stopping the flow, and with scaled-back demands from the medical teams and quarantine services for repatriation flights, the tourism industry went back to almost full closure again.

Tourism’s SMEs and activity providers have had it much worse and have gone far longer without opportunities, and concerns have been rightly raised about whether the industry will see them return to business when borders reopen, if at all.

After all, what is a holiday without a range of experiences, adventure, and excitement; because our visitors are not travelling all the way to Fiji to simply stay in a hotel room.

So how have these businesses that are small in size, but vast in terms of the number of experience providers, been keeping?

The answer is complicated and varied, based on what the business is, its size, location and experience.

They might return to business when borders have been open for a while and there is a demand for their particular niche product but otherwise, they may remain in storage with very few overheads.

Ecotourism and local experiences like village visits with cultural offerings in entertainment, food and a taste of traditional living can re-emerge with very little scarring.

Marine based offerings like dive, yacht charters, sports fishing, transfers, day trips, snorkelling excursions and jet skiing have higher operational costs; with licensing fees, berthing charges and safety regulations they must comply with, as well as crew training and licenses to take care of.

Island-based resorts that can offer accommodation and a range of experiences have to contend with far more challenges that belie their idyllic locations.

These smaller resorts are exposed to more weather conditions, having to accommodate staff, manage with smaller staff numbers that must have a range of trade skills, address coastal erosion, insufficient water, rusting equipment and deal with being off the grid for power, internet, fuel and general supplies.

When containment zones cut them off, they are really cut off.

All these operators need access to financing options to keep their equipment safe and compliant in the same way that every other small business operator needed cash to keep the lights on and engines going.

A combination of access to finance and reducing overhead costs, coupled with the ability to retain key staff and keep assets safe has been their key focus.

The inability to access operational finance had been many an operator’s nightmares for months despite opportunities advertised widely last year with only a range of waived fees and penalties, or extended licenses provided for, offering respite from overheads.

Fiji does not have the luxury of wage or business support and while the options that were provided for unemployed staff accessing their own pension funds or small Government grants might have appeared meagre; we know they were welcomed by those that needed them.

Budgetary allocations in support of tourism’s restart along with the MSME targeted financing specifically for COVID-19 recovery that offered government-guaranteed credit, have provided a further, much-needed buffer.

However, it is not yet known how many have been able to successfully access these options.

But we do know that not everyone has needed to access these opportunities, choosing instead to put their (usually small) business into storage and find an alternative way to earn enough to continue to survive until the demand for their product comes back.

The industry has been around for over 50 years and has seen decades of changes, weathered a range of different challenges consistently and has learnt a lifetime of experiences that is drawn on to determine whether it is time to weigh anchor and find another fishing spot, or stay put and await the tide and wind change that must come eventually.

Will every tourism business be open come border reopening time?

Maybe not, but most will be ready and prepared for opportunities.

Will every experience or activity provider be available by then too?

That would depend very strongly on how many airline seats get booked and which hotels get filled, in which region and, while interest is high for Fiji right now; our potential visitors are still waiting to hear what the conditions for travel in and out of Fiji will be.

The sprint to December really starts when everyone knows exactly how Fiji will reopen.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Getting to 80%

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Getting to 80%

FHTA, 23 September 2021 – By 4am Friday 17th September, a collective sigh of relief might have been heard around Viti Levu.

We can certainly attest to this along with the most populous of Fijian swathes of urban collectives – the Lami to Nausori corridor within which the vast majority of the central division’s most densely populated municipalities, commercial and industrial businesses, religious organisations, transport routes and educational facilities are based.

As the containment zone borders lifted, there was finally acknowledgement that the seemingly harsh mitigative measures that had been taken over the past five months had finally paid off and brought us to this point in time.

In the grand scheme, 60 might not seem to be as big a number as 100 but when you’ve been on a Fijian version of lockdown that has been maintained with a curfew that first started at 4pm, and infection and death rates have finally moved downwards; it has been an extremely slow 16 months of which the last 5 months have been the worst.

Hats off and vinaka vakalevu to every Fijian that had themselves vaccinated past 98 percent at least once and 60 percent fully vaccinated, acknowledging of course that it also meant that you stayed employed and got welcomed into a growing list of shops and workplaces.

The job isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.

But it is a great place to start our journey into living with a virus that science tells us is not going away anytime soon.

The lifting of local borders on the main island has allowed tourism businesses, who had been patiently waiting and watching national vaccination levels, to recommence their operations.

Once COVID-19 hit our shores and forced the tourism industry into disarray, many operators have had to continue to keep their preparations going at some level if they could, for the return of international guests.

And if they were small enough to do so, to switch everything off – not a practice recommended in the humid South Pacific.

This meant keeping their properties constantly maintained despite having to greatly reduce staffing numbers as well as encouraging their staff to be vaccinated.

It is widely known that Fiji tourism workers flocked in droves to vaccination centres to get a vaccine jab and this shows in the readiness status of most of our hotel properties, land and maritime transport providers and a growing list of activities and suppliers.

Last weekend indicated the levels of pent-up domestic demand that allowed these businesses to bring larger numbers of staff back to work.

It is also a critical time to test enhanced COVID-Safe Guidelines within the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) that tourism businesses must have in place to show their commitment to guest and staff safety, and ensure everything being offered in our range of products and services is at the levels we need to regain Fiji’s competitive edge.

The CFC guidelines will be further strengthened to certification compliance levels by the time Fiji’s international borders are opened and there is a lot of work happening behind the scenes to ensure the added layers of safety protocols provides confidence to our medical people as well as all our visitors, that their safety is at the heart of everything we do.

FHTA is working closely with Tourism Fiji and the Ministry of Health and Medical Services on this certification level that will be key to Fiji being ready to say “Bula!” to international and domestic tourism.

A timely survey report recently released by Australia’s Market Development Facility (MDF) on Domestic Tourism in Fiji has provided some very relevant insights from local travellers on local tourism perceptions, expectations and gaps.

Before the pandemic, Fijian tourism relied heavily on international guests but have had to pivot somewhat since then and with Fijians unable to travel themselves, have been relied on as a smaller but important market.

Locals and work permit holders who remained in-country have been offered holiday options that while sporadic and far shorter stays, allowed tourism properties to generate some revenue and help keep more staff employed.

The Local Tourism Demand Study was designed to provide a better understanding of local tourism market segments and preferences and is based on results from a survey of more than 10,000 local travellers.

A better understanding of the local market that till the pandemic had not been included in market data collections indicates that there is certainly opportunity right here for more frequent but shorter holiday options, with a greater interest than initially believed for holiday packages that included food, beverages and activities.

In the preparations to be international visitor ready, we are aware that there is still much to do before our borders reopen.

Included in the first few waves of visitors that have probably already booked their seats are, we have no doubt, many of our Fijian families and friends that were also unable to travel back.

The tourism industry is keen to ensure that these visitors that may not necessarily book a stay in a hotel are also welcomed back safely and with the same appropriate measures of reduced or removed restrictions.

It has taken Fiji a whole lot of pain to get to where we are now and the country has experienced its most devastating impact on the economy with massive job losses, increased poverty levels and its highest revenue earner literally stopped in its tracks.

And although few believed we would get to 70 and 80 percent vaccination levels so quickly, it is firmly within our grasp and only weeks away now.

That leaves the tourism industry with little time to ensure that we get things right with our guests in terms of providing our best products, outstanding service and confidence-boosting safety levels.

The long and painful progress to where we are now is starting to pay off and Fiji is looking more and more like its old self, with increasing bookings for hotel rooms and airline seats and insights from a live tourism data dashboard indicating a lively uptick of interest in all things Fiji.

It might also be timely to remember that the consultation and collaboration efforts that have taken place in the last 16 months have been quite phenomenal and a testament to the Ministries of Tourism, Health and Economy that when the going got tough, the private sector dialogue activity allowed the tourism industry to engage at a deeper level to shape plans and influence decisions.

We might not be completely out of the woods yet, but it is clear we can work together for the collective good.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Safe Reopenings

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Safe Reopenings

FHTA, 16 September 2021 – In these times of uncertainty and massive job losses brought on by the global pandemic, there have been many people who have continued working quietly behind the scenes that have gone almost unnoticed.

For the tourism industry, this includes those who have been retained to keep resorts clean and safe whether they remained open for guests or were part of reduced staff numbers in closed but maintained properties.

Pre-COVID, their work contribution was part of a larger army of workers tasked with ensuring guests had fresh linen on beds and in bathrooms, ensuring floors and windows were sparkling and that bathrooms and public areas were sanitised to required standards.

All these cleaning standards have since seen a massive overhaul from the manner of cleaning, products used, sanitising methods, protective equipment worn during the actual work and even the frequency with which specific areas have to be cleaned.

Cleaning, maintenance, laundry and service staff have had their usual cleaning tasks taken apart and rewritten and the importance of their jobs are now critical layers of safety elevated to provide the confidence to other staff and guests that work and rest areas are not just clean, but sufficiently sanitised against COVID.

Fittingly, this week sees the commemoration of International Housekeepers and Environmental Services Week.

The week is dedicated to recognising and appreciating the hard work of these essential staff members who we might usually take for granted.

But the world views cleaning in a different light than in recent years, and the work that they do now is essential to our health and safety.

Globally, the tourism industry has always had a host of recognition awards for these staff to be celebrated and appreciated, in the process of encouraging great performance and continually improve standards.

We join hospitality stakeholders around the world in celebrating these often-underappreciated cleaning and maintenance staff who will continue working even harder now behind the scenes so that we can enjoy our holidays in clean and safe surroundings.

And speaking of holidays, it appears the central division is holding its collective breath for word on the lifting of our internal borders; no doubt to plan their mad sprints across the Melrose Bridge to get out of a wet capital city and into the drier, sunnier west.

With expectations for 80% of our eligible population to be fully vaccinated by later this year, tourism operators have been buoyed by the news that the Fijian borders will finally be opened up before year-end, if not earlier.

Indications are that Fiji will be announcing formally that it is ready to safely welcome back international visitors, so the industry has swung back into preparation mode noting it only has a few months to go from zero to hero, with safety at the very heart of all things the industry must do while it dusts off its red carpet in anticipation.

But it has not been a matter of simply getting back into the swing of things. Tourism businesses whether fully opened, completely closed or operating at a fraction of their full operations have a host of challenges to get through depending on their location.

With regional lockdowns still in place, island-based resorts are struggling to get staff out from out of bounds mainland areas, unless they can manage 14-day quarantine stays for their staff and can pay for health and inspection staff, as well as testing costs.

While only mainland Viti Levu is expected to have restricted movements lifted at 60% full vaccination point; this is expected to create an exciting demand for local holidays with schools still closed, many still working from home, and families needing a break from staying at home because parks, pools, restaurants, cinemas and sports have been closed for months.

The demand for a domestic holiday, however short, has been getting fuelled for months with resorts getting increasing enquiries via their web and social media sites.

The demand is not just for Fiji’s mainland hotspots.

Fiji’s other favourite tourism playgrounds will be ready for domestic and international tourism as well and include our northern neighbours, the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands and the smaller, but just as friendly islands off our eastern and southern coasts.

And tourism operators will no doubt welcome the opportunity to open up more rooms, bring in more staff, test that everything is working as it should, trial enhanced COVID safe protocols and monitor the popularity of any refurbishments or extensions done during the downtime.

While every happy, local holiday moment shared on social media is bound to support Fiji’s positive messaging that we are open and ready to welcome visitors.

Reopening the borders to international visitors also means embracing a host of new compliance requirements for operators.

From staff being fully vaccinated to testing requirements and safe operation certifications; everyone involved from supply chain to delivery is aware that they need to get the safety aspect right.

With wide consultations taking place, these will be covered broadly in a Reopening Framework that will cover the safety of visitors and locals while eventually easing restrictions to increase Fiji’s attractiveness as a holiday destination.

There is work being carried out in the background on vaccine passports that can be recognised internationally, as well as reviewing testing requirements and frequencies based on where visitors are coming from while trying to stay abreast of the ever-evolving science on COVID.

Preparations are well underway for flight scheduling and destination marketing to go to the next level, for markets the industry is hoping will be just as ready as we are with their own scaled up vaccination programs.

But it is not just about how ready Fiji will be.

It is also ensuring we have sufficiently covered our visitor expectations when they arrive so that their much-awaited holidays are what we are promising they will be.

Thrilling, safe and as unrestricted as possible.

Anything other than that and we risk losing potential visitors to other destinations able to offer more acceptable solutions to travelling safely in a post-COVID world.

And even before those borders open, another critical season opens for Fiji that always remains firmly on every tourism operator’s mind.
Cyclone season.

This too is always a key part of every operator’s budget and planning process with insurance, inspections and preparations for any weather event being a background but critical part of ensuring vacations in Fiji can and do remain as safe as possible.

As we firm up the finer details of Fiji’s reopening framework and move closer to the vaccination target, preparations will rapidly increase in pace.

At a recent seminar, an economics academic noted that from his modelling, tourism in Fiji was unlikely to go back to pre-COVID levels despite the positivity of the industry.

I was reminded that twenty years ago, other experts had opined that Fiji would never recover from its political coups or its many devastating cyclones and floods.

But Fiji has persevered. Sometimes with difficulty, but persevered nonetheless.

And through it all, tourism has remained and grown.

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

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Adding COVID into our New Normal

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Adding COVID into our New Normal

FHTA, 9 September 2021 – Last weekend, fully vaccinated Fijians inched past the 50 percent rate and over the last few days, this increased by 3 percent.

While the vaccination rates have been cause for celebration around the country (in our bubbles of course) with the curfew time decreasing by another much appreciated hour; there is growing excitement that Fiji will soon see the end of containment zones, and therefore easier access to loved ones, and the complete lifting of curfews eventually.

The increasing uptake of vaccinations may be a combination of the positive communication on the benefits of the vaccine finally outweighing the negative social media initially surrounding it, as well as the devastating impact on Fijian families dealing first hand with the severe complications or deaths from COVID.

Fiji is essentially a communal based society. Sudden severe illness and high numbers of death in communities make a far more shattering impact on closely linked families, villages and communities tied by their blood, marriages, land and historical links.

Sharing everything is cultural as well as economic, and sharing a painful loss is a key thread in that communal fabric that makes up Fijian societies.

The commercial, employment and economic impacts would have been secondary to the larger part of the population that have eventually embraced the need for vaccinations now.

And if we were to make projections from the numbers of first vaccine doses, we should see at least 96 percent of eligible adults being inoculated in the coming months.

This bodes very well for the tourism industry and along with the other commercial sectors watching those vaccination numbers climb, is a step in the right direction for our economic recovery.

Fiji now has over 14,404 active cases and this has dropped significantly during this second wave because we have not been actively going into communities to test the afflicted.

With about 47,923 confirmed COVID-19 cases since April this year and only those that present themselves to health authorities being tested and treated, the decline in reported confirmed cases is understandable.

This means that while there might be many other cases in the community, because of genetics or healthier groups, symptoms are far milder with a headache and cough being experienced by most people.

Of more importance is the fact that our daily test positivity rate has dropped by 15 percent from 36 percent only a few weeks ago.

Fiji is eagerly awaiting the more promised donations of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine doses to vaccinate our younger population.

But with what science is telling us, we realise we will not be able to return to a COVID-zero status as originally thought.

And as the good doctor has noted, the herd immunity we were initially aiming for may not be achievable after all.

While the threshold for herd immunity was thought achievable only with high vaccination rates, as the pandemic entered its second year this thinking began to shift.

A combination of vaccine hesitancy including the speed and distribution of the vaccine, the emergence of aggressive new variants and the delayed confirmation of vaccination for children have been key factors.

As FHTA has shared in this forum before, we must be prepared to have the virus in our lives forever, with long term prospects that include COVID-19 becoming an endemic disease like influenza.

With that being the case, we must adjust our planning, resources and protocols towards that eventuation.

It wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Covid-19 would become endemic. For a while, the hope was that vaccines might allow countries to reach a level of herd immunity that would stomp out the virus almost entirely.

But because Delta spreads so quickly, experts have ruled that herd immunity is no longer realistic and now considered impossible.

As with all challenges and as part of a “know your enemy” strategy, we have been voracious in our search for more information and understanding about the virus and how businesses can continue to operate now and into the future.

The Tourism Recovery Taskforce continues to meet regularly to prepare the industry for the eventual reopening of borders, particularly in light of the Government’s pledge to do so at 80 percent of fully vaccinated eligible adults.

But what does that mean for visitors who come into the country? How can we ensure their safety if the Delta variant is lying dormant in our communities, waiting for a new host, or worse than it is allowed in from another country?

That’s why Fiji will need all travellers coming into the country to be fully vaccinated with tourism industry staff required to be fully vaccinated as well if their place of business expects to be included in the “Care Fiji Commitment” (CFC) approved traveller lists.

In the meantime, as we get our vaccinated numbers up, domestic tourism looks to get a boost in the coming weeks as we hit the magic 60 percent figure which Government has advised will be the catalyst to open the current containment areas that separate geographical regions.

While many are simply waiting for the local borders to open so they can return to their homes or see family members again, we know many have endured Fiji’s version of lockdowns, which cannot wait to take a mini-vacation anywhere far from the city.

The uptake in domestic tourism once containment areas are removed is expected to provide an opportunity for our tourism members to test their updated COVID-safe procedures and protocols. It will also allow their CFC-approved Wellness Ambassadors to step up their roles to ensure compliance from both staff and guests.

The industry is adding layers to its processes that are expected to safely manage domestic and international travellers depending on their places of origin.

Even 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 a priority for Fiji, and many other countries.

All segments of tourism have been reviewing their business strategies and re-evaluating their products and services to fit a world emerging differently.

Adding the extra layers is causing some angst between the travellers and businesses with airlines arguing with airport authorities that the increasing check-in or departure protocols are unviable.

While hotels, tour and transport companies are still debating added new protocols are being demanded by the medical or regulatory authorities.

Eventually, we do not doubt that the blurred line between being overly cautious and the rapidly evolving understanding of the virus’ contagiousness will clear up in time for everyone to get back some form of normalcy or engage in practical safety protocols.

People want to regain lost freedom of movement, businesses want to really start working, workers need their jobs back and from where we’re sitting; we know travellers want to REALLY start travelling the world again.

And for all these things to happen, we need to carefully navigate a safe path back that clearly articulates trigger points and provisions for scaling up or down depending on the scenario unfolding.

Then the green light for Fiji can go back on.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 9 September 2021)