FHTA, 03 March 2023 – Fiji’s tourism industry has long been acknowledged as a dominant pillar of the country’s economy, providing jobs and much-needed revenue spreading further than most industries naturally because of its multiplier effects.
Not just only through receipt from jobs directly related to tourism, but also through “domestic remittances” – the sending of wages earned in tourism to villages, communities and households into the urban areas to support education, rent or family commitments; tourism benefits are spread throughout this small island developing nation.
The impact of the pandemic-forced border closure brought this fact home to everyone in no uncertain terms.
But challenges are part of life on this island in the Pacific that can be an easily accessible paradise to our visitors, or a fight for survival when climatic events turn devastating.
Resilience and survival therefore to be able to continually get back up again, is always what you make with the lemons life might deal you.
And while the only lemonade in sight last Saturday was tinged pink with the sponsored vodka during the Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards gala event; seeing the industry turn out in force and in their glittering best to celebrate the long journey back, was one of many milestone events that many made time for.
At these awards, the Minister for Tourism saluted the collective sacrifice and effort to get the industry back on track, while applauding the nominees from the many categories, some only recently introduced to recognise and celebrate excellence in product or service delivery.
It has been a long time since so many from this relied-on industry gathered to celebrate the apt theme of resilience.
In his speech, the Minister also highlighted the industry’s positive impact on the wider population, acknowledging that there was an urgent need for more investment, and noting the deeply collaborative relationships between the many different segments and supply lines.
Apart from the significant employment opportunities, particularly in remote and rural areas where accommodation, cruise and dive options are more popularly located; there are also the lesser-known benefits of opening up supply lines based on new or increased demand for fresh produce, seafood and most importantly, direct access to staff from the nearby communities.
But bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels in many areas has reminded us about where we were before we were forced to dig deep and review how we marketed Fiji as a competitive destination, in a world with deeply changed views on why they travelled.
The little island nation that showed it could bounce back, did more than simply reopen under the right conditions and marketing strategies; its success rate skipped happily over the traditional low seasons, while the high season brought back the uncomfortable but known reality that there have been no notable increases to room inventory in many years.
Historically with this seasonality, occupancy moved between highs of over 80% to lows of under 40% which always begged the question of what to do with empty inventories if you increased these room numbers while being forced to constantly review your staffing between seasons as well.
Visitor numbers have continued in earnest in response to increased flight schedules by the national airline Fiji Airways and the national tourism office – Tourism Fiji’s continued reviewing and ramping up of the destination’s highly successful marketing efforts.
The result was a higher average room occupancy in 2022 in comparison to 2019 and earlier years.
Perhaps not as obvious unless you’re spending time in resorts yourself, has been the large number of Fijian diaspora returning home for a holiday in the last few months, that identify with their current country of residence, which would also have very positively increased those visitors numbers we‘re seeing from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada.
Numbers that have also been milestones themselves.
The successful return of tourism and the resultant pressures of increased demands in many areas, means we need to move a whole lot faster now to catch up with what the demand is forcing us to acknowledge once again.
The evidence was there well before 2019 and the pressure is back again for more hotels, more rooms, and more beds; especially urgent now as we shift our focus on tapping into Japan and China again.
But as usual, it should be with the proviso that we can continue to fill up during those usually lower seasons by pushing out into new markets with the marketing support that will be critical to convincing new visitors to travel further for a better experience.
There is huge potential for more significant growth in the coming years that will require a thorough review of what infrastructure development needs to be in place first before any real investment can follow to address changing trends and increasing demand for what Fiji has to offer.
The construction and manufacturing industries; each considerable and recognised economic contributor themselves have struggled to develop to the expectations initially anticipated, despite the advantages of being able to continue operating when tourism could not.
Fiji is now preparing for the National Economic Summit in April that through wide consultations, is expected to determine what key areas the National Budget will or should address.
Nearly every industry has faced its most challenging times, with some still struggling through a range of issues that require far deeper considerations that involve changing strategic direction or making policy amendments that will open up these current bottlenecks that were denying further developmental progress.
There is no doubt we must all put our heads together to agree on which direction we move in; whether we need to make incremental changes while we rein in costs in some areas, or take bigger steps to see the delivery of wider economic benefits that require usually more significantly higher spend.
Where do we want to be in the next 10 years as the tourism industry, as an economy and as a nation? It is this destination reckoning that should determine whether we go big and plan accordingly, or stay at the current pace while we figure it out slowly.
Tourism research, available data and even the forward bookings are telling us that as an industry we are not moving fast enough to address what will be increasing demand for the Fijian product that has been successfully reintroduced into existing and new markets/.
Many segments of tourism work separately and together in symbiotic relationships that support each other and the networks these create regionally, nationally, or byproduct alignment, size and through packaging or bundling of combined services.
And that does not even scratch the surface of how many suppliers are so closely linked with operators in these segments; many of them depend solely on the industry surviving and thriving for their own development and growth.
These relationships have taken years to build and run successfully. Building on existing frameworks will depend on demand, available space and whether existing infrastructure is sufficient.
Replicating these in new areas or even venturing into new products and services needs similar considerations of demand, available space and whether existing infrastructure is sufficient, with the added challenge of locating staff and the logistics of tapping into transportation routes. Or building these from scratch.
The basic pillars of the economy are usually recognised as fiscal prudence, growth and jobs.
But to make money, one must first spend money.
Where we spend it and how, along with how inclusive this journey is to where we decide is our destination, will mark the speed and progress of Fiji’s economic growth.
Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 03 March 2023)