FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Be Engaged, Be Part of the Solution

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Be Engaged, Be Part of the Solution

FHTA, 04 May 2023 – “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future ” – John F. Kennedy.

Emphasising the importance of embracing change, are recognisable in the many steps taken recently to initiate a suite of legislative reviews in response to calls from members of the public, and private sector and consultations undertaken.

These reviews are aimed at making significant changes to various laws, and regulations many of which impact the tourism industry, and include proposed changes to nightclub opening hours, the Electoral Roll Name Change Act, Immigration Act and the Surfing Act.

While change can be difficult, one of the reasons tourism has moved ahead in leaps and bounds has been its constant evolvement; embracing technological improvements for communication, transport, efficiency and productivity, as well as adapting quickly to travel trends, expected safety protocols and anything that supports the ability to meet visitor expectations.

Change can be difficult, but not impossible we have learnt, often quite painfully.

This is often necessary to ensure that Fiji remains a competitive and attractive destination, working hard to deliver a brand that is able to reflect whom we are without losing our essence while being attractive to the changing perspectives of travellers.

The significance of these legislative reviews extends beyond the specific changes being proposed in each law.

They reflect efforts to respond to calls for a more enabling environment for economic growth and social development for new investments, for existing businesses, to promote wider social protection for our communities and better support ongoing efforts to address deeper challenges.

When offered the opportunity to engage in discussions and debates around these legislative reviews, therefore, we use feedback from our industry in these specific areas to provide our experiences and recommendations based on how best these will impact industry stakeholders, our communities and Fiji’s economy.

The involvement of industry stakeholders and the general public in the legislative review process is vital to ensure that the proposed changes to the laws and regulations that ultimately impact everyone in some form or fashion are effective, equitable, and beneficial for all.

More than just standing up to be counted and heard, it is how we can engage more effectively with Government when given the opportunity, to speak our truth.

As a key tourism “voice”, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association welcomes these opportunities to consult and provide submissions that reflect the wider industry’s thoughts and recommendations to the relevant committees, and these are always based on how changes will impact existing and new businesses, tourism staff and the communities and environments that tourism interacts with on a social, commercial and conservational level.

Our recommendations must benefit the wider industry and the communities that shape it, and ultimately benefit the Fijian economy.

This includes addressing issues such as the migration of skilled workers, which has had a significant impact on the industry’s workforce.

Post-pandemic, when borders reopened on the 1st of December 2021, tourism operators, regardless of which business segment they were in, were faced with a series of changes brought about by COVID. Members of the same family who had seen the impact of them losing jobs in the industry looked for jobs that could offer more security and that at the very least, ensured that not all family members were dependent on tourism for their livelihoods.

Many who had returned to farming or fishing, chose to remain there. Expanding industries like the BPO sector offered new opportunities closer to urban areas and with the eventual reopening of the Australian and New Zealand economies, there was a sudden increase in the demand for workers from Pacific Islands through expanding labour mobility schemes.

FHTA identified the skilled labour shortage challenge very early and has since been actively advocating for solutions to this problem, recognizing the need to balance the recruitment of foreign workers with the need to ramp up the development of local talent, while reviewing retention policies.

But as many other industries began to feel the pressure as the outward labour movement escalated exponentially, and the public sector also started to feel the impact of shrinking workforces; tourism was already reviewing training programs, and staff retention initiatives and working hard to speed up immigration processing for foreign work permits.

Immigration reform, therefore, has been on our radar for many years, and consistent inclusion in many submissions over the years for national budgets, legislative reviews and for reports and studies and pleas for consultation and recommendations to address challenges that have been in place for more years than we care to recall.

So far at least 20,000 Fijians have left for overseas work (that we know of) and while we might be thrilled with remittances reaching $1billion last year, the Fijian economy needs workers so that hospitals can help sick people get better, children can get an education, infrastructure can continue to be delivered, water can come out of taps, bills can get posted, buildings can be constructed, administrators and engineers and bus drivers and cleaners and security guards can do what they need to so that our little island paradise can continue to hum along as it must.

The alarming trend is only just being recognised, but efforts to bring in foreign workers to support faster training or fill in increasing gaps, have been made even more difficult to do so than pre-pandemic.

Insufficient processing staff at the Immigration Department is just one of the many challenges there, along with limited budgeting to retain highly skilled staff, support required new technology and processes and the obvious longer-term issues of outdated legislation that limits the department’s ability to meet the new challenges.

While FHTA acknowledges that the prospects of greener pastures are positive for those looking for work overseas and families benefit as a result, we need significant changes in TVET training to address the widening skill gaps being created, and we need this faster than it is happening.

Fiji will need to hire foreign workers to fill the gaps until then and anyone feeling uncomfortable about this must consider the economies around the world that have been built on the attractive immigration policies in those countries that made this possible – like the US, Canada, and of course Australia and New Zealand among many others.

There are many recommendations we will be making for the Immigration Act review that include improved processing times, industry-specific provisions for instant recognition and approval of work permits, options for foreign investments through supportive frameworks for citizenships based on the type and cost of investments, recognition of work permit holders whose spouse’s might have scarce skills, options for payments of permits on arrival, scaled up on-line paperwork processing, 21st century payment and receipt options, and many more.

There is no doubt that to enable the department to do these improvements, we may need to pay more for passport and visa services and for the biggest users of these services – the private sector, this is acceptable if in exchange we saw productivity and processing improvements.

It has been said often enough to make a point – that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

When provided the opportunity to engage, consult, offer solutions and provide submissions; we believe users of particular services that want to see improvements, must take the time and make the effort to provide pragmatic recommendations and expect that these may come at a cost.

To get better service or value, we should be prepared to pay more for it, in the same manner, that your expectation of staying in a $600-a-night hotel is much higher than when you stay at a $80-a-night hotel. Or when you choose to pay $25 for a lamb curry in a fancy restaurant, rather than your usual $10 serve at Aunty’s canteen with the floral plastic covered tables down the road.

We hope the opportunity to engage and collaborate continues because we have so much more, we want to be consulted on that we have deep experiences in.

A community that is engaged and working together can be a powerful force.

A country so engaged would be unstoppable.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 04 May 2023)