FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Beyond the Breaks – Reframing Fiji’s Surfing Act

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Beyond the Breaks – Reframing Fiji’s Surfing Act

FHTA, 14 September August 2023 – Fiji has become a wave lover’s paradise, captivating adventurers worldwide with its rhythmic surf dance. Nestled amid the enchanting Mamanuca Islands and coral-fringed coastlines, Fiji’s iconic breaks have earned it a revered spot in the local and global surf community. Yet, beneath the wave’s thrill lies a complex weave of interests and rights.

The 2010 Fiji Surfing Act aimed to democratize wave access, boosting surf tourism while preserving traditional landowners’ heritage. However, it has stirred a debate about indigenous rights, perceived or otherwise. This review might seem to be a simple enough task that involves determining whether the Act is balanced, honouring economic potential while safeguarding Fiji’s future and protecting indigenous rights and the current protectors of the environment.

The aspiration of the review is advised as the ability to “liberalise access whilst also respecting current rights and interests therein of registered iQoliqoli proprietary units as per the NLFC recorded protocols” and to provide a “clearer level of certainty” to those that benefited from “unfettered access for recreation and/or competitive foreshore and marine-based activities”.

The review process also notes that other key elements include how “critical to this is amending the current legislative framework to ensure conflict minimisation and enable Fiji to be marketed and promoted as the premier safe tourist destination and providing equitable and transparent compensation arrangement that ensure intergenerational equity (in its many forms)”.

Guided by inclusivity and sustainability, we must navigate this new course that respects both thrill-seeking surfers and the vast majority of what will soon be a million visitors’ expectations to access the iconic beaches, water sports opportunities and pristine marine ecosystems, as well as the heritage-protection of landowners.

The Surfing Act while addressing the unpopular exclusive access at the time, transformed Fiji’s surfing and water access landscape that granted everyone equal and unrestricted access to our beautiful oceans, while also explaining the ownership of seabed and waters resting under the state for the first time.

The “unfettered access” being evaluated however is not quite as perceived. On the face of it, this might seem to be what is happening with visitors and locals allowed to use the waters around Fiji for travelling through, water sports and fishing.

But fishermen are required to pay for licenses and tourism operators are expected to pay for access fees through TLTB, into Trustee accounts or directly to the landowners.

This includes the payment for any loss to fishing grounds and traditional or formally managed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) compensatory funds into the Ministry of Fisheries and the formal land lease agreements that are paid directly to TLTB.

Where fees are not paid, other means of access approval – implied or formally agreed to, include free carriage or heavily subsidised fees for travel on almost all ferries that service tourism spots, annual support for sports and school teams in cash or kind, the first option for employment of staff from those communities, access for the community to use the resort shops or get treatment at their nursing stations, support for community projects or to fund small community boats and their fuel.

Not taken into context with Acts and policies that seek to better address calls for transparency and fairness in areas managed often in traditional or cultural ways, is the Fijian way of doing business that also requires many talanoa sessions, the required sevusevu and the eventual understanding of what each group expects once trust has been established. The key factor is always respect and trust.

Fiji’s reputation as a top-tier surf destination has thrived, attracting surfers of all levels, but once only accessible to a privileged few. The growth of tourism is inextricably connected to Fiji’s abundance of water-based activities around the over 333 islands and islets that make this possible. This influx of visitors has invigorated local economies, boosting tourism-related supply businesses and services that are predominantly locally owned and more recently allowing community-based SMEs to flourish.

The review notice has unintentionally fuelled tensions, seeking to look into traditional landowners’ historical and custodial rights to their coastal and aquatic domains. Its implications for land rights, community autonomy, and cultural integrity have ignited debates intentionally or not, highlighting complexities when commerce meets tradition.

And quite often without the hindsight of what is already working well with the communities who have already indicated what they need, are satisfied with how it is working, but will not necessarily take the opportunity to sit with a consultation team to discuss this.

Existing challenges require insightful consideration. Acknowledging and addressing any imbalance is crucial we agree, fostering respect for local autonomy over coastal resources.

Concurrently, the tourism industry’s concerns must also be considered. We realise some would probably prefer returning to having exclusive access to surf breaks that attract high-paying tourists seeking unique experiences. Regardless of the offered benefits these might be – as they were before the Act – they would benefit a far smaller group of landowners.

Striking a delicate equilibrium is essential as Fiji contemplates satisfying demand without compromising ecological and cultural integrity. Many believe the review is a means to address deeper concerns on land and sea ownership that go back to Fiji’s cession to Great Britain. Others see it as a political tool that can open up a Pandora’s box that would be difficult to close.

The current Act does not require any access fees to be paid, but tourism operators have been in long-term relationships with their landowning communities for far too long to deny their requests for these to be paid. Again, the respect and trust elements bind the behaviour of the operators to the expectations of these communities. Does it mean we agree some fee structure should be in place? Perhaps. But consider how this would be managed in those 333 plus islands and islets with any convincing outcome. And who would explain to the landowners that the current methods of free transport and other reciprocal acknowledgements would cease thereafter?

We have indicated to the Government and the Review Consultation team what our views are on the review of the Surf Act – that we agree could be better written and that careful consideration be given to whom the responsibility of the Act should rest. But for the most part, we do not believe there is anything outright wrong with it. The Act intended to make the waters accessible to all. We see nothing wrong with that intent.

However, the complexity of striking such a delicate balance cannot be understated. A comprehensive review conducted over only a few months may not provide the necessary depth of analysis required to ensure the Surf Act serves all stakeholders equitably. Any proposed changes must take into account the multifaceted interests involved, from the vital role of tourism in supporting the government’s financial stability to the concerns of landowners, and the fragile marine ecosystems under tourism’s guardianship. Achieving a harmonious solution demands not only thoughtful deliberation but also extensive consultation with all relevant parties to avoid unintended consequences and ensure a sustainable and inclusive approach for the future.

Any change to this approach must balance tourism – for now, the industry that has the greatest effective potential to support Government efforts to substantially reduce its huge debt burden; as well as every existing and future landowner’s needs (and not just those claiming unfairness), the future impacts on marine ecosystems currently watched over by tourism and creating a harmonious solution.

Can a review conducted over only a few months manage this?

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 14 September 2023)