FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Beyond the Numbers

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Beyond the Numbers

Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, 30 November 2023 – This week marks the second anniversary of the reopening of our international borders. So now might be a good time to consider that we must mark the time not just by the bounce back to normal by the number of visitors the country has received, but by the valuable lessons the pandemic helped us learn.

The tourism sector eagerly anticipated the return of visitors, whom we can now reflect were just as eagerly counting down the days to escape their own city and national restrictions. And come they did, to explore renewed travel freedoms that included appreciation of some much-needed wide open spaces, sun and as much fun as they could squeeze in during their time away.

A vaccinated, fortified and determined tourism workforce returned in grateful numbers, with properties reopening some months before, having catered to a far smaller. Still, an equally eager domestic market that was happy to test Fiji’s tourism offerings at rock bottom prices, limited as they might often have been by fewer open restaurants or available activities.

Resilience might be the backbone of what has made tourism the enduring industry it currently is, rising as it does after every climatic, economic, global and political setback that can be thrown at a developing small, Pacific Island Country in the deep South Pacific. But nothing in its over 70 years of DNA make-up had prepared it, or any other industry or country in the world for that matter, for a deeply traumatic pandemic that would last nearly 2 years.

The takeaways or learnings therefore were different depending on country, geographic location, regional influence and/or support and population. Not just size and reach, but makeup – impacted by cultural norms, education, accessibility and even poverty levels.

We know now for example, that while it was easy enough for Fiji to get the bulk of its population vaccinated during a time when very little was known about the COVID-19 virus; it would not be so simple if there was to be a “next time”.

We learnt that as an industry, our tried and tested emergency protocols lacked the planning for drawn-out medical emergencies that would require mothballing entire buildings, putting off staff for months at a time or requiring access to resources that could keep the lights on by paying for bills with very little to no revenue coming in for months.

But the ability to pool resources, rapidly form enterprising action groups and share information or offer support was still there, and as quickly and as often as was needed.

The enforced downtime, with shuttered buildings, the thousands of quietened engines of aircraft, vessels, sports and energy equipment, vehicles, empty air and sea ports and even carparks; provided a lot of time to think things through and review businesses generally.

Brought on initially by the need to review business models in the short term to support urgent revenue creation, came a growing realisation for how successful many of the new projects turned out to be, and even how the enforced changes could create new trends, develop new interests and test the waters for exploring new frontiers.

A new age of entrepreneurship was borne, as was the realisation that it didn’t matter what the key focus of your business was originally (or your previous and now unavailable job); you could actually excel in other areas that you never really had time to think about, explore further or even consider.

Change is inevitable and growth might be optional – but we have learnt that change created from hitting a wall but not giving up, provided an avenue for growth. Businesses diversified their product offerings, opening or actively engaged in finding new revenue lines, strengthening some areas and closing or reviewing others.

A number of challenges followed hot on the heels of reopening. Recognised as early as January 2022 by the industry, the skills exodus that has continued to grow, proved an ongoing issue with the reopening of Australia and New Zealand after the US, all pushing their own skills gaps that were by then at far more critical levels, with a voracious hunger to address these gaps by offering far more lucrative job offers.

And go our people did. And are still going.

There is Fiji-wide awareness now that around 50,000 people have already left in some category or other, with at least another 20,000 applications waiting, indicating their interest in joining this exodus. But if the early private sector warnings for the impact of this manpower exodus on the economy were originally ignored in favour of the perceived far-reaching positives of the billion-dollar remittance impact; the overall effects this is having on the public sector manpower reserves now, is no doubt much harder to ignore.

The ongoing skills gap challenge is exacerbated by the absence of any recent formal surveys that offer a more comprehensive understanding of what skills are being lost, how long these would take to replace and how long it takes to bring in replacement skills for short-term work permits. All factors that heavily influence Fiji’s economic growth given that any new investments, development or construction, business expansion or planned long-term growth will all need people to build, to operate machinery, administrate, make decisions, serve customers, fix things, provide security and clean drains and streets.

The absence of pertinent data prompts critical questions about the reliability of existing estimates and the potential shifts in employment patterns that may have transpired.

Recognizing the ever-changing dynamics of tourism is not merely a statistical pursuit but a vital element for informed decision-making among stakeholders, policymakers, and industry leaders. Even more so when as it quite often does, an industry this large can serve as an economic litmus test for what trends are in force – whether incremental, cataclysmic or having the ability to impact the economy on any scale.

But the skills exodus has also prompted tourism operators from all segments to review human resource policies for recruitment, training, onboarding, retention initiatives and staff recognition. Expanding training initiatives to better address the circular movement of industry staff within Fiji or outbound, and reducing minimum qualifications to offset skills training for people with the right attitude and a willingness to learn.

With wages noted as having increased by 12% nationally, it is widely believed that this ranges between 15-20% in tourism and has led to a more common understanding that it is not just wages that drive the exodus for both skilled and unskilled workers seeking greener pastures. These “pastures” offer better opportunities for children’s education and access to improved medical services for those who hope, or have found formal pathways into full migration. And we all know these are areas that have had a historical need for improvements, so there is little point in begrudging the skills exodus.

By far the largest impact of this trend has been the adoption and expansion of in-house training by businesses that might not have considered this before. But when the going gets tough and all that.

Fiji’s tourism sector extends its impact far beyond the direct employment figures, with a substantial contribution from various indirect sources. It is in this area as well that we are seeing some of the changes in where resources and fresh produce are now being accessed.

Between hotels starting or expanding their farming capabilities to reduce the dependence on imports as well as be able to offer a wider selection of local produce, and the recent access to farmers that were not around before 2020 (or change what they were growing), the opportunities for farming to provide a better range of fresh produce has accelerated beyond expectations.

Stimulated by the demand to reduce costs post-reopening, and cater to the demand for fresh, organic produce, tourism has also seen the rise in demand for vegetarian options on menus. That’s right, more people are going vegan, or are trying to eat healthier and live longer.

The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity to grow.

Herein lies one of Fiji’s biggest and most obvious opportunities that tourism is only making the smallest of inroads into. Fresh local produce is in huge demand, but it must be substituted by imported produce because of the inability to access what is required due to constraints on quality, quantity and supply logistics.

It appears that despite thousands of acres of available land and interest from resource owners to have a more participatory role in tourism, it remains easier to supply already available produce at far lower rates to snack food manufacturers and exporters, with the balance of supplies going to the local market because domestic buyers do not demand higher quality.

Another key beneficiary of indirect employment is the suppliers and service providers who connect visitors to the tourism infrastructure.

From local farmers supplying fresh produce directly, to artisans crafting traditional souvenirs or showcasing how culture dissects almost everything we do; a multitude of businesses thrive due to the demand generated by tourism.

The symbiotic relationship between these entities and the tourism sector results in a continuous flow of economic activity and job opportunities. Beyond the immediate business sphere, the ripple effect of tourism reaches deep into local communities.

The global interruption of travel that forced people to remain indoors and then within borders for months and years created another outcome. The desire to reconnect – with people, communities, mental and physical health, and all things nature.

The impact of this was a repositioning of the Fijian brand to encompass what was already here, but more creatively recognised as the very things potential visitors were looking for. This in turn has led to the demand to go deeper, travel further, understand better and connect more intimately.

So holidays now must offer more opportunities to try new experiences, engage with communities, show compassion, and be mentally relaxed or exhilarated physically. This has led to more guided tours, experiences and activities, with many other complementary services all part of essential cogs in the tourism wheel, including the transportation to get there.

When things went quiet, we were busy listening. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we continue to listen. And learn. So, we can prepare to embrace the change that inevitably comes with managing each new disaster.

One other area that resulted in perhaps our most interesting transformation, as unintentional as it originally started out, was the initial reopening criteria that everything the industry did was going to be based on “safety first”. This collective demand from everyone operating in and with the industry, and their total buy-in despite the increased costs, longer hours and significant operational change to embrace it; created a global image of Fiji moving heaven and earth to be visitor-ready with its weird and wonderful adoption of a plethora of safety protocols.

The result was that it impressed non-traditional markets, opened up to younger demographics, spoke volumes to the wealthier travellers who had already had a taste of what Fiji could offer even during the border closures, and enticed the adventurous at heart who were pining for the great outdoors but feared the process of getting there.

A more diversified visitor market was captured and has kept growing with the success of the new branding, the consistent growth of the national airline’s foray into new destinations and a wide understanding that we have not seen the last of this industry’s evolvement post-2019.

Competitive advantage can come from reacting boldly before your competitors, but oftentimes, things fall into place because you did the important things and the hard yards first.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 30 November 2023)