FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Connections

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Connections

FHTA, 3 November 2022 – After the longest two years in history during which the inability to meet without masks, crowd restrictions and distancing requirements were part of the then-normal business requirements; the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) hosted the HOTEC tradeshow.

Hot on the heels of the last fireworks from the Diwali festival, you could be forgiven for thinking some stray fireworks were ringing in our long-awaited return, but there was far too much noise, spirited negotiations and clanging and banging throughout the competitions and sample tastings that were going on to have been noticed anyway.

It was certainly a wonderful sight to see suppliers and industry come together for a couple of days at the Sheraton Fiji Golf and Beach Resort to talk about new products, improved designs, better quality and increased value options.

And we have no doubt there was ample opportunity for making new connections, learning new things and becoming acutely aware of the need to lift one’s game with a heightened sense of competition between suppliers and resorts and restaurants looking for products and services that would exceed customer expectations.

Driven by the response from the tourism industry on challenges to locate supplies in sufficient quantities, at levels of premium quality aimed at their more discerning customers, or simply to have options for alternative or new products to enhance the customer experience; loyal local suppliers were joined by suppliers of meat, dairy, wine, white goods, appliances, kitchen and resort equipment from Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Singapore and even Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

The event venue was humming with the sounds of networking and business connections being made and the exchange of positive statistics that reinforced the Fiji-wide post-pandemic tourism boom that appears not to be adhering to the traditional downward trend of visitor numbers we should be experiencing right now.

By now our source markets of Australia and New Zealand are expected to be back at work and school, with a slow trickle of visitors still coming in from the US and other smaller markets. But this has not been the case at all.

Instead, on the back of Fiji’s successful reopening and the expected initial pent-up demand; we are still seeing continued interest from those same markets that may have travelled further distances to Europe and Asia, or returned to their usual holiday stomping grounds in the cheaper and more accessible South East Asian destinations.

There are many reasons for the extension of our “high season”.

These include the ability of Fiji’s tough little national airline to be ready from the get-go to steadily increase its seat capacity as demand increased, the national tourism office maintaining its steadfast belief that continued brand awareness pre and post-reopening were key to keeping the Fijian brand and its commitment to safety firmly in sight in our key markets, and a determined industry accepting the stringent reopening requirements with that “can do” attitude that has seen it get through other economic and climatic upheavals.

Reopening early and with a vaccinated and confident population was another driving factor, along with the Fijian Governments’ unwavering support that was aided by the international partner governments throughout this period.

But while these provided a strong country readiness background, many other factors have played out around the world that have also worked in Fiji’s favour.

Rising fuel costs exacerbated by increasing supply chain challenges that eventually drove up food, travel and energy costs, the Russian invasion, labour shortages that have created their domino effects for reduced agriculture exports, transport (train, plane & shipping) cancellation and delays, the uneven distribution or support of vaccines that in turn changed entire country’s reopening plans and eventually impacted economies.

It appears that for many holiday planners, and given the above situations – Fiji was deemed as closer, safer, affordable and accessible.

We’re certainly happy with their choices.

Visitors are coming for the first time or returning more often. And when they’re here, are staying longer, travelling further around the islands and demanding more experiences.

We were happy to play a little part in reinvigorating the supply chains and possibilities for our exhibitors with an often deeper insight and understanding of what the demand is and why.

And we have this insight because we are constantly looking for ways to stay in touch with the industry and to understand what the challenges are before we can attempt to look for, or offer solutions.

Across from that HOTEC tradeshow, we saw the inaugural FHTA Tourism Talanoa Symposium kick-off to consolidate our knowledge and expertise and to discuss “Where to next for Fijian tourism?”

There are so many areas in this industry that we have seen a variety of changes in, and others that have been completely flipped from where they used to be. And having been hit once by the longest-ever curveball that was COVID; it was time to review what the next set of challenges might look like.

As an industry, we have fully experienced the way the almost tectonic shifting of the pandemic freight train moved at several speeds and know that we no longer have the luxury of leisurely contemplation of any complicated situations; what with the hopes of a nation far too reliant on tourism resting on our collective shoulders for a full economic recovery.

Carving out some time to get together as an industry and talk about the next steps – with our critical network of suppliers, the many public sector regulatory agencies we work closely with, and the private sector and development partners that support investment, training, and resourcing, seemed to be the right thing to do.

Especially right now before the Pacific’s official start of the cyclone season.

The Tourism Talanoa Symposium was the perfect opportunity to share experiences, discuss challenges and recommended solutions; and give attendees the platform to learn of the changing dynamics in an industry that has had to constantly re-evaluate what it’s doing and how.

The “when” can still catch us by surprise. But we continue to try and work it out.

Along with the upper-management attendees, we were graced with the presence of the Minister and Permanent Secretary of Tourism. This provided some welcome and relevant input into the discussions, as questions earmarked for the Government were posed for answers and resolutions or consideration.

There were six power-packed sessions over two days that addressed all areas of the industry that affect its further development, where its limitations are, and where we perceive the opportunities might lie no matter how long it’s been sitting in that “too hard basket”.

More importantly, how businesses might be able to improve their productivity, lower costs or make business operations simpler.

What could we learn?

What must we toss out or re-evaluate?

How do we continue the success trend while managing the inevitable challenges we know await the industry?

Our key outcome was that industry stakeholders used the forum to be heard, hear others and come away with a better understanding of where we should be going collectively.

That was certainly achieved with one thing that came out very clearly.

Supporting the industry to reinvest or entice new investments, and expand and grow sustainably requires working closely with every government agency it interacts closely with – energy, water, waste management, environment, land access, agriculture, roads, transport, tax, immigration, infrastructure and marine.

And for all those agencies to achieve their long-term strategies, complete their plans and access required budgets that seem almost always out of reach; a lot more inter-agency consultation must take place, apart from talking with us more often, so that the industries they work for and with, can support them to achieve their own goals.

Tourism’s success ultimately translates into higher revenue streams that eventually flow into tax coffers. And then in turn those agencies need to complete their annual activity plans and longer-term strategies.

Connections must work more creatively between the industries and the agencies that support them, in the same manner, that industry supply chains cannot exist without both the supplier and the buyer.

We owe our deep gratitude for the success of the last week’s events to our sponsors and event partners; another connection stream we work hard to maintain.

Vinaka vakalevu also to those agencies that came to talk and to listen to us.

Until next time, sota tale.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 3 November 2022