FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Empowering Local Businesses through Cruise Tourism

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Empowering Local Businesses through Cruise Tourism

FHTA, 11 May 2023 – According to the Fiji Bureau of Statistics, in 2019, there were 108,438 cruise visitor arrivals in Fiji, accounting for approximately 8% of total visitor arrivals to Fiji for that year.

In terms of financial contribution, cruise tourism is estimated to bring in around FJD 200 million (approximately USD 100 million) annually to the Fijian economy. We believe this is far lower than what it can be given the right development, in the right areas and for the right reasons.

Most of the spending in Fiji is done at the ports for berthing fees, port fees, passenger fees, pilotage fees and other administrative fees.

On the other side of the scale, FHTA has noted that the disembarking passengers are not spending as much as they could, which might also be due to the lower number of passengers disembarking connected to the limited availability of localized (meaning things to do within the timeframe the cruise ship is berthed for) itinerary options provided to them.

In Suva particularly, these options are fewer still, which commences with the docking at a port that has not tried hard enough to understand the tourism industry or make the ports more cruise friendly. Port congestion means that inbound cargo ships have to wait while cruise ships are in port for the day. The resulting wait obviously frustrates importers and eventually increases the imported product costs by being passed on to consumers.

Some discussion has taken place in the past on this that included the development of new port facilities or the expansion of existing facilities, as well as the implementation of more efficient cargo handling systems. We realise these are expensive, long-term development exercises, but they would also encourage even more opportunities to recover costs while providing far-reaching economic activity that would positively impact the country and its citizens.

Time to be thinking about a dedicated wharf for cruise liners? If not now, when?

Furthermore, the development of transport infrastructure, including road and rail networks, could help to alleviate congestion in and around ports, enabling cargo to be transported more efficiently, allowing for the large buses to pick up and drop off passengers, rather than blocking critical service roads and backing up peak hour traffic that has become a consistent Suva occurrence.

Additionally, cruise passengers aren’t experiencing the unique cultural diversity that Fiji has on offer due to the limited accessibility to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and no one is taking the responsibility to connect the now growing demand for cruises with the opportunities they present. Until now that is.

These travellers are currently more likely to be shuttled to and from the big department stores, with a limited list of smaller offerings for experiences. In the past, the Cultural Centre at Pacific Harbour was a big drawcard, that used to provide a 25-acre range of activities and services, shops, cafes and a well-coordinated cultural attraction that showcased ancient Fiji through a walking or boat tour, complete with a live, action-packed show that was viewed from a small grandstand.

But that was allowed to fall into disrepair for various reasons and the Arts Village as it was eventually known, has lost many of its creative artisans and cultural activities and is a shadow of its former attractiveness as a visitor-preferred location, even though it is located in a vibrant little tourism hub that offers access to some of Fiji’s best diving spots, sports fishing, and possibly our oldest and most adventurous 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jnr and opened in 1978. All within reach of the capital, Suva.

Another example of opportunities not explored further through taking the time to connect with industry partners to better understand industry demands and find creative solutions to market existing investments.

During the recent Cruise Tourism Symposium initiated by Tourism Fiji, various stakeholders came together to discuss opportunities and challenges related to cruise tourism in Fiji.

The speakers at the symposium were from Superyacht Australia, Carnival Cruise Lines, Ports Authority NSW, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Cruise Lines International, and they collectively showed the untapped opportunities that Fiji has the potential to capitalize on with some thoughtful foresight, planning and wider consultation.

One of these was the high demand for more interactive and culturally immersive experiences that they could add to their passenger itineraries and was based on passenger feedback and research. While another provided a very relevant example of how a small, ex-whaling town in Australia worked together with their communities and Government to make it the thriving cruise hub it is today (Pacific Harbour take note).

The event also reminded us that we can work together to take better advantage of opportunities and work through existing challenges that require both short and long term solutions.

The cruise companies are looking to expand their passenger itineraries for authentic experiences and activities, while Australia being home to the largest number of superyacht owners is keen to keep those high-value customers and their prized possessions sailing around the South Pacific. And why not ensure that Fiji is part of those destinations they can travel around to? We too “have it all” – an iconic destination, safe cruising grounds, high-quality services and skilled refit and repair specialists, the infrastructure we are constantly working to improve, and the friendliest people.

The demand for experiences resonated with the large number of women and indigenous-owned SME businesses that attended the symposium; many of whom had been trying for years to be included by cruise agents on these itineraries without success. The challenge has been to recognize what is being demanded, understand options that fit and provide the required background information and even training where required, that would ensure any specific criteria required, can be met.

This might include public liability insurance, understanding minimum group sizes to make the tour or experience beneficial for both the business as well as passengers, transport logistics, safety and most importantly, the consistency of the product or service being delivered.

Meanwhile, FHTA has been working diligently behind the scenes for several years to enable the reviewing of legislation and policies that govern processes where it can take up to 2 weeks to get the many approvals required for very lucrative superyacht charters that also provide work opportunities for many other trades once the charter is confirmed. Here too, the current restrictive ease of doing business processes negatively impacts many opportunities to improve tourism revenue streams.

Superyacht charters support a host of local tradespeople and suppliers. Not just marine trades either; but includes carpenters, cleaners, painters, welders, carpet and tile layers, plumbers, refrigeration experts, interior furnishing providers, electricians, lighting, aluminium & window suppliers, along with dry goods, food & beverage suppliers. They also hire entertainers and buy from florists and local artists and craftspeople. These are listed here to provide deeper insight and appreciation of the support networks that exist that have a huge potential to be expanded on if we could remove the current barriers that limit Fiji’s further development in this area.

They use the same services a resort or hotel would, but they do so within a shorter timeframe.

Consider that these charters take place at the whim of the extremely wealthy who are time-poor; so 2 weeks for approval for a charter to go ahead is limiting Fiji’s prospectives for a larger slice of this extremely lucrative pie that we lose out to competitors like Tahiti, who have far better turnaround times. It really is that simple.

Yet one such charter for 5 days can provide up to $100,000 in taxes to FRCS even before the charter commences and can spend 3 times as much (or more) on the services required for the vessel itself, as well as the charterer’s specific needs. All of these are obtained directly from our local suppliers and tradespeople.

SMEs in Fiji offer a variety of unique cultural experiences and products that are not found in big shops and department stores. These provide our visitors with an opportunity to interact with local communities, learn about traditional practices, and purchase authentic souvenirs. More importantly, this access directly supports families and communities that are empowered to be self-sufficient.

To better channel accessibility, business preparation and connectivity to diverse and more immersive cultural experiences, far more is needed by way of collaboration with government agencies and tourism stakeholders.

The Ministry of iTaukei Affairs, iTaukei Land Trust Board, municipal councils, Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Infrastructure, along with the Ports Authority must be encouraged to engage more strongly with Tourism Fiji and other tourism stakeholders to promote SMEs and support their accessibility to passengers from cruise ships, as well as consider future development needs in line with changing visitor trends and where opportunities already exist.

One such successful partnership in the region promoting SMEs in cruise tourism has been the collaboration between SPTO and the Pacific Cruise Micro-Enterprise Network. This initiative promotes the development of small businesses and micro enterprises by providing training and support in areas such as product development, marketing, and financial management and might be one of the models we can learn from.

By exploring these solutions, we could not only address the challenges of cruise tourism but also potentially open up opportunities for more high-value tourism, where superyachts and their access to marinas, trades and artisans see more of the trickledown effect we need in communities throughout the country.

Between luxury experiences that cater for smaller groups willing to spend large and larger numbers of passengers on cruise ships with a shorter time frame to spend on quality experiences; there is no doubt Fiji can and should do far more than it is currently doing to develop this segment of tourism.

But it does require more effective consultation and collaborative partnerships and Tourism Fiji has taken the first significant step towards this process.

Time now for the other partners to come on board.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 11 May 2023)