FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Land Leases and Tourism – Deeper than Perception

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Land Leases and Tourism – Deeper than Perception

FHTA, 7 September August 2023 – Navigating the intricate landscape of native land leases within Fiji’s vibrant tourism industry is a multifaceted challenge. The intertwining of indigenous cultural heritage, economic aspirations, and sustainable tourism practices demands a delicate balance that requires expertise and collaboration. Not to mention, more than the usual transparency given these discussions start from the consultation to the construction phase.

Where we can and do provide background and context, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) often plays a quiet but significant role in facilitating bridges between the various stakeholders involved, while sharing its deep experiences on how things work in Fiji with clarity and honesty that is usually absent from public sector agencies. That is not to say we share confidential discussions we are privy to, but we do guide what to do when you hit that inevitable “no response” loop and provide connections to people and organisations that can assist.

Sadly, we are often the only public information providers that better understand how these connections work to support an industry that has become Fiji’s economic powerhouse.

The unique configuration of native land ownership in Fiji, deeply rooted in the indigenous iTaukei culture and communal ownership structures, brings about a complex set of challenges that are not explained anywhere with better clarity for potential investors. The land holds immense cultural significance that is difficult to articulate linguistically because it is the core of our cultural identity. It is the reason cultural norms require that you introduce yourself by identifying the paternal and maternal land links that immediately connect you to your land-linked history, heritage, culture and even dialect. And even this cultural identity marker is being lost because people prefer to trust Facebook profiles instead.

As a successful industry, it is often incorrectly presumed that these processes must be simple enough to navigate given the industry appears to be sailing along smoothly enough. And that is usually before we get into the nitty-gritty of what we are already heavily involved in with our ongoing commitment to improving the “ease of doing business” processes.

At the heart of all our advice is a consistent reminder to always do the right thing for the landowners and to be fully compliant with the regulatory requirements. We have a sneaky suspicion that the latter is the most probable reason the small 20% of tourism non-members remain non-members, preferring to remain below the radar of this often zealous watchdog’s persuasive efforts to get back in line.

As the demand for Fiji increases, so too have the interests to develop and invest in the country. And not just for tourism. Challenges like identifying land ownership, confirming lease agreements and then moving to the physical development stage from planning, and obtaining the many approvals or necessary endorsements are the generally accepted norms for developing native land; but we have noted the renewed commitment to new investments with a significant shift to addressing historical bottlenecks.

The importance of native land leases is not understood outside the landowning units involved and the tourism leaseholders, as they serve as a fundamental revenue stream for the communities they impact. As a pivotal beneficiary of native land leases; tourism has provided years of annual land lease payments, leading the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB) to note that tourism leases have always provided their highest revenue portfolio contributions.

But over 70 years of tourism existence has done more than just provide a steady income through historical lease payments that are reassessed based on market value every 5 years. Many people outside the industry rarely understand the existence of the symbiotic relationship that exists between the landowning communities and the operators that goes back decades and how the landowning units are active participants in Fiji’s tourism success story. These might be shared on tourism operators’ websites and historical information, or even as part of stories to explain their existence in that area, but rarely as individual or collective information for public knowledge.

Most leases have built conditions that require the leaseholders to commit to supporting the community through various ways like representation on their boards, or management teams, staffing and training, and through educational and community social support. But more often they go beyond lease stipulations as relationships become stronger and support is provided because it is obviously needed. When the bulk of your staff comes from those communities, their long-term well-being and that of their families are ultimately tied to your success. So schools are built, as are dormitories, village sea walls, access to water and power provisioning and building or repairing community halls.

Post-cyclone repairs are carried out, and the provision of free or heavily subsidised transportation on ferry services in the islands has existed for decades, as has the ad hoc funding for rugby and school sports teams or the obligatory offerings for funerals. Often these will take place with visitors offering their assistance and even providing their expertise with construction, materials or funding. These take place concurrently with the natural occurrence of economic development for that region because tourism necessitates the need for improved or new infrastructure like roads, bridges, communications and accessibility to power and water amongst other flow-on effects through supplier networks. Not the least of these include the payment of fees to access maritime areas, moorings, and formal and informally recognised marine protected areas (MPA).

Misunderstanding how tourism works, hearing ill-advised commentary or noting interest in making changes that have the very real potential of undermining decades of hard work has often driven why we raise our collective concerns or share information on how things work.

Some of the primary challenges in navigating native land leases include ensuring the legal landowners are correctly identified, that the rightful owners provide their collective approval and that these processes follow policies that eventually lead to the equitable distribution of lease income. These are tremendous responsibilities that lie with the Department of Lands, the TLTB and the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs before other regulatory bodies become part of the formidable list of agencies that provide vetting and approvals before a host of other critical agencies gets involved. Any of which can bog down or completely derail the development.

Collaboration between the responsible public sector stakeholders and landowners is part of the eventual success of any development plan. Especially if they gain insights into the unique needs and aspirations of the different landowning units that can lead to strategic investments and development initiatives. Tourism operators hear these aspirations first-hand because of the relationships they have built over many years. But these need to be shared directly with the Government’s legal land guardians who are tasked with guiding how landowners can leverage their lease incomes to foster sustainable development within their communities, whether through diversification into commerce, agriculture, education, or community projects. Or using an obvious opportunity to ensure the preservation and showcasing of cultural and nature-based heritage (language, history, arts and land use) becomes a more fascinating part of Fiji’s history that tourism currently offers only a fraction of.

Our cultural elements in tourism offerings are eroding fast with a huge mismatch of tourism demand for authentic experiences. This would not only support the local economy but we have no doubt would also foster pride and preservation of cultural heritage.

Highlighting Fiji’s remarkable achievement of having over 80% locally owned tourism properties and businesses recognises the country’s self-reliance and local entrepreneurship, supported in no small part by the Fiji National Provident Fund’s impressive tourism investment portfolio, and the current influx of local entrepreneurs entering the industry as SMEs.

Land ownership structures embody a deep connection to the land and culture that we are not communicating better; including with tourism experiences that can be authentic and unique, but we recognise that the opportunities are there.

The dominance of locally owned tourism properties ensures that the lion’s share of tourism revenue circulates within the country. This retention of earnings strengthens the national economy and supports a wide range of local businesses, from agriculture to services and amplifies the benefits of tourism that creates a positive ripple effect that extends beyond the hospitality sector.

Ensuring we can sustain this very positive momentum requires everyone else to appreciate their roles within this network of interconnecting relationships.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 7 September 2023)