FHTA Tourism Talanoa: One Year On

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: One Year On

FHTA, 8 December 2022 – As we round off 2022, there is absolutely no doubt that it has been a year of monumental change.

For the tourism industry, celebrating milestones has never held more importance with Fiji Airway’s marking One Year of Fiji’s Border Reopening on 1 December 2021.

Along with the other tourism partners like Tourism Fiji, Fiji Airports and FHTA, Fiji Airways took the time out last week to remind us about the huge efforts leading up to the reopening, the steady revival of the tourism industry post-reopening and that 12 months on, it was time to reflect on what it had taken to get us this far.

For a Pacific Island nation like Fiji, having a strong national airline that was in turn working hard to be reopening ready as soon as the button was pressed on the 1st of December to welcome back international visitors, certainly played a key part in Fiji’s successful efforts to turn around the pandemic induced economic slump.

So too were the valiant efforts of the medical teams that managed to get the maximum doses of vaccinations out to the Fijian population in the shortest time possible.

Then added to this were the tireless efforts of the wider tourism stakeholders who became part of the border protection teams in creating and maintaining visitor confidence with the adoption of safety measures never before practised in the hospitality environment; with testing, reporting and navigating the constant changing COVID guidelines and protocols.

In the first few months of reopening this year, we watched visitor confidence grow to levels that told us they weren’t just coming because they could after being locked up for far too long.

They were also coming because they preferred Fiji to other destinations that were struggling with their own reopenings even if they had never been before, or simply because they could take advantage of the flurry of travel deals offering opportunities they hadn’t tried before.

By October, visitor arrivals had reached 91 percent of 2019 arrival figures for the same period with almost 500,000 visitors and considering that the expectation at reopening was for a conservative 300,000 visitors at best guess, by the middle of the year it was slowly dawning on everyone that the demand for Fiji was remaining well and truly high.

Australian arrival numbers are currently 102 percent of pre-COVID levels, New Zealand arrivals are 103 percent and USA visitor arrivals are at 91 percent of October 2019 levels.

It is therefore expected that by the end of the year if we receive 70 percent of our 2019 arrivals, this would equate to 624,939 visitors with the monthly average during the busiest period being 86 percent.

There are other areas worth celebrating as well.

The national airline has proudly announced it is paying back its loans and making profits once again, probably one of the few airlines around the world that can boast this, while being recognised at the same time in the highly acclaimed category of Five Star Major Airline.

Additionally, in removing STT (Service Turnover Tax) and ECAL (Environment & Climate Adaptation Tax), the 16% deduction from taxes has seen a marked change in visitor behaviour with food and beverages being consumed at far great levels than when the taxes had been applied.

So much so that we have seen a 12% increase in visitor spending generally, with visitors also choosing to stay longer (9.7 nights).

Not bad for a year of frantic efforts to recoup losses incurred over 2 long and arduous years, building brands back up again from scratch, reviewing product and service offerings for a world hungry for travel but wary of invisible viruses that could imprison, kill, or at the very least make them ill.

And not just for the tourism industry, but also for every other business that interacts with, supplies or is impacted by the industry in some shape or form.

As we wind down towards the end of 2022, having entered the start of our cyclone season, and as we have done every other year; we prepare for what nature might hurl at us.

Cyclone plans get dusted off, emergency drills get practised, and new staff get trained in what to expect.

But blue skies and long sunny days, complete with the made-for-holidays picturesque sunsets and the odd early evening thunderstorms belie the industry’s nervous contemplation of what the future holds – peering as we are right now into 2023.

Food costs have risen steadily, while energy costs continue to make sudden jumps – especially for diesel used by the large numbers of off-grid resorts and every mainland resort for their backup generators.

The transition to renewable energy is not taking place fast enough as it requires a more enabling environment and the infrastructure to support it.

Staff costs have risen and not just because of the increased minimum wage rates although this has a correlating impact, but more so with consistent training of new staff and increasing reliance on overseas workers replacing local staff who leave to try out the popular labour mobility scheme options.

For the many tourism operators who have had to refurbish and upgrade their properties, supplier issues have impacted their delivery times, while labour and material costs have blown out exorbitantly, so total costs have far exceeded their budgeted expectations.

Around 700 rooms remain unavailable due to ongoing refurbishments that will not be complete until next year or, for a smaller number, because of closures due to the pandemic that they were unable to survive.

And while our small size has allowed us to be the champions of resilience and leaders in what success should look like coming out of a pandemic, it goes against us as the global economy prepares to stare down the looming issues that are expected to shape 2023.

These include when and for how long our key markets might go into a recession with the world adjusting gears from the almost half a century of declining inflation and interest rates now looking to reverse that trend.

And while higher interest rates might not sound so bad in larger economies, when it comes to a world already heavily in debt, households are expected to struggle to adjust.

And when you’re forced to adjust your spending, your holidays inevitably get parked so that you can pay to meet your loan and credit card repayments, pay bills and pay for the increase in fuel and food costs.

Other uncertainties include how China comes out of its current self-induced hibernation in its attempts to permanently stave off COVID, with its impact on global growth and inflation expected to be extreme as it grapples with nearly 3 years of lockdowns; as a result, the world’s factory has not been producing to its previously mighty capacity.

We are already experiencing the impact of this with slower supply lines and increasing costs for alternative materials sourced from elsewhere.

Closer to home, we’re counting down through an uneasy calm to the national elections.
And keeping up with the rising summer temperatures, we note simmering tensions between rival parties contesting the elections, some well-placed nervousness about the possibility of the 4th wave of COVID infections as friends, families and tourists descend on us from around the world, and the very real likelihood of a cyclone or two brewing as the ocean warms up around us as it tends to do at this time of the year.

It’s beginning to look a lot like the usual mad rush to Christmas.

A very tropical, Fijian Christmas marking 1 year and counting, since reopening.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 8 December 2022