FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Retaining our Competitive Advantage

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Retaining our Competitive Advantage

FHTA, 22 June 2023 – Legendary CEO Jack Welch was quoted as saying “There are only two sources of competitive advantage: the ability to learn more about our customers faster than the competition and the ability to turn that learning into action faster than the competition.”

Experts will tell you that innovation, data and research, differentiation, strong leadership, cost, focus, teamwork, etc are all part of finding and retaining your competitive advantage – that “thing” that makes you stand out as a product or service that keeps your customers coming back for more.

There is no doubt that there was a combination of all these elements that have contributed to the current, incredible demand for Destination Fiji.

But can we sustain it?

Fiji’s tourism sector has continued to experience increasing demand since its successful reopening 19 months ago, with the destination’s popularity due to a number of factors supporting its competitive edge. An edge that the continued surge in visitor arrivals attests strongly to that has now surpassed our previously highest arrival levels in 2019.

The subsequent flow-on effect through tourism’s comprehensive linkages to communities and through its vast supplier networks for food and beverages, IT, employment, transport, activities and experiences; is ensuring this economic activity is felt on a broader basis throughout Fiji. Tourism staff located away from their traditional homes are sending money to families in rural and urban areas to support family, social and religious commitments, apart from the usual reasons of rent, education, food and bill support.

The increased demand has been in response to a number of factors, not least of these being the industry’s resolutely focused commitment to building back better with the resilience it has always done with historically impactful challenges. And while previous instalments of these articles have touched on what some of these factors have been before; we believe it important to highlight these in more detail because retaining this competitive advantage is already getting harder to do in light of emerging global risks, disturbing challenges in our key markets and traditional competitors joining the foray for attracting the same visitors.

Reopening earlier was the first key reason; with safety at the heart of the reopening framework and with a confidence that came from months of preparations, training and wide consultations and partnerships with key Government ministries and agencies. It was a bold move for a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) like Fiji to open when it did with such confidence and preparation.

This confidence was supported by the fact that it had a national airline that was also prepared and ready to fly immediately after those borders were thrown open. With the progressive rise in flights to major cities, Fiji has witnessed a higher demand for tourism than initially anticipated. Australians and New Zealanders, key visitor markets 1 and 2 respectively, are reported to be choosing holidays closer to home, forgoing long-haul trips to the US and UK, and benefitting Fiji and the Pacific Islands generally. Fiji Airways has played a key role in attracting more visitors by increasing its flight frequencies, opening up new destinations and bringing to fruition its longterm plans to move to a more fuel-efficient aircraft fleet that could support future

plans for longer-range flights, and doing so while winning globally recognised accolades for service. It recently announced its recognition as the Skytrax Best Airline in Australia & the Pacific as well as improving its ranking in the Global Top 100 airlines, leapfrogging from 36th in 2022 to 15th in 2023, to finish ahead of Qantas (17th), British Airways (18th) and Air New Zealand (19th).

The use of research and data collected during and post-COVID supported some of the marketing direction changes put in place by the national tourism office that had kept track of visitor expectations once borders reopened. Their marketing refocuses on areas that Fiji has always had in abundance with nature-based activities, experiences and connections with people, culture and wellness has been a catalyst for the response to Fiji’s enhanced marketing efforts with Tourism Fiji working closely with Fiji Airways to create a seamless visitor travel experience. Brand Fiji is doing well as a result and punching way above its weight in those markets it is always so critical to do well in, even though it costs us so much more to stay at the top.

Within the industry, the acceptance that skill gaps in the labour force, enhanced hygiene practices, products and services and the increased costs of food, labour, building materials and hotel equipment because of supply chain issues were simply parred for the course. You addressed each challenge as best you could and ploughed on with the resilience that came from years of dealing with setbacks from climate and weather emergencies, political crises, tenuous tax regimes or global shocks.

In the background, FHTA provided (and continues to do so) the support for training, and regulation reminders, created the required awareness for best practices, shared information, responded to queries and supported the industry through the consistent dialogue and consultations it did with Government. These efforts never stop because it allows a very diverse and multi-segmented industry’s challenges to be better understood, and ensure a clear voice and any concerns are heard on all aspects of the industry’s 7-day-a-week, 24-hours-a-day operations.

This guarantees that the most heavily regulated industry in Fiji continues to operate diligently, compliantly and unfettered as much as possible.

Having got back up again and steaming ahead at full throttle, we acknowledge this current success – higher than normal monthly visitor numbers, higher average daily spends, longer stays, increased food & beverage spending and increased brand metrics in Australia and New Zealand – is a result of a host of collaborative and individual efforts. And that (because we are historically a nervous industry) even with forward bookings into the rest of the year and into the next holding surprisingly well, things are taking place around us that might knock us off our high spot.

According to our estimates, about 4,000 additional hotel rooms are required to meet the growing seat capacity and general demand and while there are potentially 3,500 rooms in the list of upcoming investments listing; there are other issues that require urgent and immediate attention. Investment in tourism, construction, the burgeoning BPO sector, manufacturing and IT requires some initial investments in our currently inadequate existing infrastructure.

There must first be the potential to add capacity to water, power and waste management systems, and if investments are to take place in the North, in maritime islands or in rural areas, then access to roads, bridges, jetties and ports must be added to this list.

While unregulated Airbnb and homestay options have bloomed to take some of the accommodation pressure off, insufficient hotel rooms force potential visitors to either postpone or cancel their trips due to limited availability, or choose another destination. Destinations with far higher budgets than ours to market more advanced offerings.

Additionally, higher demand and reduced supply leads to increased prices, potentially making Fiji a less affordable destination for budget-conscious travellers.

Evaluating the current investment climate and making it more attractive through incentives and confidence-inducing longer-term tax regimes, while identifying the barriers usually noted in Ease of Doing Business processes, could quickly make the more effective changes take place at the levels that are urgently required.

We are currently ahead of a very competitive tourism destination pack, but other destinations have now also reopened and learnt from their mistakes, and are eager to regain lost ground.

Fiji – where happiness comes naturally – the new tagline that has gone to the heart of post-pandemic traveller sentiments, has had a fantastic run and placed Fiji at the top of the list with a great brand that is still doing what it set out to do. We did the unthinkable by opening early and with the confidence and safety no one expected.

How can we ensure we retain this unusual and incredible competitive advantage?

How much do we want this success to continue, knowing it could provide muchneeded revenue support for a Pacific Island Country whose economy depends so highly on it, and what are we willing to change to ensure we achieve it?

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 22 June 2023)