FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Innovate, Regulate, Update

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Innovate, Regulate, Update

Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, 23 November 2023 – Enacted nearly five decades ago (when there were probably only around 20 hotels compared to the 413 currently licensed), the Hotels and Guest Houses Act of 1973, supplemented by the handful of amendments along the way, has long served as the backbone of regulatory governance for Fiji’s tourism sector.

Looking back to the 1970’s, Fiji’s economy was heavily reliant on the sugar industry with gold, timber and fish supporting export earnings. At the time, a fledgling tourism industry took local and international guests through dusty gravel roads around the country, who were probably brought in through the small Pacific Island-owned airline that Fiji had larger shares of that networked the region and used small ferry vessels to islands like Beachcomber and other small islets for days trips.

Think long sideburns, bell bottoms and safari suits for the businessmen in those days.

50 years later despite a series of turbulent years that saw devasting cyclones, political upheavals and subsequent economic stuttering, the tourism industry now competes fiercely at a global level with the Fijian brand spearheaded by a confident national airline that is connecting the world to Fiji and the Pacific.

Crafted like many of Fiji’s legislative processes just before or post Fiji’s independence in 1970, the Hotel & Guest Houses Act set the stage for how hotels and resorts should operate and the amendments that followed during this period in trying to keep up with the rapidly changing industry were few and far between.

Back then, perhaps a Board was deemed as being able to make the judgement call to distinguish whether a hotel proprietor was indeed of “good character and a fit and proper person”, along with 3 copies of the block plan, 3 copies of the building site plan and reports from police, health, and the commissioner in the region, to which one might also need to include the investment certificate, work permit, and approval from the Town & Country Planning. Over the years, the additions of all the prerequisite paperwork that is needed to do business in Fiji has been added – copies of your TIN, tax clearance, NFA, ROC, FNPF compliance etc.

And this was repeated annually up until 2021.

As Fiji strives to be a leading regional tourism destination, a comprehensive reassessment and modernization of the legislative framework governing the hospitality sector is imperative and we dare say, long overdue. Perhaps this might be across several other industries also trying to balance business efficiencies with reducing the rising costs of staying in business and aiming for that elusive productivity element that gets lost in the practice of simply struggling to be compliant with regulatory requirements.

We have been advocating for a forward-looking approach to amending laws, aligning these with current industry dynamics and anticipating future trends, challenges and opportunities.

Outdated legislation and the regulations that clarify how we remain compliant as an industry, pose significant challenges to Fiji’s hospitality sector, hindering its adaptability to the evolving landscape of modern tourism.

Crafting provisions that specifically target online platforms might represent quick fixes, but we hasten to remind public sector technocrats that these pivotal steps in adapting regulation compliance to the digital age must come with a closer engagement of the end-users. Or you simply set yourselves up for many years of very expensive glitch fixing and tailoring to include those customers you didn’t realise had a slightly different need.

And when it comes to tourism – there is no such thing as “one size fits all”, nor have we been able to ever identify as true, any systems that are currently identified as a “one-stop shop”. These have just never worked for tourism because it is such a diverse and many-segmented industry, yet we have such a difficult time getting this message across.

Any proposed amendments should define the responsibilities of these platforms concerning data protection, quality standards that really do make things more efficient, compliance that can very simply be checked for payments made, approvals or not, and back-end document sharing once provided.

Done well, bringing online platforms under regulatory scrutiny will safeguard consumer interests by ensuring a consistent and high-quality experience.

Furthermore, fostering compliance with industry standards will contribute to fair competition among all hospitality providers, whether traditional or digital, creating an environment that encourages innovation and consumer trust.

To ensure everyone is compliant from taxes to regulatory requirements that ensure businesses are practicing safe processes for food, water, waste and general hygiene; licensing and regulatory approvals must move into the future alongside the businesses.

But we also want the authorities to move faster when there are some serious rule-breaking going on. Non-compliance must be dealt with to ensure the safety of the customers and environment while making others who might be thinking of bending the rules think twice.

The key though, is ensuring that compliance is made simpler, and understandable – regulations should make sense, and be achievable in a tech-savvy world that can work from anywhere and not have the need to physically turn up at a government agency to make a payment or submit documents (although this can still be an option).

The efficiency opportunities do not stop at bringing outdated legislation into the future which has the added advantage of improving overall compliance; but include the ability to move Fiji into more national-level strategies that promote sustainability, reduce waste (of water, energy, food, paper, time, etc), and supports and incentivises productivity.

A great deal of effort is made by this tourism association to remind, address and promote compliance, so we understand fundamentally what areas are complicated and why, as well as how these challenges can be overcome and where the opportunities lie.

The “big picture” issues of protecting our environment and culture, safe and legal operations and maintaining the quality brand Fiji wants to remain as, is ultimately at stake.

We are not Bali and do not intend to ever be like them, nor can we compete with them because, amongst a host of other reasons; we are far more regulated (and therefore probably much safer), have 3.4 million fewer people than they do to find our workers from and pay much higher wages as a result.

So as an industry that has had to consistently stay on top of digital solutions, make efficiency and productivity work to pull us through the slumps that get dealt with the same hand that provides us this island paradise, we find those areas that drag us down regularly tend to be predominantly dealing with business processes.

From online bookings to smooth guest management systems, we’re looking for solutions that match where the industry is now and where it’s headed into the future.

In a world where the hospitality game is all about clicks, taps and connections, our laws also need to keep up.

It’s 2023, with 2024 looming large just around the corner!

Time to drag our legislation out of the archives and into the 21st century.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 23 November 2023)