FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Safe Havens in Stormy Seas

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Safe Havens in Stormy Seas

Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, 16 November 2023 – In Fiji, the onset of the festive season marks the beginning of cyclone season, a familiar occurrence in the last months of the year, that continues into the first few months of the new year. Mixing up a heady cocktail of hot, humid holidays with crazy weather for the silly season.

While resilient from years of exposure to climate impacts that have steadily increased in intensity and frequency over the last few decades, the island nation in its geographical location that makes it both a quintessential island paradise, as well as the most susceptible to cyclones; accepts this inevitable and quirky twist of locational blessing with the odd curse of weather.

Now, as the regional cyclone season approaches, developing at this time of the year when the surrounding ocean waters heat up with the onset of the southern hemisphere’s sizzling summer; each element adding to the required toxic mix of the earth’s rotational pull with building atmospheric pressure, to even more fascinating occurrences called convergence and feedback, where spiraling warm air rising and cooling to form clouds and thunderstorms eventually release even more heat that rises to further strengthen the formation of storms.

In the tropics these atmospheric build-ups are generally felt with the sticky heat, sudden thunderstorms that can create flash floods and turn a picture-perfect beachside scene into a menacing threat to mariners.

TC Mal this week highlighted that despite our readiness for adverse weather, there are still areas that need improvement. Especially our complacency in areas that are often deemed never in a cyclone’s pathway.

For tourism operators, because the last cyclone leaving any actual impact was last seen in 2020, and given there has been a large turnover of new staff; safety protocols were not just dusted off, they might have been some general overzealousness to ensure the safety of guests, staff and property. Better safe than sorry and having learnt some hard lessons over the years, if there is one thing there is consensus for within the industry, it is that you prepare early to save time, reduce risks, and protect the infrastructure and equipment that will in turn keep everyone safe.

There are of course other important areas considering that by default, tourism requires access to all thing’s nature. So, when Mother Nature is having a really bad day, you know you must stand back and give the Mother her space, while ensuring you stay connected to communication networks that tell you what’s happening in as much detail as is possible.

That includes understanding weather reports you can trust, knowing when to stow your vessels safely with tidal information, clearing your surroundings as well as trimming trees and branches in preparation for advised wind strength, storing food, water and fuel for generators and then eventually bunkering down behind reinforced buildings to wait out the worst of it.

By Wednesday morning, it was clear that Cyclone Mal – at its worst a category 3 storm, had chosen to take the south-westerly of the two computer predicted models, which allowed it to vent its worst effects over the open waters between the western coast of Fiji and the still far off islands of New Caledonia – last seen headed further south (watch out New Zealand!). Best not to reflect on the what-ifs, had it taken a more south-easterly route and dispensed its wrath over the main island of Viti Levu.

But if we don’t learn anything from each cyclone hurled our way, we ignore an opportunity to be better prepared for what climate scientists tell us about weather that will continue to intensify and become more frequent occurrences and not just in the South Pacific either.

So, here’s a list of our key takeaways – not all of them positive, but therein lies the opportunity to improve, isn’t it?

Communication has to be the highest priority because it provides us the information, the warnings and the reminders to prepare and the timeframes we’re allowed to do all this preparatory work so we’re ready for anything.

And for some reason, a large percentage of available information was only on Facebook. Which tells us that even Government agencies believe the Fijian population lives there for their news. Perhaps they do. Our frequent checks on websites for all the agencies that are tasked with providing information during adverse weather were not used at all or were updated far too late to be of any use.

MSAF might have been the only agency sending out their Marine Notices and loading these onto their website. But there is no Ministry of Information or Communication from which a general capture of all that is still taking place is provided. Perhaps it is not required anymore, but for those of us without an FB account (we do exist), or the patience to scroll past the dizzying calls to get rich, get hitched or sell your soul; you’re left with chatgroups that hopefully know what’s going on and not pass on incorrect or outdated information.

Shout out though to the radio stations keeping us informed throughout when the power wasn’t out, or you had the earlier wherewithal to have gotten batteries ready for just such an occurrence. And to the digital versions of the daily papers who did just as well – showing their move into the digital platform space has been well worth the considerable efforts to keep improving their reach.

For our part, and because we must be able to share information with a very widespread and diverse industry, FHTA has spent the last few days and nights staying on top of reports and scanning information from every available news network, the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), Fiji Meteorological Service (Fiji Met), Fiji Police, Fiji Roads Authority (FRA), Energy Fiji Limited (EFL), Water Authority of Fiji (WAF), Fiji Airways, Fiji Airports, and the overarching Fiji Government oversight committees that feed into these entities.

Plus, we stayed consistently connected to our members providing guidance, advice, information or clarity on anything they might have heard, seen or wanted to know.

If there is one more thing with communication that we can learn to do better – it must be coordination. If one agency is repeating a message from another agency, the messaging must be the exact same, because English as we all know is a complicated
language and not usually everyone’s main spoken language. As my old English teacher always reminded me – CCC or “clear, concise and coherent” please.

Next is the availability of power during such storms. It is bad enough that you have a household home from cancelled work and school that is eating you out of house and home, without the power going out and no access to digital entertainment to calm grizzling children and frazzled parents down with. Worse still when the power goes off at night for hours at a time. No entertainment, no light, batteries dying on mobile phones, no fan to cool rising tempers and its either raining or blowing a gale outside.

If the current EFL infrastructure cannot cope with a near-miss cyclone like we just experienced, how, we ask, will it cope with a full-blown cyclone hitting us? Because as far as we can tell from the reports we’ve received from around the country, we have had no damage except to trees and plants. And apart from flooding in the areas we can usually expect flooding to take place, we have dodged a bullet again Fiji.

But it doesn’t appear that way with how quickly power went out and was still out in many places in the day following the cyclone’s passing.

If you’re wondering how the coastal and maritime areas for tourism operations fared; they all did very well having prepared well in advance to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The tourism hot spots are currently sitting at 60-90% occupancy and while the majority of island guests chose to remain on island unless they were catching flights out, many were surprised that resorts chose to prepare as they did for a worst-case scenario, given the relatively mild impacts of the cyclone eventually.

But these are operators who might only have ever made the mistake once, or seen the mistake take place once before; to know just how devastating not being overly prepared can be. Safety on or near the water is a key component of safety plans, while the attention to safety of guests, staff and resort equipment and infrastructure can mean the difference between being able to reopen immediately after the storm has passed like nothing happened, or having to close for expensive repairs and the often-far-reaching consequences of cancellations.

Prioritizing safety is not a suggestion but a necessity, requiring investment in robust safety protocols and continuous efforts to uphold Fiji’s reputation as a destination dedicated to visitor and staff well-being and safety.

And in Fiji we know the sun can come out immediately after a storm, like nothing untoward has just happened where an entire country had battened down for a Cat 3 storm only the day before.

Until the next warning, it’s back to business Fiji. And school and work and holidays in paradise again.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 16 November 2023)