FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Smile with Us

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Smile with Us

FHTA, 17 November 2022 – Visitors to Fiji label us the ‘friendliest people in the world.’

From when they board our national carrier to making their way around the many experiences and exciting places they stay at, to when they check in to depart our shores, they are inundated with big smiles and a hearty ‘Bula’ from everyone they meet.

Where does that stem from, that friendliness? That veilomani, that duavata that is both inquisitive as well as genuine interest?

It could be cultural norms because where we each hail from is always of interest as this determines your background, who your people are, and what your name might mean and often sets the scene for how we interact with one another because of cultural and traditional relationships.

Whatever the case, it is very much a Fiji ‘thing’ that has garnered Fiji a reputation second to none.

As World Kindness Day was celebrated earlier this week, it seems fitting that Fiji can hold its head up high when remembering all that is friendly and kind in the world.

World Kindness Day was introduced in 1998 by the World Kindness Movement, a coalition of nations kindness NGOs and is usually commemorated on November 13.

It is a day that is set aside to highlight good deeds in the community focusing on the positive power and the common thread of kindness for good that binds us.

Kindness is a fundamental part of the human condition which bridges the divides of race, religion, politics, gender, and location.

Despite the strife and trouble around the world or even on our doorstep, Fiji continues to make sure that visitors and guests are made to feel the warmth of our welcomes

As locals, many of us might be immune to the big Bula smiles by now but for visitors, it is a beacon of welcome and inclusion that is rarely shared where they are from.

It lets them know that they will be safe, their families will be safe, and that they are amongst friends that can even treat them like family.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what we all yearn for – to be safe with the ones we love.

On the global stage, the nation’s tourism industry has slowly but surely cemented its position in the Pacific as a preferred holiday destination.

The Fiji ‘brand’ is firmly framed by its idyllic beaches, swaying palm trees, and smiling, friendly people. It has become a recognized force in itself and is buoyed by fellow famed foreign exchange earners like our natural mineral water, a strong national airline, coconut-based beauty products, and a seemingly unending supply of extremely talented rugby players.

Growth in the industry has become broader-based, with increasing demand for local products where quality and nature-based goods get exposed to international markets and provide more employment opportunities with steady growth.

The trickle-down effect to the grassroots level expands even further with the growing interest in eco-tourism and focus on protecting and conserving natural environments through tourism exposure and the demand for experience-based travel.

Before the pandemic struck, the rapid growth in international visitor arrivals was anticipated to continue growing into record numbers, with us missing our aim for the magical one million mark in visitor arrivals that we came very close to.

But is it really about increasing visitor numbers that should be the key element by which we judge our success?

Based on this year’s performance thus far, there are several areas that need to be considered when planning where tourism development needs to be taken to and what measures we use to determine its continued success.

Data shows hotels are at capacity currently and have been at high levels like this since reopening, including every Air B&B or homestay option around the country and that visitors are staying longer and spending more on food and beverage, as well as experiences and activities.

Fijian school holidays are going to take place at the same time of the year as Australian and New Zealand school holidays, so flights will be fully booked and hotels will have no space, both for the upcoming school break and in the year ahead.

There is currently a high demand for room inventory riding the successful reopening and Fiji’s envied position of doing things right – a highly vaccinated population in the shortest possible time, consultative approach to getting a well-supported reopening framework out, confidently reopening early with consistent destination marketing activities, and a key focus on community and visitor safety through quickly incorporated enhanced hygiene protocols along with widespread testing.

But large accommodation providers (200 to 450 rooms) with globally recognized brands while smaller in number with the largest share of room inventory, have the biggest challenges with accessing consistent supplies of power, and water and managing waste.

Having no downtime where occupancy dropped as it has always done during troughs in previous years, has maintained pressure for services – food and beverage supplies, laundry turnover, demand for power, water, and waste management.

And of course, for staffing.

The only consistency is dealing with these challenges on an ongoing basis and the rising costs of mitigative measures having to be applied whether during normal times or during adverse weather conditions.

Despite many plans to introduce other hotel brands in this “large’ room inventory range, Fiji has not been able to convince investors that this model will work anymore, and yet we recognize at all levels that if airline seat capacity will continue to increase, we will have a situation where we do not have sufficient room numbers.

So are there better hotel investment models that we could promote, that require a smaller environmental footprint, requires less infrastructure development, or even allow a progressive increase in room numbers based on viability and sustainability?

And would this modelling also address where we would prefer to see tourism progress and develop – being truly sustainable, using less water and power resources, and allowing better-managed waste services?

Smaller hotels or resorts planned along strata titled or single ownership options offer the flexibility of reduced investment set-up costs, faster builds depending on the use of renewable and recyclable alternatives, as well as the ability to be located away from already heavily built-up tourism hubs.

This has the potential to pave the way for more local and foreign investment opportunities and consequently more jobs, without increasing the current high demand for power and water, especially in areas that we can barely supply consistently.

The industry is also the largest employer in the country with over 150,000 employed directly or indirectly in the sector, with more women and young people than other industries.

We are now seeing this number of workers decrease as all industries in Fiji deal with increasing labour migration, whether skilled or not and tourism is feeling this acutely, as no doubt every other industry must be.

Regardless of whether we have plans to increase our room inventory by building more hotels, identifying larger and larger commercial office spaces to set up business processing services, or increasing our manufacturing factory floors; our people are taking their Bula and their smiles overseas and we will continue to see these gaps grow.

They are quite rightly in high demand overseas and we recognize the positive side of this where inward-bound remittances rise to the predicted 1 billion, while individual opportunities for better skills, international exposure, and improved livelihoods are elevated.

Consequently, what does a lower unemployment figure really mean for Fiji if the reality is that every industry and public sector can confirm increasing vacancies that may eventually result in poor productivity, or poorer services and products?

As you make an effort to be kinder to one another and return a smile and Bula headed your way, take the time to enjoy the beauty of our country and think about how much you know about her and how much of this beautiful country you have really seen and appreciated.

And we apologize in advance if your call or email is not answered immediately, your order comes late, your room isn’t ready for you, your bags didn’t arrive or your bus is late.

We are more than a little short of staff these days, but still big on delivering our best Bula!

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 17 November 2022