FHTA, 23 February 2023 – The pandemic marked a turning point in the history of the world. As economies came to a grinding halt, Fiji, like many other countries, was impacted severely.
The hopes of almost a million people rested on the government’s ability to manage the crisis, and with no clear end in sight, the only feasible option was to borrow.
There is no doubt that this helped to stimulate the economy and bring a sense of normalcy to daily life eventually.
However, the scale of borrowing that was required – and Fiji is no different from global economies around the world that also had to do so – has resulted, we are advised, in the country’s debt level reaching $10 billion by July this year which is equivalent to around 85% of our GDP.
Additionally, there are F$ 1.8 billion in contingent liabilities, mostly in the form of loan guarantees, some of which are expected to be called upon.
This represents approximately 15% of the GDP.
While many people might not appreciate the gravity and weight of such an economic challenge, the Government through its various ministries and the private sector have a deeper appreciation of what is at stake and working in its ways to identify strategies to address it.
To chip away at the mountain that lies before us as best we can anyway.
Our ability to pay back a $10 billion debt will depend on a variety of factors, including the country’s economic growth, revenue streams, and borrowing costs.
Fiji will be looking to some, if not a combination of the following: Economic Growth, Fiscal Consolidation, Debt Restructuring and International Assistance
It will require careful planning, some concerted effort and political will, and a holistic commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Strategies like increasing exports, attracting foreign investment and ramping up efforts in agriculture, are just some opportunities requiring planning and serious commitment that will see benefits in the long term.
Because while chipping away at the national debt will remain a priority, developing other areas in the economy that will benefit the wider population now, will be a higher focus.
Areas that target poverty alleviation, the provision of housing for lower-income earners, reviewing education to address industry-identified skill gaps, and ensuring public demand for improved infrastructure, and public and health services.
But all of these require some in-depth reviews, wide consultations and no doubt more than a few policies and even legislation changes.
If we are looking for shorter-term benefits and quick wins then attention must be paid to existing industries where opportunities exist for expansion and further development that might have been on hold for various reasons.
And one such area that lends itself to this opportunity is Fiji’s highest foreign exchange earner tourism; an industry that has been able to turn itself around from a forced hiatus of nearly two years with an almost phoenix-like transformation.
What are the opportunities that exist that could double or triple our current foreign exchange delivery while ensuring that the remarkable advantages for deeper community engagement and therefore linkages, continue to drive economic growth out to the rural and maritime areas?
As our recovery consolidates, it is time to accelerate our industry’s transformation towards what we must build our future hopes on.
Sustainability, inclusion and human capital.
We must also enhance our competitiveness. And we must do so now.
This requires reviewing and strengthening governance structures and embracing new business models that have incorporated the lessons we learned from the pandemic.
These lessons have included sustainability, how we integrate all aspects of this into biodiversity protection, how we create circular economic solutions for a more resilient tourism sector and protect the communities to which tourism is always so strongly linked.
Tackling issues of inclusion and working towards greater youth and women empowerment, as well as the inclusion of local communities in tourism development and decision-making, the improvement of social and work conditions and addressing the informality in the sector.
In better understanding human capital and our limitations for what we can access and how we mitigate the increasing skill gaps, we know we must increase our focus on leadership, education and skills while adapting to the new ways of working.
But the biggest opportunities for tourism lie in better understanding Fiji’s competitiveness as a destination. And it is in this area that the biggest advances can be made for the shorter-term gains to be seen, which can then be capitalized over the longer term.
The ongoing research, analysis and reports for traveller preferences, changing trends, customer insights and reasoning behind post-pandemic travel have revealed that most of what the world believes it needs, demands even – is right here in Fiji.
We don’t have to look far to invest or develop new products and experiences that will cater for changing travellers’ needs that come in all forms now.
A range of food experiences, agriculture or rural tourism, nature-based and community engagement experiences is waiting to be developed further.
All it needs is support for SMEs and investors – both local and foreign, to identify how to go about doing this and ensure the investments are in the areas most needed.
We do not need 800 new hotel rooms located 5 minutes away from two existing, major Suva hotels that struggle to reach an annual average of 60% occupancy, which will remove the last vestiges of mangroves and further draw on water and power resources that are already overstretched.
But what Suva might need are more day activities that provide insight into cultural activities, local food experiences, water activities like a ride on a traditional canoe on the harbour and short trips to areas of historical interest like museums or gardens.
We might then be able to better convince the thousands of visitors coming in on large cruise ships; only a small percentage of whom get off, to spend more than the current average spend of $100 per person.
On-going research is helping us understand the factors that shape tourism competitiveness, how we can better support the digitalization of the sector, particularly for micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) which account for over 80% of the businesses and review the promotion for more open skies, visa facilitation policies and financing for infrastructure that supports connectivity, including digital connectivity.
Destination Fiji has recently been promoted with a new campaign titled ‘Where Happiness Comes Naturally’, which pays homage to our people, stunning natural environments, rich culture, and the authentic experiences on offer, that encourages travellers to discover a side of Fiji they may not have known existed.
Studies into sustainable travel have revealed that 66% of travellers want to have authentic experiences representative of the local culture and Tourism Fiji is tapping into this growing consumer desire for meaningful travel that creates a connection to culture and communities.
It is crucial, now more than ever, that the tourism industry as a collective, adopts practices that resonate with future generations because these have been deemed the most effective way to protect our future.
These practices not only appeal to socially conscious visitors but also attract a larger volume of tourists. This is because more and more travellers are becoming aware of the impact of their actions on the environment and society, and they are increasingly interested in supporting businesses that share their values.
To this end, we collaborate with our members to create and execute programs that promote environmental and social responsibility that includes initiatives that encourage waste reduction or recycling, resource conservation, and community engagement, among others.
By working closely with members, we can develop strategies that are not only sustainable but also practical and effective because we believe as an association, that promoting sustainable tourism practices is essential for the long-term success of the industry, which ultimately benefits the economy.
But this overarching strategy must also be promoted through a whole of government approach to tourism development and management that is based on International, regional and national coordination.
These in turn will open up more opportunities for tourism development in smaller and more sustainable business sizes that have less impact on the environment and the resources around them, whilst complimenting inclusivity because they tend to attract SMEs in this space.
We have made the first steps into recovery work successfully and now need to further consolidate what we have learnt to stay on track and develop the opportunities available now that will help us build on ensuring the industry remains competitive, more inclusive and sustainable for the long term.
The opportunities are already in place. How well these are expeditiously utilised in the interests of developing areas that can contribute almost immediately to the economy require collective, innovative thinking.
Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 23 February 2023)