FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Triumphs, Trials and Transformations

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Triumphs, Trials and Transformations

Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, 29 February 2024 – Success and failure go hand in hand because there are two sides to every coin. Samu Silatolu’s recent letter to the editor (FT 22 Feb), reminds us of the complexities that work in tandem with developing economies and the aspirational strides into economic progress.

Silatolu astutely observes that while there is evident excitement over the economic prospects brought forth by tourism success, there exists a less illuminated side to this narrative.

He touches upon issues such as the influx of “bogus” investors, the proliferation of drug-related activities, and the unfortunate rise of prostitution, which often accompanies a developing economy’s march into the future. For Fiji, the tourism boom is driving this momentum.

This is therefore a very relevant reminder that beneath the veneer of economic growth lie challenges that demand equal attention and proactive measures and not just the counting of visitor numbers and patting ourselves on the back for the much-needed revenue this results in.

Fiji’s economic growth narrative should also remind us about the imperative to scrutinize accompanying challenges amid celebrations that tend, unfortunately, to move in tandem with economic prosperity, and the need therefore for focused socio-economic and regulatory dilemmas requiring more laser-focused attention.

The tourism sector, pivotal for Fiji’s economy for decades, has showcased remarkable growth. Since the mid-20th century, Fiji’s allure has attracted tourists with its beaches, culture, and resorts, fostering steady growth.

Despite occasional setbacks, proactive government measures and a passionately dedicated industry have sustained Fiji as a resilient tourism destination. We note “passionately dedicated” because, without this, the raft of challenges with the territory would have spat you out or moved you into another industry.

Recent data underscores the significance of tourism to Fiji’s economy, with the sector contributing substantially to GDP (over 40 per cent) and employment generation.

Initiatives that diversify tourism offerings, including adventure tourism, cultural experiences, and eco-friendly accommodations, have broadened Fiji’s appeal to a wider audience.

Moreover, the ongoing commitment to infrastructure development, such as airport upgrades and road improvements, has facilitated smoother travel experiences for tourists and enhanced accessibility to remote regions.

Fiji’s journey from a “third-world island nation” to a “rapidly developing Pacific Island State”, as often noted in development partners’ country reports, shows a remarkable transformation marked by significant economic growth and modernization that allows it to stand out from other Pacific Island settings.

Historically characterized by limited infrastructure, a predominantly agricultural economy driven by sugar exports and an (over) reliance on foreign aid, tourism has supported the transformation to propel Fiji to becoming a dynamic player in the Pacific region’s economic landscape.

This transition is boosted by robust advancements in various other sectors including construction, telecommunications, information technology and more recently the BPO sector, and has helped to generally transform living standards, access to education, healthcare, and technological advancements, contributing what should account for a higher quality of life for not all, but certainly many Fijians.

However, the transition from a state of underdevelopment to one experiencing rapid industrialization and urbanization was not reflected in or kept pace with other critical areas. Perhaps only focusing on what was going well, and ignoring other areas deemed too hard to sort, or perhaps simply ignoring the warning signs that were always there.

These include addressing the many facets of poverty like food security, housing, and access to water and power with more focus on urban and peri-urban areas that have exploded out of the residential corridors initially planned as being sufficient for population growth.

Health and medical services, education and educational infrastructure, the repercussions of rural/urban migration and the ensuing overpopulations of initially temporary squatter settlements that have become more permanent fixtures now because of the high demand for low-cost housing – all of these challenges have built up steadily for over a decade.

Despite economic growth, or perhaps maybe because of it; Fiji has witnessed a troubling surge in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity that has continued to rise.
Insufficient public health infrastructure and limited access to affordable healthcare exacerbate this issue, leading to higher mortality rates and a strain on healthcare resources.

Urbanization and income inequality have created fertile grounds for criminal activities, including theft, burglary, and drug-related offences, with the latter being the result of the spike in hard drug demand that has bubbled to the surface on numerous occasions over the last 5 years.

It is now clear that our strategic location in the Pacific has made it a transit hub for drug trafficking, fuelling organized crime and posing significant challenges to law enforcement agencies that have required partnerships with more developed countries to help us recognise and better address the issues.

Additionally, for all our advancements in education and training, Fiji still grapples with a persistent mismatch between graduate skills and industry demand – demand shaped by industries competing at global levels to ensure their success despite being from a small island state.

The landscapes of many of Fiji’s successful industries have continued to evolve. Technology improves speed, communication, productivity and efficiency while changing trends and consumer demand stimulate the need for constant improvement.

We need these same tools, policies and hunger for improvement to motivate our public sector to ensure the required skills are in place to address the changing landscape for crime and public safety, for where the gaps in education leave out the children who do not fit in with mainstream curriculums, to provide more innovative solutions for living conditions in overpopulated communities and settlements, and how we move people out of poverty into self-sufficiency.

That hard core drugs are now evident in Fiji (as opposed to us simply thinking they were already here) and as we struggle to contain the issue, is yet another example of the negative sides of improved technology, communications and infrastructure, and even our affordability and demand in terms of actual drug use here; that we have not adequately prepared for.

The current regulatory frameworks were also originally designed for smaller scales and smaller populations with less worldly challenges, leaving newer vulnerabilities open to exploitation.

Regulatory reforms must prioritize sustainable development, and understand the negatives of technology and communication advancements because there is always a dark side to everything that initially looks like progress.

We must as a country, invest in capacity-building initiatives for public servants, prioritize regulatory improvements, and strategically allocate resources to tackle urgent issues with a focus on long-term impacts.

Furthermore, prioritization involves understanding the interconnectedness of challenges, such as improving healthcare and education systems to enhance Fijians’ quality of life and workforce skills, boosting economic productivity, and resilience.

Economic growth is crucial, but it shouldn’t compromise social equity and environmental sustainability, necessitating a balance between progress and inclusivity. This balance requires policies fostering economic development, social welfare, and environmental conservation, as well as investments in renewable energy and promoting inclusive education and healthcare.

Sustainable tourism and environmental conservation efforts are vital for preserving Fiji’s natural beauty and cultural heritage, ensuring long-term attractiveness as a tourist destination. But they have their own challenges that include our capability for waste collection, getting landowner buy-in for the importance of conservation and the critical funding required for capacity building in conservation and protection programs.

Our development path hinges on prioritizing our focus on not just addressing what has been allowed to deteriorate, but also about being prepared for the negatives that come in on the tails of economic progress and balancing the social and environmental responsibilities.

Progress always has a yin and yang effect. Even if only gradually.

It is our preparation and expectation of the negatives that will allow us to adequately address them – in the same way that we know that our current idyllic, sun-drenched days are a wonderful testament to why Fiji is such a popular destination; we know with equal certainty that we can also experience devastating cyclones. And why we prepare for these accordingly.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 29 February 2024)