FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Why Does it Look Like Economic Growth has Stalled?

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Why Does it Look Like Economic Growth has Stalled?

Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, 28 March 2024 – It’s the rainy season and things move slower when you cannot see where you’re going.

Typically characterized by moderate rainfall, the season has seen an unusual surge in
precipitation levels coming as it has been in torrential rainfalls and causing alarm from
various sectors like agriculture, municipal councils, community residents, shopkeepers
and tourism operators.

The current high volume of precipitation can be attributed to the persistent El Niño
conditions – a climate phenomenon characterized by warmer-than-average sea
surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, leading to
atmospheric changes that affect global weather patterns.

In Fiji, the impact of El Niño on weather conditions has been particularly pronounced
during the rainy season and we have seen this over the last few years with increasingly
negative impacts.

Localised flooding in most of the low-lying areas, which tends to mean all the flat land
around coastal areas and where towns and cities are built; has affected road
accessibility for work and school, to attend to agricultural activities and our usual day
to-day business.

For visitors to Fiji, it has also hampered efforts to access the airport safely.

These increasing incidents of weather anomalies have also raised awareness about
the need for enhanced disaster preparedness and mitigation strategies to minimize
the impact on communities and industries; with information regularly shared,
communicated and discussed at all levels of government, through the private sector
and community engagements and consistently supported and promoted by
development partners and NGOs.

If you take the time to read the information regularly disseminated on mainstream and
social media platforms as well as through your inboxes – there have been forecasts
provided indicating a transition from the current El Niño phase to an ENSO-neutral
state in the upcoming months, specifically expected to occur between April and June 2024.

While the transition to an ENSO-neutral state offers prospects of more normalized
weather conditions, it also underscores the importance of continued monitoring and

What is increasingly alarming to see though is that despite the information provided
for years and with the current unpredictability of weather patterns in the Pacific region,
we are not doing the 2 main things expected of us.

The ongoing vigilance that requires that we are prepared for such events, and then
actioning the required adaptive measures to mitigate potential risks and ensure we
have expected resilience built in across all sectors.

Instead, Fiji comes to a shuddering, rain-drenched standstill as soon as we go through
a few days of incessant, heavy rainfalls that coincide with already higher tides.

Carparks, community parks and open spaces turn into lakes, drains overflow, while
roads flood and appear to disintegrate under the heavy deluge of water, despite just
being completed in some areas.

Traffic lights blink off and drivers crash into each other because they forget how to
navigate intersections without a light system telling them what to do. Schools, bus
shelters, walkways, markets, offices and shopping centres leak profusely so that if
you’re caught in one of them, you have to decide whether to avoid getting wet or being
tripped up by the buckets collecting water from the leaks.

Schools close, parents have to leave work to ensure their children are safe and public
sector and commercial offices close to wait out the weather that is also playing havoc
with power going off, and in many places, the internet following soon after.

For Fiji to build on its resilient reputation and its apparent advanced awareness of
climate change, we must build better to counter the rapid acceleration of strange
weather patterns that can suddenly remind us of their existence after months of
gorgeous weather, that we know not to take for granted because it is after all our
cyclone season, and we should be expecting and preparing for such events.

Roads and supporting infrastructure like drainage systems, water flow outlets and
sewer systems erupt with sudden surges of water filled with household and
commercial waste previously dumped in areas not otherwise noticed till water is
unable to make its way along nature-inspired pathways back to the sea.

Then increased by turbidity and water volumes, these then block roads and bridges
where branches, grass and leaves add their presence that then makes the water even
more dangerous.

We know the challenges and understand why it’s happening. So why aren’t we
weathering these storms better?

How did we put in traffic light systems that cannot withstand more than 20 minutes of
consistent rain, build roads that wash away in chunks, or carve out drains that either
don’t flow anywhere or are never large enough to take the water capacity they’re
exposed to?

We know that rivers may flood and, sometimes this flooding will reach extreme levels
that impact the surrounding areas. How did we forget that when we designed the
nearby roads and bridges?

In a gradually growing list of key challenges for Fiji, we have identified and accepted
that resilient, durable infrastructure is key to progressing economically.

Better-planned and constructed roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and buildings must
be part of our future development plans and ensuring these are built with our
experience of climate change in mind, is the obvious and only way to go.

A future where the planners for roads discuss their plans with the people designing the
drainage and water systems, as well as the town councils and authorities that will put
up street and traffic lights and put in swimming pools, access ways to schools and
parking for cars and buses. And discuss these same plans with how people will cross
roads safely through the provision of crossings to get to supermarkets, local markets,
hospitals and doctors.

In short – through proper and wide consultation. To ensure future development plans
make sense to the users of the infrastructure, as well as providing the currently missing
confidence that we will lose large chunks of this very expensive infrastructure to the
elements because we failed to plan it better, build it better or talk to one another about
how it needs to fit into the environment better.

But wait…

WHO will create the plans and then build the required future-proof and resilient
infrastructure. Because we do not have the manpower or the skills to do very much
right now.

Amidst this resilience preparation lies a pressing issue that requires even more urgent
attention – immigration challenges and labour shortages.

The construction industry is struggling to confirm timelines for planned buildings,
investments and medium to large infrastructure development projects.

If we factor in 6 to 12 months to be able to attract and hire skilled workers, then add
delays of another 6 months to get plans approved for the same reason (regulatory
agencies missing skilled personnel), then it appears Fiji will be 2 years behind on its
investment deliveries.

Is this acceptable? And who should we make accountable for this?

Without the investments and the ability to improve the existing infrastructure that has
been allowed to deteriorate to unsafe levels, we cannot hope to grow the economy.

The tourism industry and its significantly large supply chain rely heavily on a skilled
workforce to deliver exceptional services and experiences to tourists, and Fiji is
currently enjoying a rare and much sought-after outstanding destination branding that
has been built on a combination of a beautiful location, the friendliest people and
wonderful weather.

While the weather is increasingly unpredictable, there are lots of things we can do to
keep people indoors and entertained during these times. And we’re putting in very
comprehensive efforts to address keeping these pristine shores as intact as possible
through the strengthening of conservation, preservation and environment protection

But none of these things is going to mean anything if we lose our ability to attract
people to our shores because we cannot deliver the service and value the destination
markets itself as.

If Fiji cannot compete with the rest of the world on the levels that it has been able to
before because we have insufficient skilled workers, then it is not just tourism as an
industry that loses out.

Construction, manufacturing, agriculture, fisheries, education, government services,
IT and even SMEs will be impacted because of the inability to build, plan, manufacture
and deliver as required impacting the entire economy.

All the training being put in by the education systems, by private sector programs and
by in-house upskilling efforts are simply going out through flights taking our people
overseas looking for greener pastures that offer them the short-term access to wage
rates Fiji cannot afford to pay.

And while no one begrudges their right to do so, employers around the country are
desperate for workers that they keep hearing exist but don’t quite materialize from the
data on unemployment.

Opportunities to access overseas workers from highly populated countries where there
are more skills than available jobs continue to evaporate in the waiting time of 3, 6 and
8 months that it takes to be able to process them through immigration.

When larger economies like Australia and New Zealand have huge gaps to fill in their
workforce to support their agricultural, manufacturing, mining, processing, hospitality,
aged care and medical sectors, and make it simple for Pacific Island workers to get
there; one would think that Pacific Island governments would quickly grasp the impacts
on their smaller economies and move quickly to address these.

The pressing need for skilled workers has spurred discussions about easing
immigration requirements or streamlining existing processes.

But despite discussing these challenges for the last 2 years, the private sector has
been unable to make any inroads and is increasingly concerned about the ripple
effects of this.

This is already delaying Fiji’s plans to grow the economy by 5%. Let us hope we see
the required changes take place soon to kickstart the current stalled and sodden state
we’re in.
Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 28 March 2024)