FHTA, 25 March 2021 – Twelve months can seem like a lifetime or it can fly by in an instant.
For Fiji’s tourism sector, it has certainly been the former. And we are not out of the woods yet.
This week marked a full year since the COVID pandemic forced the world into a lockdown and Fiji herself closed her borders.
Initially, there was great fear – of the unknown and the effects on people’s health and businesses, worsened weekly by the hibernating of many tourism businesses and the consequent shedding of jobs. This was replaced by months of uncertainty that continued as reports of illness and death escalated around the world.
An initial estimate of border closures being in place in Fiji for a month was revised to three months. The unpredictability of the new disease no-one had heard of before increased the already strange atmosphere that was permeating the larger global economies, while our small island states watched from afar, hoping they knew what they were doing.
After all, these were more progressive economies with vast budgets at their disposal with far larger populations who had access to the most advanced technologies and cutting edge scientific and medical knowledge. But we appeared to be collectively finding out more and more about the COVID-19 virus together, and it soon became evident that even the most advanced countries were not prepared and would make the most extraordinary mistakes in misjudging its threat and the consequent impact it would have on global economies and the freedom of movement and travel we all took for granted.
The race to find a vaccine rose in urgency as global death tolls rose and the speed with which it needed to be tested, approved and then manufactured for dissemination will probably go down in history as the most extraordinary and astounding narrative this century.
At home, thousands of people were made redundant or put on leave without pay pending the ability of their employer to once again be able to provide the relevant work. To provide that work, employers needed to be able to access their usual revenue streams that were effectively stopped when the borders were closed. Subsequently, that lack of revenue injection through receipts, taxes, wages and thus spending into the economy took its toll and our GDP dipped to record lows.
Fixed expenses remained and borrowers were finding it difficult to make loan payments due to a drastic reduction in, or no more income.
A curfew was imposed at the end of March to keep the COVID transmissions down and this curfew has remained to this day with many forgetting the reasons for it. In contrast, countries without curfews that failed to restrict people moving about unnecessarily found out the hard way that infections multiplied, and deaths increased.
It is also worth noting that it has been 336 days since our last community transmitted case and the recognition for what this means and how this positive outcome was achieved is rarely recognised as an excellent example of our medical authorities understanding very quickly what needed to be done and ensuring it was actioned quickly.
In the throes of the community transmitted cases, the cities of Lautoka and then Suva were effectively put on lockdown and cut-off from the rest of the country. This was a strange new concept to our younger generation and was also an extremely scary time for the older members of society.
The government was in the process of working out their new National Budget during the beginning of the border closures and the pandemic forced an adjustment of figures and the welcome introduction of some stop-gap solutions.
Workers were able to access their superannuation funds as income relief and while not considered very much, it was welcomed then and is still being appreciated now in the absence of more globally practised wage support schemes.
The tourism industry also welcomed some timely relief in terms of tax breaks that had been part of previous years lobbying efforts, as well as the much-awaited reduction in duty for many items that would assist in reducing various costs in food and beverage areas.
As a key tourism body, the Association has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that our members understood the constantly changing environment while working with all the relevant Government bodies to clarify, update or request support to enable tourism businesses to survive until the reopening of borders became tenable.
Many Fijians stuck outside our bubble after the border closure who were desperate to return home were finally allowed to do so after the implementation of new procedures allowed repatriation flights to commence that required a mandatory stay in quarantine facilities for a fortnight on arrival.
Employers raised their labour issues brought about by the pandemic with the amendment included in the Employment Relations Act recognizing it as an ‘Act of God’ providing some respite.
As face-to-face meetings decreased and events involving people gathering in numbers disappeared, there was a tremendous spike in digital meeting platforms. So much so that CEOs to first graders turned to on-line options like Zoom to stay connected, continue training or education and “Zoom” graduated to its current verb-status, replacing “hop on a video call.”
A year later, we are still grappling with ensuring our SME’s can continue to survive because a business must first survive to be in any position to be able to welcome international visitors back when borders do open. Those same businesses, as well as every other operator who is directly involved in tourism or involved as part of the industry’s large supply chain network, must also be prepared with its refreshed and updated product or service ready to go.
Our economy might be struggling, and we acknowledge there is increased unemployment and an extremely difficult time for most businesses and nearly every industry. But there are positives we must also acknowledge, appreciate, and not take for granted in contrast to other countries around the world.
We can still enjoy moving around freely without having to wear masks and in relatively socially distanced and acceptable crowd sizes. We can have a meal in a restaurant, play in a park or be a spectator at a game of rugby, soccer or cricket. Even movie theatres are open and events of various sizes are taking place.
These are all possible because we have been fully supportive of the efforts in place to practice enhanced hygiene protocols, acceptive of the border control health checks as the “new normal” and understand the importance of why these are in place. These are all practices to keep our businesses, our communities, and our country safe.
The Blue Lanes where yachts can arrive in Fiji and the Vacation in Paradise (VIP) Lanes, where international visitors can come in and use their isolated quarantine stay as part of their holiday, have been quietly successful tourism programs that have been in place for some time now.
Again, their success is a combination of how professionally managed the border security is between the border personnel and medical staff, as well as the tourism operator’s compliance with the very stringent requirements in place.
The arrival of the vaccines and their subsequent roll-out adds a further, important safety layer. While we wait for the most at-risk population to get vaccinated and the roll-out to eventually reach critical mass, we will continue doing whatever is necessary to prepare ourselves for when planes fly again, and the first international visitors touch down at Nadi Airport as part of our eventual recovery.
It has been a long twelve months. Often challenging, sometimes scary when first navigating areas differently from the rest of the world, but always positively.
As difficult as it is has always been, ignoring the negativity and focusing on the ability to survive, then revive, so we can all eventually thrive, remains tourism’s focus.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 25 March 2021)