FHTA, 19 March 2020 – The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is surging and making its presence felt all over the world. There is almost an air of inevitability about it reaching Fiji’s pristine shores and it is only a matter of time before that happens. French Polynesia and Guam were the first regional countries to confirm cases and the rest of the Pacific is waiting with bated breath.
However, Fijians can rest assured knowing that Government and all relevant stakeholders, are working hard to see that the impact and spread is minimised and controlled and to enable business continuity. Diligent work being undertaken by border control, health practitioners and others is ensuring that preventative measures are in place and Fiji is prepared for COVID-19 when it gets here.
As of 17 March, the pandemic has seen more than 167,000 cases of infection with 6606 deaths. These are alarming figures. They will continue to steadily rise daily, and scientists are scrambling to devise a vaccine.
As fears grow about the virus’s impact, financial markets have taken a big hit. No one will know the true economic impact for some time, but the pinch can be felt now. Countless meetings and discussions have taken place by all industries to try and mitigate its negative socio-economic effects and these meetings will become the norm for the foreseeable future.
Experts around the world are calling for a coordinated interest rate cut which would most probably happen; but monetary policy itself cannot help increasing global investment and output. Tax breaks will assist SME’s but may take time even if they are designed to help mainly the low-income groups. For Fiji, some innovative fiscal policies through direct government expenditures targeted to specific sectors and groups will be necessary.
The tourism industry is by no means immune. These have been labeled “existential times for the global travel community” and rightly so. Heavily reliant on travelers, Fiji’s tourism sector with a significant 40,000 people in formal employment, is bracing itself for a sharp dip ahead. The decrease in the flow of Asian travelers as well as those from our key markets Australia and New Zealand, is already resulting in the loss of millions of dollars from cancelled group travel and for events such as weddings, events and conferences. Every day, the cancellations increase, and the booking enquiries grow less.
Skift’s CEO, Rafat Ali, says that “travel is the most consequential industry in the world, as the world is now finding out due to lack of travel.” As well as travel being the geopolitical centre of the world, a now grounded planet is feeling this in no uncertain terms.
Everywhere in the world, international airports around the world have become increasingly empty as flights have been canceled and more travel warnings have been issued, resulting in cancelled flights, holidays and meetings overseas and domestically.
The International Air Transport Association has predicted a $29.3 billion loss in overall passenger revenue this year.
At home, Fiji Airways has taken several steps to protect guests and staff. Additionally, screening processes and onboard procedures for crew and passengers have been upgraded.
Tourism businesses have been offering increased flexibility for customers wishing to change their bookings to defer travel without any change fees or hold credit for later travel.
This past Sunday, Government announced new restrictions and measures in the fight against COVID-19. This includes the barring of cruise ships to berth in Fiji waters and the cancellation of all international events in Fiji. Fijians are being advised to remain in the country and keep overseas travel to essential circumstances only.
In preparing for this evolving situation since mid February, Tourism Fiji, FHTA, SOFTA and other tourism operators have been working on being proactive and looking at measures to stay in business and offer incentivised packaging to promote Fiji and tourism products to visitors and locals. There have also been meetings with the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health to stay in touch and ensure information to tourism stakeholders and potential visitors is aligned to the message that there is no confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country, that Fiji was safe and that we maintained confidence in Fiji’s Health Services.
FHTA has also contributed to the recent Private Sector Stakeholders Meeting to discuss the effects of the Pandemic on tourism businesses and provided a submission for consideration to the Supplementary Budget that will be announced next Friday.
Tourism is not alone in looking forward to this budget that is expected to introduce fiscal policies to assist all cross-sections of Fiji to manage the economic downturn of business due to COVID-19. We hope that our national tourism office gets the additional funding support it will need to compete against the rest of the world in these difficult times. Fiji must work extremely hard to win the confidence of visitors overseas amid the overwhelming response by tourism destinations around the world to also do the same.
No one knows how long this crisis last, or how quickly the global economy will rebound. History tells us it is often the most vulnerable economies that get hit the hardest. In looking ahead while keeping our business plans flexible, we must also remain pragmatic. This starts with keeping COVID-19 at bay by consistent washing of hands and staying alert to what we can each do to avoid the spread of this virus.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA
Published in the Fiji Times on 19 March 2020