Tourism Talanoa: A Chance To Reset

Fantasha Lockington

FHTA, 17 July 2020 – Late last week I had the privilege of being invited to join a panel of tourism stakeholders for Mai TV’s RESET Fiji show which is produced in conjunction with Oxfam, University of the South Pacific, and Pacific Network on Globalisation.

It is an expectation for any industry to continually raise issues and discuss opportunities, and with the current challenging economic climate, tourism has a responsibility to contribute to debates on how best to move forward.

Debating the potential to reset tourism and make it more resilient through public policy dialogue is another way to simply ”talanoa” on a public platform and create even more opportunities for those listening to gain insight into the industry and initiate even further ”talanoa” sessions of their own, even if only around the grog bowl.

Speakers from the many segments that make up tourism contributed richly from their varied backgrounds. How can we in an industry so heavily relied on, readapt ourselves using our greatest assets: our people, our environment and our diverse cultures to rebound from sliding into recession and reimagine a better version of tourism for Fiji. And with it, hope for a more sustainable future.

Around the world, the current pause on all things tourism-related has led to a global review of how we treat our environments, especially when the effects of reduced travel and widespread lockdowns has shown such positive renewal and rebirth in nature.

This in turn has given way to much discussion on over-tourism that exists in all the tourism hotspots, all over the world.

Crowds of international travellers flock to see the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House or Machu Picchu. Often likened to a virus, hordes of travellers are often seen overcrowding the Great Wall of China, the beaches of Bali, Bondi or the Maldives.

Many large cities have now reported rare events of clearer skies and cleaner breathable air. News reports show how the Adriatic Sea which flows through Venice have become so clear now that one can see the bottom of the Venice canals for the first time in decades. Even the usual smog around the Himalayan mountains has dissipated to provide a clear majestic sight of Everest.

In the lockdowns, the major global contributors to air and sea pollution would have been forced to switch off their production machines as factories became unmanned due to furloughed staff. Airlines parked planes, trains remained in stations and traffic came to a standstill.

In the Pacific, reports indicate that our fish stocks have increased, no doubt through a combination of reduced commercial fishing, decimated demand from restaurants and a few months of no noise, pollution or movement of vessels of any size in oceans around the world.

With families forced to stay home, many have been using this down-time wisely by turning their efforts to subsistence farming to address reduced or no incomes and the very real possibility that things could stay this way till the end of the year or even next year.

According to the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) 2018 study of the fresh produce demand from our hotels and resorts, Fiji spends more than FJD 38.48 million annually in importing fresh produce for tourism alone. A further FJD36 million is imported annually to cater for local demand.

The report states Fiji has the potential to cut FJD 24.1 million off the total import bill and focus its resources on growing and producing the high potential produce locally.

Food drives the world; apart from clean water, access to adequate food is the primary concern for most people on earth. This makes agriculture one of the largest and most significant industries in the world. Agricultural productivity is important not only for food security, but its contribution to the economy.

63% of the tourism import demand is for meat (beef and pork), dairy and seafood (prawns) with the key reason for reliance on imported produce being supply inconsistencies, quality and food standards (meat and seafood).

But there is no doubt that Fiji can deliver in some areas and has been able to meet some of the required demand for fresh produce like pawpaws, watermelon and pineapples, as well as for chicken.

Not only would the injection of the potential FJD 24 million into the local economy be a tremendous support for farmers, supply chains, the rural communities and the economy generally; it would offset tourism food costs and bring these costs down for resorts. Reduced overheads mean you can better price your products and services.

It does not stop at farmers. To improve our beef and pork production, we need technical training for farmers, butchers, meat packers and suppliers. We have all heard of Vanuatu Beef but there is no Fiji Beef brand. We have a wonderful variety of seafood, but lack understanding of the required packing and storage requirements demanded by food safety regulations that chefs are trained to comply with.

Tourism demands bacon be served at breakfast, seven days a week throughout the year, but cannot access sufficient stock locally, forcing resorts to pay the highly taxed imported option. There is a wide selection of fruit that are often in abundance seasonally, but no large scale locally produced juice that would be an exotic option for visitors.

Many restaurants and resorts have been planting their own fruit, vegetables and herbs for years. And there is growing interest in making cheese and more sophisticated productions in yogurts and ice creams now, while small scale cottage industries are growing with chocolate making and healthy juices. Many of these small manufacturers report challenges with outdated health regulations that do not recognise new food products or the technology that supports it.

Coming into this mix now are thousands of unemployed tourism workers armed with thousands of packets of cabbage seeds. Luckily, the combined efforts of the Barter for Better Fiji and good Samaritans doing their bit to support the unemployed, will ensure that along with the thousands of bundles of cabbage being released into the marketplace, we will also have eggplants, long beans and cassava. And thanks to closed borders and around 80% of our room inventory still being closed, prices for chicken, pork and seafood have dropped. Even kava prices have dropped.

So, for our local population, there is plenty of fresh produce available and the price of these generally have gone down. This may not be sustainable in the long term, but at least we are focusing on our environment.

We are planting more and eating fresher. Good for us, great for the environment. As we put in place plans to open to a new post-COVID world, we hope that we can convince visitors to travel to Fiji when the borders open.

While we wait, we can re-evaluate our health and eating habits. We can review how we work with, live in and treat our environments because we understand its importance better now, and because we have been given an opportunity to pause, to reflect and consider; we should also review our relationships. With our families, our communities and each other.

We should move out of comfort zones to test new relationships and partnerships. There have been practical guidelines and prolific policies written on public and private partnerships and food security though agriculture.

Tourism may have hit a brick wall, but it is the kind of industry that is already working on how to climb over it or break it down. And while it is, it is also actively looking for opportunities to reinvent itself through its products and services and its cost structures.

Achievable? Most definitely.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 17 July 2020