FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Adding COVID into our New Normal

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Adding COVID into our New Normal

FHTA, 9 September 2021 – Last weekend, fully vaccinated Fijians inched past the 50 percent rate and over the last few days, this increased by 3 percent.

While the vaccination rates have been cause for celebration around the country (in our bubbles of course) with the curfew time decreasing by another much appreciated hour; there is growing excitement that Fiji will soon see the end of containment zones, and therefore easier access to loved ones, and the complete lifting of curfews eventually.

The increasing uptake of vaccinations may be a combination of the positive communication on the benefits of the vaccine finally outweighing the negative social media initially surrounding it, as well as the devastating impact on Fijian families dealing first hand with the severe complications or deaths from COVID.

Fiji is essentially a communal based society. Sudden severe illness and high numbers of death in communities make a far more shattering impact on closely linked families, villages and communities tied by their blood, marriages, land and historical links.

Sharing everything is cultural as well as economic, and sharing a painful loss is a key thread in that communal fabric that makes up Fijian societies.

The commercial, employment and economic impacts would have been secondary to the larger part of the population that have eventually embraced the need for vaccinations now.

And if we were to make projections from the numbers of first vaccine doses, we should see at least 96 percent of eligible adults being inoculated in the coming months.

This bodes very well for the tourism industry and along with the other commercial sectors watching those vaccination numbers climb, is a step in the right direction for our economic recovery.

Fiji now has over 14,404 active cases and this has dropped significantly during this second wave because we have not been actively going into communities to test the afflicted.

With about 47,923 confirmed COVID-19 cases since April this year and only those that present themselves to health authorities being tested and treated, the decline in reported confirmed cases is understandable.

This means that while there might be many other cases in the community, because of genetics or healthier groups, symptoms are far milder with a headache and cough being experienced by most people.

Of more importance is the fact that our daily test positivity rate has dropped by 15 percent from 36 percent only a few weeks ago.

Fiji is eagerly awaiting the more promised donations of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine doses to vaccinate our younger population.

But with what science is telling us, we realise we will not be able to return to a COVID-zero status as originally thought.

And as the good doctor has noted, the herd immunity we were initially aiming for may not be achievable after all.

While the threshold for herd immunity was thought achievable only with high vaccination rates, as the pandemic entered its second year this thinking began to shift.

A combination of vaccine hesitancy including the speed and distribution of the vaccine, the emergence of aggressive new variants and the delayed confirmation of vaccination for children have been key factors.

As FHTA has shared in this forum before, we must be prepared to have the virus in our lives forever, with long term prospects that include COVID-19 becoming an endemic disease like influenza.

With that being the case, we must adjust our planning, resources and protocols towards that eventuation.

It wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Covid-19 would become endemic. For a while, the hope was that vaccines might allow countries to reach a level of herd immunity that would stomp out the virus almost entirely.

But because Delta spreads so quickly, experts have ruled that herd immunity is no longer realistic and now considered impossible.

As with all challenges and as part of a “know your enemy” strategy, we have been voracious in our search for more information and understanding about the virus and how businesses can continue to operate now and into the future.

The Tourism Recovery Taskforce continues to meet regularly to prepare the industry for the eventual reopening of borders, particularly in light of the Government’s pledge to do so at 80 percent of fully vaccinated eligible adults.

But what does that mean for visitors who come into the country? How can we ensure their safety if the Delta variant is lying dormant in our communities, waiting for a new host, or worse than it is allowed in from another country?

That’s why Fiji will need all travellers coming into the country to be fully vaccinated with tourism industry staff required to be fully vaccinated as well if their place of business expects to be included in the “Care Fiji Commitment” (CFC) approved traveller lists.

In the meantime, as we get our vaccinated numbers up, domestic tourism looks to get a boost in the coming weeks as we hit the magic 60 percent figure which Government has advised will be the catalyst to open the current containment areas that separate geographical regions.

While many are simply waiting for the local borders to open so they can return to their homes or see family members again, we know many have endured Fiji’s version of lockdowns, which cannot wait to take a mini-vacation anywhere far from the city.

The uptake in domestic tourism once containment areas are removed is expected to provide an opportunity for our tourism members to test their updated COVID-safe procedures and protocols. It will also allow their CFC-approved Wellness Ambassadors to step up their roles to ensure compliance from both staff and guests.

The industry is adding layers to its processes that are expected to safely manage domestic and international travellers depending on their places of origin.

Even with the introduction of new traffic light systems, travel corridors and bubbles that will henceforth define what our future mobility will look like, the focus on vaccination programs remains a priority for Fiji, and many other countries.

All segments of tourism have been reviewing their business strategies and re-evaluating their products and services to fit a world emerging differently.

Adding the extra layers is causing some angst between the travellers and businesses with airlines arguing with airport authorities that the increasing check-in or departure protocols are unviable.

While hotels, tour and transport companies are still debating added new protocols are being demanded by the medical or regulatory authorities.

Eventually, we do not doubt that the blurred line between being overly cautious and the rapidly evolving understanding of the virus’ contagiousness will clear up in time for everyone to get back some form of normalcy or engage in practical safety protocols.

People want to regain lost freedom of movement, businesses want to really start working, workers need their jobs back and from where we’re sitting; we know travellers want to REALLY start travelling the world again.

And for all these things to happen, we need to carefully navigate a safe path back that clearly articulates trigger points and provisions for scaling up or down depending on the scenario unfolding.

Then the green light for Fiji can go back on.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 9 September 2021)