Tourism Talanoa: Are We There Yet?

Tourism Talanoa: Are We There Yet?

FHTA, 12 November 2020 – We consider ourselves extremely fortunate, lucky even and many say blessed, that Fiji never had a full first wave of COVID infections and our small case figures are negligible compared to other countries.

With 34 total confirmed cases, of which only 1 is currently active as a border quarantine case; 18 were community cases, and a total of 16 were border quarantine cases; Fiji might indeed be considered as being lucky compared to the tidal wave of infections occurring around the world, with some regions experiencing lethal second and even third waves.

The toll on countries that have experienced large volumes of COVID cases resulting in the hospitalization and eventual death of thousands of its citizens has been followed with both sympathy and dread by people around the world, many of whom have not had to live through those scenarios themselves. That the toll appears to have had social, political, economic and psychological impacts in varying degrees depending on the country is now more unanimously recognised. Only the recent fascinated distraction of the US elections has been able to tear our focus away from watching how the pandemic appears to have continued unabated, especially in the northern hemispheres.

We hold our collective breath when we hear of new cases with our closest neighbours and breathe quiet sighs of relief as we note milestones achieved with no new cases and as state and country borders eventually open up as well.

So it is starting to feel like a really long and drawn out road trip for everyone where we have been ever watchful while learning to understand our new surroundings, adopting the new practices expected of us and preparing to be safe and stay safe. And inevitably, we are now at that “are we there yet?” point.

Is Fiji considered “COVID Contained” yet? And if not, what more do we need to do to get there? Does Fiji consider any other country as being in this category (different to a country considering themselves as being in this category) or accepts that some are in the “COVID Free” category and can therefore be acceptable to an exchange of visitors?

Do we need a list of countries that is updated over time that notes who is in a “High Risk”, “Medium Risk” or “Low Risk” category and based on this determine what our specific expectations are for visitors from these countries to adhere to if they visit Fiji?

What is currently unclear at this particular point in time, is what the trigger points are to have borders opened up. Whether these are a combined monitoring and evaluation process of the levels of preparedness of the tourism industry, Fiji as a whole or a combination of these with the recognition of how and who we open up to eventually. Certainly, no one expects the solution to be simple, but rather the expectation is that we would have a host of triggers, each requiring specific check-offs before we move to the next step in a comprehensive but clear process.

Additionally, given that the virus is still being studied and the first officially recognised vaccine available shows a preliminary analysis of a 90% effectiveness as testing progresses, we may still be some way away from a world-wide reopening of international travel. At least until the Pacific region can access its own supply of vaccines, this too might also become another criteria for our “Steps to opening up safely” strategies.

Tourism businesses and their supplier networks have been working diligently on their safety plans, committing to the CareFiji program, adopting the training and practices noted in the COVID-19 Safety Guidelines and looking into what they must do to be considered safe. If they have not already done so, they are actively making plans to do so.

We have gone more than 200 days without community transmission and that is a fantastic effort on the country’s part by any standard and has been recognised in Fiji by the international community, applauded by diplomats as well as by our neighbours. However, we are also ever mindful that opening up too early could be disastrous as well.

Our regional neighbours to the west, French Polynesia, reopened its borders on July 15. Fast forward to today and the French territory has experienced a staggering 9,995 confirmed cases with 39 fatalities.

As recently as November 3, they experienced their highest infection spike with 1,384 confirmed on that day alone. For a small Pacific island country, these statistics are devastating and scary, so we can understand the implementation of daily curfews on the main islands to attempt to curtail the infection rates more rapidly.

There is deep empathy for our island neighbours in the region because we understand the importance of keeping communities safe and the safety of our own people and our communities has always been and remains our highest priority.

It is why we are all fully supporting the Care Fiji Commitment that Tourism Fiji is implementing which will ensure that all tourism operators are well versed on the recommended minimum standards for the new travel normal, with the roadshow to get this commitment in place throughout Fiji started in earnest this week.

As businesses and organisations implement their preparedness, train their staff and amend their practices to be COVID complaint, they are doing so in expectation of Fiji’s border opening strategies being articulated soon. What we are working towards and how we get there together and how each of the expected processes has to be met before we progress to a point where we are confident that we can open up again.

The Cook Islands removing the 14-day supervised quarantine on arrival has also been noted with growing interest. As an associated state of New Zealand, it is only logical that they would lift the requirement as a reflection of the “improving” Covid-19 situation in Aotearoa.

Relevant authorities are in talks to finalise a quarantine-free travel arrangement between the two countries and we have no doubt that the fact that the Cook Islands never had a confirmed case, reinforced this decision as part of a series of check-offs that confirmed that both countries were headed to this point.

The removal of pre and post quarantine requirements as part of border opening strategies provide critical country safety reinforcement from a destination marketing perspective. And while no-one is condoning the move to this point immediately for Fiji, it needs to be a marker in the list of considerations for how we progress our efforts going forward. To be part of the larger re-opening plans and a point we are collectively moving to.

Our key markets of New Zealand and Australia are critically important to Fiji as well as the other Pacific Island Countries that rely on tourism, but we continue to keep an eye on the situation in North America, Asia and Europe as well, from where our niche markets like dive, ecotourism and adventure visitors travel longer distances from.

As we enter the second last month of this year, tourism operators will be putting forward several 2021 budgeting scenarios to prepare for an early opening, a mid-year opening or a late opening.

Decisions have to be made on whether to change marketing plans, launch new initiatives or refocus on markets that look more likely to open up, and many of these decisions hinge on how far we are along on the long road to opening up and at exactly what point you spend your dwindling cash reserves on marketing.

We know we are not there yet. But it is crucial for our planning activities and cash flows to know how far away we really are.
Tourism in the post COVID world is like heading out on a new road trip.

Like any new road trip, we need a map or at the very least a good idea of how we are going to get to our destination.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 12 November 2020)