FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing Big & Small Steps

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Balancing Big & Small Steps

FHTA, 31 March 2022 – The revision to 2021/2022 National Budget announced by Government last week delivered a mixed bag of welcomed and much-awaited policy changes as well as some areas that resulted in some perplexed reactions of ‘but what does it really mean’ discussions across a range of industries.

Having discussed the industry’s challenges widely, both pre and post reopening of borders, we were clear that without support in specific areas, tourism could not get off its knees and back into a thriving business environment, complete with the requisite compliances and licenses in place.

The sector has needed continued support to enable a more inclusive recovery, having come off a hiatus of 20 plus months that, despite reopening of borders, was hampered by initially onerous travel restrictions, the need to access and retrain thousands of staff and often completely overhaul business operations.

As any marketing expert will tell you, it is a massively daunting task to go from being closed for business for almost two years then jump straight into the competition for customers, staff and even the access of quality tradespeople to get your business competition ready.

Much of that support had been acknowledged and provided for in the 2020 and 2021 budgets, but needed borders to be reopened and visitor travel actively in place for said support mechanisms to be utilised in the manner they were designed for.

The confirmation therefore that these support measures would be continued through fiscal, import, rebuilding and tax initiatives, will undoubtedly give tourism a better opportunity to get back into business faster and subsequently provide the economic impetus it usually does for the economy, especially through its massive tax contributions.

Ensuring that these were still in place also provides a measure of confidence that businesses can continue with plans to reopen with refurbished and upgraded infrastructure that in turn promotes enhanced standards and competitive marketing for their brands.

We also acknowledge the positive response to the wider population’s pleas to address the cost of food, fuel, medical services and the minimum wage, especially now during a perfect storm of global, geopolitical and post-pandemic conditions that is expected to continue to push up the prices of fuel, food and general goods.

Fiji continues to increase its appeal as a preferred travel destination following the revision of travel restrictions like optional mask-wearing; the freedom of travel based on a proven vaccinated status; removal of the 3-night mandatory hotel stays on arrival and the general ongoing simplification of travel which will no doubt continue this positive impact through increased visitor bookings.

We continue to hope that there is a trigger point at which a call will be made to completely remove the need for either the pre-arrival COVID test or the need for the post-arrival test.

We even dare to hope that we see the removal of both these requirements eventually as countries around the world have taken steps to usher in these wider travel freedoms.

And while Fiji has had a head start on other regional tourism hotspots, we now have to market ourselves more aggressively and innovatively so we can stand out from the fast-growing numbers of countries getting their reopening on track. The increased budget allocation to the national tourism marketing body therefore will bolster this focus.

Other welcomed initiatives include the tax deduction for maternity leave, the removal of VAT on 21 items, the removal of the current fuel tax, and the removal of ECAL that is expected to benefit many lower-income households.

At the same time many employers while quietly appreciating the suspension of family care and paternity leave this time around, acknowledge that a suspension could potentially mean this might be a short-term change only.

As we try to gauge the impact of some items in the budget that pending the clarity and explanation the eventual release of regulations and Acts we expect will address these; the conundrum on how to decipher these remains for now.

These include the real impact on smaller businesses with the national minimum wage increases, that despite being widely expected and as positive as this increase was received, will have varying effects on different industries having recently emerged from COVID and economic crises, that may be far too early to determine as yet while still in the fledgling stages of recovery.

A change to simplify the tax system was needed and demanded even; but will the increased VAT have the expected impact across the wide range of business categories in a small, developing Pacific Island economy that is predominantly SME based?

This is also being discussed across Fiji with varying levels of concern depending on whether you were below the ECAL threshold of $3m and having to pay 15% instead of 9% VAT, or if you have supplier contracts that are affected and must now consider whether you could adjust, absorb or incorporate the changes without impacting supplier and consumer market relationships.

As with all budgets, FHTA will work closely with FRCS to understand the implications, review the relevant regulations and support the wide dissemination and clarity provided on these to its members.

And there are many more positive things to focus on for now, especially with the rolling back of travel restrictions from early April.

Providing travellers with a choice of booking options to confirm a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) before travelling to Fiji (via a booking platform), with an approved pharmacy, testing lab or directly with their hotel will, with the relevant support mechanisms in place, enable simpler pre-flight processing for travellers.

Rapid Antigen testing is still required 48 hours post-arrival into Fiji and coupled with the 24-hour negative, pre-arrival test, forms the Ministry of Health’s national border protection oversight for all visitors coming into Fiji that gets reported in with regimented discipline by the tourism operators.

Added to this daily data collection, are the reports on tourism staff testing that requires that all staff still get tested at least once a month.

Tourism staff continue to be encouraged to wear masks and observe the hygiene protocols that allowed Fiji to reopen when it did, even while we now allow our guests freer movement and the choice on whether to mask up or not.

The focus on safety, the diligent work applied across the industry to support emerging quickly out of the pandemic and the complicated syncing of changing protocols across the many sectors is paying dividends now, as bookings increase with a consistency that has surpassed initially cautiously optimistic expectations.

The hard work does not stop here with the pain of the pandemic experience still raw, and the road ahead still fraught with many real and possibly worse threats imaginable.

Because the industry must stay wary and alert operationally while being warmly welcoming and showing Fiji’s Bula Spirit to all its visitors.

Fiji is a small island nation forging ahead with often lofty goals and obstinate vision for its people, economy and future.

But perhaps it is our small size that gives us the nimbleness and flexibility to pick ourselves up again when we stumble, and to continue to work together to cope with the challenges and forge ahead regardless.

With a little help from our friends and neighbours of course.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 31 March 2022)