Tourism Talanoa: Belief, Relief and Expectations of some Grief

Tourism Talanoa: Belief, Relief and Expectations of some Grief

FHTA, 28 January 2021 – While fear might help us survive, when mixed with uncertainty, it can often lead to anxiety. And anxiety can be contagious.

It is the uncertainty or the unknown likelihood of how an ongoing crisis will evolve over time and in the tourism industry’s case, and all the other related businesses and industries tied to it, that may determine how 2021 will turn out for our economy. This may also ring true for many other Pacific Island economies that are heavily reliant on tourism and the collective belief that the industry will sort its challenges out the way they have always managed to.

We scraped through 2020 by digging deep and applying many of the cost-saving and out of the box thinking that years of resilient business practices have historically kept an industry growth on track despite the impacts of numerous setbacks deemed normal for tourism in Fiji. But the impact has left even deeper scars that are physical, economic, financial, psychological, and social.

Relief came in many forms and in the last 10 months, thousands of unemployed tourism staff have been assisted by donor agencies, civic societies and NGO’s in the form of training, food security support and emergency packages.

Remittances continued to flow in despite expectations to the contrary and even increased, as our overseas families and friends pitched in to provide much needed financial support. Additionally, traditional Pacific Island safety nets kicked in that saw many people share food, shelter and educational support to neighbours and communities.

Similarly, the easy access to arable land and abundant oceans has played a large role in contributing to the many forms of relief that have been part of Fiji’s ability to sustain its unemployed population.

But as the borders have remained closed and the virus continues to wreak its havoc worldwide, and the bulk of international visitors prevented from holidaying, the first signs of extreme stress that may eventuate with the anticipated eventual demise of some small and medium businesses is beginning to be seen.

Fiji’s GDP is expected to contract by 22% and our revenue earning capacity appears to be diminished considerably with the heavy reliance on tourism for its usual GDP growth. While support, capacity building and training for other sectoral growth is being pursued, no-one expects this will see any real impact for a few years which means we may have to review our strategies for a faster way to get our economy bouncing back.

A recent industry survey conducted by Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) has been released in their Pacific Business Monitor for January that noted the top three challenges facing businesses. These were not knowing how long the crisis would last (90% of respondents), the impact of closed international borders (88%) and poor cashflows (86%). These constituted the key factors of why business owners and their staff were worried about what their next step would be.

While visitor confidence in Fiji remains high, indicated by holiday enquiries and consequent bookings still being received, these continue to be postponed until there is clarity around when and how safer travel will be entertained.

The survey findings also indicate that the top four initiatives regional businesses require assistance with include financial support (61%), review of financial positions (40%), diversification of businesses (30%) and access to new markets (30%).

PTI has been recording the negative impacts caused by COVID-19 since tracking began in May last year. Their report has also shown the decline in access to and satisfaction with government support, with business survival confidence reducing and expectations of returning to business as usual in 2021 dropping even lower.

The survey results provide quantitative data to better understand real issues and challenges facing our tourism operators while tracking their progress through each stage from initial lockdown to the current situation almost a year on.

As our government awaits the COVAX facility vaccine to arrive and works on the complicated logistics of getting it here, stored safely and implementing the vaccination exercise, there is still much to do in ensuring our population will remain safe.

One such practice might be that we communicate our plans to keep everyone safe more effectively and discuss more openly the importance of keeping Fiji COVID contained. This must be everyone’s business and in everyone’s interest and not just the tourism industry’s cross to bear in terms of responsibility once medical staff do their critical work.

Through better understanding, we reduce fear and gain support to practice safely living with a virus that may not disappear for many years yet.

Then we can continue to regain lost ground and start turning our economy around. We can plan to reconstruct a newer tourism industry that is more resilient to global events and far more sustainable for future Fijians.

Fiji can set an example for the world and perhaps give them some inspiration.

We therefore strongly encourage all tourism operators, and all suppliers, regardless of size and activity, to register their expression of interest for the Care Fiji Commitment with Tourism Fiji to ensure that they are not left out when visitors are eventually provided preferred COVID safe businesses to support.

Barring the success and speedy global distribution of a vaccine for COVID-19, the next best step for Fiji is mitigation and working with containment so have to do the best with the cards that COVID has dealt us.

As we continue to focus our efforts on getting international visitors back to our shores, it in no way diminishes the positive effects that domestic tourism has had on the industry.

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, show your support and belief in tourism’s ability to bounce back, enjoy the beauty of your surroundings and the facilities provided during your stay and leave it better than how you found it for the next person to enjoy.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 28 January 2021)