Tourism Talanoa: Difficult but Doable

Tourism Talanoa: Difficult but Doable

FHTA, 27 May 2021 – As the figures of our active COVID-19 cases reach three digits for the first time in Fiji, we are reminded once again of the importance of following the standing health regulations and protocols.

Fiji is teetering on a knife edge of a full-blown explosion of positive COVID cases that reinforces how critical Government’s vaccination programs are now even more than ever.

As we endure another week of restricted movement in our various containment areas, the tourism sector continues to work behind the scenes on the survival, revival and revitalisation of the industry given its well recognised importance to the economy, underpinned in no small part by how quickly more Fijians would get their jobs back once fully operational.

Our tourism fraternity has been engaged in supporting the various agencies with their logistical needs and we re-emphasise our appreciation to our members for doing so.

The national economy has been struggling under the immense pressure of not having tourism’s earning power and the industry’s thousands of supply lines and unemployed staff are bearing this same pain.

While individual business revenues directly and indirectly involved in the sector have sharply declined, fixed costs remain while critical cash flows rapidly deplete.

The Pacific Trade Invest issued its Pacific Business Monitor for this month making for more sobering reading. And while there are some bright spots, is still concerning nonetheless.

The report indicates the more prevalent business outlook that there will not be a return to pre-COVID revenue anytime soon until 2022 or later. Additionally, it notes that the extent and severity of COVID-19 on Pacific businesses has remained stable (as opposed to worsening), with 84 percent reporting a negative impact.

FHTA has shared through this forum, that we need to adapt our business practices to minimize potential exposure to infection for the medium to long term future, while ensuring that these practices impact our eventual recovery.

Travel and tourism organisations around the world collectively support the thinking that this will be the key to getting the industry out of the current crisis, with the global vaccination drive being the key to supporting this.

There is also no doubt that continued testing still plays an important role, as will building the confidence with future travellers into and out of Fiji that once we have reached the optimum vaccination levels that risks are reduced, will consequently be a natural segue way into improved confidence for borders reopening between regions.

There is more research suggesting that travel and tourism will bounce back quickly just as soon as the restrictive barriers that have enveloped the industry for more than a year start to be removed.

At the same time, we note the Cook Islands travel industry has not yet seen the immediate effect of borders reopening except for the VFR market (visiting friends & relatives) movement.

Australia has indicated that they are not willing to open their borders until mid-2022 due largely to the unfortunate stalling of their vaccination programs. While concerning for Fiji and the region, a positive might be that we will probably be on the receiving end of their now excess numbers of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines that are not so popular with their citizens.

For now, our focus is supporting Fiji get its vaccination numbers to herd immunity and whatever magic number is rated sufficient for our population to be considered immune enough for the disease, and a key component for the closed border situations to be reviewed.

No doubt, 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 key for most countries.

Most, if not all, of our tourism SME’s will need assistance to get back on their feet when the time is right and the PTI report supports our own views that there will be need for critical financial support, access to new markets, business diversifications and improved online-commerce capabilities.

We know that all segments of tourism are reviewing their business strategies.

Airlines are relooking at routes that have historically been built on solid data from travel demand, travel demographics and flight connections. Even then much of what happened immediately was never really a reliable sign of what would happen in the future, and now after the worst health crisis in modern times, much of this information is considered even more irrelevant.

Demand is now being influenced demographically and global tourism is experiencing never before seen changes from traditional source markets.

Fiji will be no different and if we are too rigid in our thinking about where we expect changes might come from, we may lose some opportunities to capture new markets that may not have a choice of how far they can travel from their homes.

Or consider safety in their travel plans as a major reason for confirming a future booking.

Like it or not, we must learn to live with COVID and the threat it holds on us for the foreseeable future.

We have now received a little over 200,000 vaccines from COVAX and donor countries and we expect to receive more in the coming months. Fiji’s vaccination target is around 600,000 people which amounts to 1.2 million vaccines for two doses per person without any wastage.

Whatever the magic number, it is indeed a huge expectation, but assuredly not impossible to achieve with recognised support from Australia and more promised from New Zealand to look forward to.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the medical staff need more active support and less keyboard warrior criticism. It is a tough job to convince a population of just under 1 million that the procedures developed are the best for the majority.

And without any precedents to base decisions on, it might be valid to keep in mind that the world’s most developed countries made some of the biggest mistakes in their own applications to addressing this virus.

Caring about not letting more people die, stopping the spread and vaccinating should be the number one priority strategy line for every country, business, and household.

All other decisions, action plans and activities simply flow on from these.

Difficult. But doable.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 27 May 2021)