FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji is Open

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji is Open

FHTA, 02 December 2021 – After 20 long months, Fiji is now finally open.

Cautiously perhaps, but open nonetheless.

International visitors from Travel Partner countries started flying into Fiji yesterday (Wednesday 1st Dec) to enjoy our famous Fijian hospitality after almost two years of being forced to isolate from the world.

Our tourism industry has logged many hours during the lockdowns, in meaningful discussions and meetings to try and stem the flow.

Many people from different sections work together and focus on one common goal – reopening safely in a new COVID world.

For supporting the industry to survive the crisis when it hit us hard early last year, we owe deep gratitude to the Fiji Revenue & Customs Service, the Land Transport Authority, the Reserve Bank of Fiji, the Association of Banks in Fiji, the iTaukei Land Trust Board and the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji.

Then working closely with the industry and its wide range of stakeholders to develop safe guidelines that evolved to become what has become a critical part of our Reopening Framework.

For this, we are grateful for the understanding and support from our honourable Government leaders including the Prime Minister, the Minister for Economy, the Minister for Commerce, Trade, Tourism & Transport, the Permanent Secretaries for Health, Tourism and Economy and the many Directors and ministerial support staff that we engaged closely with to provide industry background and context to roll our often complicated protocols within the hospitality space in collective efforts to manage safety and control the risks.

Gratitude for the collaboration and support would not be complete without also mentioning the huge teams of people who were constantly on the ground managing the operational aspects of the mammoth exercise that contained COVID became.

These included the Ministry of Health’s many doctors and nurses, the military and navy personnel that joined the Fiji Police, Immigration, airport and security people to form the very effective Border Control group under the Ministry of Defense.

Working alongside the Border Control has been the High Commissioners for Australia, New Zealand, USA and India, amongst others, to provide Fiji with the critically needed vaccines that allowed Fiji to reach its high vaccination record.

And it goes without saying that the national airline Fiji Airways, our hard-working national tourism office staff at Tourism Fiji (TF), hundreds of tourism businesses and the thousands that support them have all been part of this exhausting journey that often seemed like it would not end.

Vinaka vakalevu! To all of these people and the supporting agencies, too many to mention, who provided resources, funding and technical expertise to get us to where we are now.

As countries around the world react strongly to the new Omicron variant, Fiji’s reopening is continuing as planned because we believe our preparation to this point can support what the science has determined thus far – that more research was still required but that the basics were still required even in this new scenario.

While Omicron must be taken seriously because its features are worrying, there are still large gaps in what we know so far.

Further analyses are still needed that will take two weeks at the very least to get the first indicative updates, but strong medical advice is that the variant should be controlled with testing, tracing isolation, applying known public health measures, and ongoing surveillance.

And that is what we already have in place in Fiji, and prepared and trained for.

This is even more reason for continued vigilance and to not let our guards down. And this has been exactly what has been the hardest part of the COVID “journey” – complacency.

At each stage of the many challenges in this long trek through COVID that we have felt we gained even the smallest win; we have inadvertently relaxed our guards.

From unpopular hotel quarantines that were never designed to accommodate this as an option, complex lockdowns, curfews that started at 6pm (remember those?) and the range of “new” requirements that eventually simply become part of our lives.

These included downloading the CareFiji App, scanning in and out everywhere, sanitizing, social distancing (or never leaving home), long queues that made us rethink our reasons for leaving home, masking up and as much as possible -remaining in our bubbles.

Turns out that the best advice for staying safe has actually not changed much at all.

Stay home, wash your hands frequently, mask up in confined spaces, sanitize and keep your distance – are all still very much applicable even with new strains Hotels have taken vaccination verification, the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) protocols, second-day guest & monthly staff testing protocols, enhanced sanitation, social distancing and mask-wearing measures as part of their responsibilities now.

We could quarantine all our incoming visitors for three days and make them miserable; or we could provide them with some freedom of movement within CFC-confirmed areas until they return a negative Rapid Antigen Test on their second day and make the hotels responsible (remind the guests, manage the tests, provide results) so that the Ministry of Health can continue to have the oversight of all incoming visitors for at least the first three days in Fiji.

We chose to do the latter. Hence, our constant reminders for everyone’s continued commitment and compliance to support keeping Fiji safe, keeping in mind the many sacrifices and the collective efforts of getting us to where we are now.

With Fiji’s reopening announced, there was only one change to the framework that had already been put into place when Omicron was acknowledged as a virus “of concern”.

For Non-Partner (Red Zone) Countries; quarantine timeframes that had been reduced to 10 days were returned to 14 days.
Returning Australian citizens now also need to home isolate for a few days and while this caused some consternation initially, did not eventually cause a discernable impact on inbound bookings.

The new COVID variant Omicron that sounds like it was named after a nasty robot, has early reports indicating that it may be more transmissible or virulent than the Delta variant that plagued Fiji not too long ago.

Only real data will tell, and any predictions about this new COVID variant’s virulence and impact remains speculative at this stage.

However, Fiji is in a very different position now when compared to April 2021.

We did not have vaccines then, whereas we are now over 90% fully vaccinated with children getting vaccinated now and booster shots confirmed as being available.

Our COVID-safe protocols weren’t as robust as they are now and businesses have accepted the new COVID safe rules as part of their “new normal”.

Now we need everybody, not just the tourism industry workers, to continue to get vaccinated, continue wearing masks, continue social distancing and continue to wear masks.

We experienced first-hand what happens when a process or a step is not followed and being a small island nation, we saw how quickly things could get out of control.

All the necessary steps have been taken to ensure that international visitors can be received in a safe and controlled manner.

The Reopening Framework is just that, a framework.

Preparations and alternatives are already in place to review processes and make improvements where required.

Our tourism front-liners have been briefed and have been training for the past few months.

Our industry colleagues at TF have a comprehensive FAQ section that you should refer to for clarity around general travel requirements.

This can be accessed on fiji.travel/FAQ and includes information on booking conditions, vaccination rates, travelling with children, selecting resorts, testing and returning home, amongst other information.

Everybody should have a read of the information and be aware of what is expected from the guests, the hotels and the workers.

Our compliance and support of these measures as an industry ensure we remain committed to getting tourism back up again, while keeping the people we are responsible for as safe as possible.

All of our members and tourism stakeholder are reminded that embedding layers of controls against pandemic disease into their businesses, such as safe air and masking when needed, will make it far more likely that your business will remain open, not be subject to disruptions, nor lose key staff or clients to illness.

This is because, despite vaccination levels, all controls are important to protect health as immunity to the vaccine wanes, and reduce transmission that can occur despite vaccination.

For now, all incoming traffic from green countries will spend three nights in CFC-certified hotels while free to move around the hotel premises.

They will do a Rapid Antigen Test on 48 hours or the second day and will be free to travel to green zones freely after a negative result.

They will need RT-PCR tests to return (to Australia) or do Rapid Antigen tests (to return to the USA) so they must organise this in advance so there isn’t a bottleneck at testing facilities around the tourism hotspots.
f we all play our parts, we CAN make this work.

You only have to hear our famous Bula! song to agree.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 02 December 2021)