FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji’s Day

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Fiji’s Day

FHTA, 8 October 2021 – Our tiny, fascinating nation celebrates 51 years of independence this week.

What a journey it has been and what a journey it continues to be!

Good, bad or ugly; the experiences we have undertaken as a nation continue to harden our resolve to persevere, to overcome and to succeed.

Tourism has grown in leaps and bounds from its early pioneering days and rising to become an undeniable force in Fiji’s revenue-earning potential and is now recognized as a fundamental cornerstone of the country’s economic development.

Contributing $3.8b to the country’s total Gross Domestic Product in 2019, $1b to government’s tax revenue, over $2b in foreign exchange earnings and employing around 30 percent of the total workforce (and impacting employment levels almost as much indirectly); Fiji’s heavy reliance on tourism received a devastating blow when the pandemic closed borders, now going on 18 months.

The ‘Fiji’ brand is distinctly recognized by its idyllic beaches, swaying palm trees and smiling, friendly people, reinforced by other strong export brands and formidable foreign exchange-earners like our natural mineral water, a bold national airline, coconut-based beauty products and talented rugby players.

Adding to this ever-strengthening mix of industries that are developing and growing at a formidable pace are manufacturing, business process outsourcing and IT, among others.

So as 18 months of restrictions in some form or other start to get scaled back, this Fiji Day celebration might just be the time for some well-placed patriotism to be shining through with grateful relief that we might be coming to the end of a time we would be happy to put behind us.

After months of working from home if you still had a job, restricted movements within containment areas and no access to entertainment, sports, religious activities or gatherings of any sort; the slow reopening of everything but bars, has been like newfound freedom.

But it is a freedom that has come at a very high cost to Fijians economically, financially and personally.

As vaccination targets reach 80 percent and a reopening framework announcement is imminent to confirm when and how Fijian borders will be reopened, the celebration of “Fiji Day” on the 10th of October should be quite a celebration.

The first step to reopening at 70 percent vaccination targets being reached had allowed the return of domestic tourism earlier, with many families escaping the confines of their homes for beaches and pools to get their first taste of travel freedoms in months.

In the background over the last few months and in contrast to the quieter, slower-paced city life, there have been long hours of discussions, exchanges and heated debates going on in the background to determine how we reopen, and under exactly which conditions.

Compliance fatigue and the difficulty to enforce the ever-present threat of penalties for non-compliance is moving to concerns that lifting restrictions will be interpreted incorrectly by many to mean that our COVID enforced new behaviours can stop.

Initially difficult to bring about, our eventual collective ability to change how we interact with one another, our general behaviour and widespread acceptance of the vaccine, have been critical to reducing transmissions and getting to where we are now.

It has been a long road to getting to a point where with enough of the population vaccinated, we would consider that our borders could be reopened, but still difficult to imagine we might be able to look forward to getting our lives back, even though it means we have to live differently henceforth.

The last few months have been harrowing for our small island nation and, understandably, the scars are still raw, so planning to move to steadily reducing or removing restrictions may still feel too early for those who have had to deal more intimately with the health impacts of the pandemic.

And in the months that follow, there will no doubt be many studies undertaken on the impact of the pandemic, whether the restrictions were too harsh or not sufficiently imposed, what the evolving science has taught us and the reasons some things worked or did not.

Some countries will be applauded for taking the right steps earlier and others will be criticized for not doing enough or imposing harsher restrictions that in hindsight might be considered unnecessary or excessive.

No one should doubt by now though, that people’s health and safety has always been at the heart of these reasons.

But around the world, as borders have gradually opened or have planned to reopen, there have been increasing calls to reassess the conditions for how people returned home, for travel to ease into less restrictive pathways, especially now with larger proportions of populations vaccinated and all the safety measures becoming part of how we all live, work, play or pray.

Key amongst the widespread calls for more pragmatic approaches to reopening is the collective understanding that any sort of quarantine requirement on arrival into a country would deter all but the most critical requirements for travel.

Tourism industry stakeholders understand that whatever timeframe we choose to reopen as a country, that becomes the only opportunity to get things right the first time around.

Visitors will book a holiday or their return home to see friends and relatives based on their ability to access the main reason for that travel in the easiest possible way.

If they are vaccinated, can provide this proof as part of their usual travel documents and understand implicitly that they will not be allowed to return to their home country without a negative test (where required), they will comply with any travel behaviour expected of them.

With countries like Australia considering home quarantine post overseas travel, we are seeing Governments place more trust in public behaviour patterns being shaped by better communication efforts and understanding how virus transmissions have been effectively reduced.

Many more countries have moved to either very few restrictions or removed restrictions completely, but these tend to be countries with far superior health systems in place that can manage outbreaks if they occurred.

In many cases, it appears that restrictive measures correlate almost directly to a country’s health systems ability to manage the risk of infection flare-ups.

The more restrictive the measures, the lower the confidence level that the risk can be effectively dealt with.

What may be missing in these considerations is the element of trust.

Trust in the population’s ability to follow the now required new behavioural patterns of continued social distancing, sanitizing and masking up where required; given that continued education and communication on why we should all be vaccinated is maintained.

Trust as well in the various industries complying with health and safety protocols so that they can get their workers back in and their businesses back on track.

The private sector and more specifically the tourism industry has the most skin in the game as they await the formal announcement for reopening Fijis borders.

Currently grappling with how many of their 2019 level staff numbers they bring back now, in 2 months or even later, or whether they prepare their businesses to be fully operational or at a fraction initially; decisions are being delayed because while overseas visitor interest has increased, there is still considerable uncertainty around what the travel conditions will be.

And let’s face it, would you personally make a booking to travel overseas for a 5-day holiday if you weren’t sure how many of those days you might be forced to stay in your room?

Fiji will get one shot at reopening under the right conditions to get the first real sparks of economic activity and thousands of jobs back online.

We will not get another opportunity to get this reopening right.

Happy Fiji Day, everyone! Enjoy responsibly!

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 8 October 2021)