FHTA, 14 January 2022 – Our borders have been open for over six weeks now and while we have seen some lows, we can attest to the wonderful affirmative stories and highlights that far outweigh everything else since the industry switched to “operational” mode.
Indications from Tourism Fiji (TF) was for the arrival of 30,000 visitors in December 2021 and around 40,000 visitors are expected this month and into February; which are rather surprising outcomes in themselves; all things being considered.
While the International Visitor Survey (IVS) will eventually bear this out, (if people filled out their Arrival Forms correctly), anecdotal reports indicate a very large number of returning Fijians took the reopening of borders as an opportunity to make the long-awaited homecoming to see friends and family.
But their support for their country of origin has not gone unnoticed and along with the other thousands of visitors, have put the smiles back on the faces of our many tourism workers and suppliers.
Social media and mainstream media has carried stories of tourism staff being back at what they love most and ready with their Bula smiles and it has certainly been a hectic but generally positive first six weeks that even culminated in a depression that dumped more rain over 3 days than we had seen in our wettest times of the year resulting in flooded bridges and roads around the western parts of the main island.
Many visitors who got a ride on a fire engine, military or police truck through flooded roads to get to the airport have had an experience unlikely to be repeated in their lifetimes.
In the background of a well-received reopening of borders and the influx of visitors looking for much needed R&R, was an industry trying its best to apply all the new COVID-safe protocols that seemed to be constantly changing and adjusting.
Hotels eventually got used to testing, reminding guests to test, chasing up results, reporting the results to health authorities and then dealing with first a handful of positive cases that slowly escalated.
This meant further reviewing of the processes, rolling out the isolation protocols, convincing healthy and asymptomatic guests that the test results meant they suddenly had to stay in their rooms and couldn’t mix with others, and then deal with the repercussions.
This included managing suddenly impacted room inventory because guests had to be separated from negative family members, dealing with travel insurance and supporting guests to ask for support from home if this was insufficient.
Staff rallied with trying to make guests comfortable, running errands and shopping on their behalf with some hotels going the extra mile with care packs, lists of online options for food, shopping and even souvenirs.
And despite all the care taken, the inevitable happened with more and more staff testing positive and everyone in the industry feeling the impact of a critically reduced workforce – hotels, airline, transport, airport operations, retail and even the support from supplier chains.
Administration, finance and HR staff were suddenly front-line staff fronting guests trying to organise test results, changing airline bookings and helping them make their way home.
While in restaurants and kitchens; casual staff were suddenly taking orders and delivering food before tackling the cleaning tasks they were otherwise assigned to.
At the height of things looking like they may just be settling down with reviewed isolation time frames and labs scrambling to meet the sharply increased testing demand, a tropical depression decided to settle over the country and dump the biggest rainfall ever, so that rivers burst their banks, roads became impassable for 36 hours and flights and transport came to a stop.
As used to this scenario as Fiji is, and with deepening expectation that this may just turn into a Category 1 cyclone, guest and staff safety kicked up a higher notch with cyclone preparations taking precedence, large generators kicking in as power went out nation-wide and all movement stopped to give Mother Nature her respectful berth.
A few days later, as the weather cleared up, water levels moved rapidly back down to expose mostly damage to road infrastructure and power lines, and the welcome appearance of the sun reminded us why Fiji is such a popular destination.
The relief on the faces of our staff was heart-warming, along with the appreciative cheers from the patiently waiting guests.
Resorts report that guests are leaving to go back home but will be replaced with almost just as many guests immediately and that despite the challenges of testing and isolation and late results and getting stuck because of the rain and floods; many guests are even extending their stay here.
We put this down to the hard-working staff who having been brought back to work, are working longer hours to fill in for colleagues that tested positive and must therefore isolate despite being asymptomatic.
A shout out also to the behind-the-scenes medical and testing laboratory staff, military and police personnel providing support and assistance and even the firefighters for bringing their fire truck to the party.
International travellers are warned often enough about the risks of travelling right now and Fiji’s reopening did, unfortunately, coincide with the start of the third wave in many countries around the world.
What we have seen so far from many of our visitors is a mix of confidence in Fiji’s safety precautions being put into place, the burning need to take a holiday after numerous lockdowns (and why not somewhere close and tropical), as well as some blissful unawareness of the risks of returning a positive result with the numerous times everyone has to get tested (despite widespread communication).
And there is no doubt that added to these many complicated layers, it was after all the festive season, and with an overwhelming increase in the number of personal and social events that took place, the rest was probably more predictable than we were willing to admit.
But even as infections continue in the Fijian communities on the mainland, up in our northern regions and as far as the beautiful islands of Lau; we are buoyed by the fact that a majority of eligible citizens have been fully vaccinated and thus far no visitors or tourism staff have been severely ill or hospitalised.
If we check rising infections with our international neighbours despite differing stances on how state and national Governments implement their health and protection programs, we might recognise that many changes being implemented now are actually what Fiji is already practising.
We admit we are making mistakes – these are after all extremely alien protocols that might be normal for medical staff, but that has been made a part of our hospitality practices and we are learning quickly from them.
And the learnings from these include the need to communicate often, really loudly and widely.
That what worked for the Delta strain that initially smashed us are not all necessarily help with the more infectious, but less deadly Omicron because apart from the obvious differences we are now operating in a more vaccinated and more “COVIDaware” environment.
Tourism workers are expected to be welcoming and friendly and provide great service but with masks on and stern reminders to scan in, sanitise, wear masks, keep distances, not shake hands or hug or share food and drinks.
So, we continue to remind them they must keep doing these things.
It is not difficult to appreciate why there is a hesitancy to review many restrictive measures downwards, and key amongst these is the difficulty with compliance and the tendency for complacency.
We really do “get it”, despite not being scientists and medical professionals but we are doing everything we can to live it, enforce it, and demand the compliance around it.
Every. Single. Day.
And six weeks on, Fiji is still holding it together. By no means an easy feat.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 14 January 2022)