FHTA Tourism Talanoa: It Feels A Lot Like The Old Days

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: It Feels A Lot Like The Old Days

FHTA, 16 June 2022 – Seven months post reopening of the Fijian international borders, things are buzzing for this small, but resilient Pacific Island nation with the tourism industry keeping its tenacious grip on moving from recovery to opportunity and we hope, further growth.

And this is the case around the world as travel restrictions continue to get rolled steadily back.

This week the United States of America declared that they were removing the pre-arrival negative COVID-test requirement to enter their borders.

If anyone is planning to travel to or return to the USA soon, you no longer need to undergo mandatory COVID testing before departure as of Sunday 12 June 2022.

They join Canada, Australia and New Zealand that have implemented this previously.

From a Fijian tourism perspective, this makes it easier for travellers to get to our golden shores and make their way back home again with the minimum of fuss, and we are delighted with this prospect.

The travel world is starting to look like its old self again in most parts of it that are not otherwise hampered by conflict or the determination to completely stamp out COVID before reopening.

According to the Fiji Bureau of Statistics, the 97,979 Americans that arrived in Fiji back in 2019 accounted for 11 percent of Fiji’s total visitors and with minimal restrictions now confirmed, we can expect this market to continue to increase.

Early 2020 arrival figures for American visitors and indeed all other nationalities looked promising and we believe we would have surpassed our targeted one million arrivals in that year had it not been for the pandemic.

Rest assured, however, that the boots are well and truly on every tourism playground, resort and activity as we are working tirelessly with industry and authorities to aim to achieve that milestone or even higher.

The industry continues to acknowledge that the widespread phasing-out of travel restrictions does not mean that the COVID-19 pandemic has come to an end.

It merely signals a pragmatic shift by nations around the world to treat COVID-19 as endemic as we learn to live with a virus made less lethal by mass vaccination efforts.

We have stated on more than a few occasions in this forum, that rather than continuing to implement these travel restrictions and risk being alienated as a tourism destination – a status Fiji could not afford to take; we needed to provide a haven for our people, our communities and eventually our visitors through vaccination efforts and the inculcation of COVID safe practices, with extensive communication of these nationally.

The world has largely fully opened up again and the race to being the top tourist destination is well and truly on!

And because those tourism businesses that have been opened, or have opened up only recently have been way too busy dealing with full houses and not enough staff (more on this later), there was no celebration of any sort of pause to reflect on the journey to get here, when it was noted recently on Australian TV that Fiji was top of the list for Australians in their five key holiday destinations.

As mentioned in this forum last week, the industry has been experiencing an immense drain on labour, following hard on the already existing gaps we found post-COVID. Not all our staff chose to return to their original workplaces and not all tourism employers could take all their staff back immediately.

The reopening took place in phases across regions and across different tourism segments, with larger accommodation providers choosing to review the inventory levels they made available based on booking trends, access to staff, reopening preparedness and the need to have a percentage of room inventory set aside for guest isolation in the event they had COVID-positive guest cases.

The drain on skilled and unskilled staff means that everyone has to work even harder to fill the gaps with competent staff, and through even more training taking place than would otherwise be undertaken, especially during tourism’s peak season.

Unfortunately, it is not just the tourism industry feeling the impact of recruitment agencies looking for much-needed labour in hospitality, agriculture, finance and medical services.

Fiji is losing nurses, chefs, hospitality workers, accountants, skilled aged care workers, tradespeople and service staff.

New businesses setting up in Fiji, and existing businesses expanding or running at full capacity are therefore extremely challenged to find staff. This will mean that service standards and productivity levels drop, business costs escalate and already in-service staff are pressured to carry more of the workload because customer demands are currently high.

At a popular Suva restaurant recently, that was at full capacity where I was ordering dinner, I asked a tired-looking staff member what was the matter because she looked ill. She let out a long sigh and said they were short-staffed had been on duty since early that morning, and had not been able to take more than a 10mn break between the breakfast, lunch and current dinner service.

FHTA has invited tourism stakeholders to participate in our industry survey to better understand the future skills needs of the national hospitality industry.

We hope to share this data with the training and education sectors and the Ministry of Employment, Productivity and Industrial Relations (MEPIR), to provide insights into the current industry issues on professional development and the links to recruitment and retention.

And the need to consider what solutions are required and required quickly, as has already been noted to them.

If you haven’t received the survey in your mail yet (or are not a member), drop us a line at info@fhta.com.fj and we’ll include you in the data collection.

We’re needing more hands-on-deck in the industry and every little bit helps the process moving along.

Tourism has only recently come out of a very long, dark tunnel and we’re not planning on going back anytime soon, so challenges like these need to be met head-on with collated data gleaned from surveys and industry and public sector consultations.

A short-term solution is obviously to bring in workers from overseas to fill these gaps but even that is fraught with its own set of challenges that include increased costs of doing business.

Our other key issue has been that while we make it simple enough to allow Fijian workers to go overseas to access work, we have not considered the current difficulty of accessing work permits for foreign workers which can take up to 3 months or longer to get approvals for.

We understand and support the need for stringent processes and why systems are designed to manage compliance, reduce human trafficking, protect local jobs, etc, but the introduction of online services still hampers efficiency efforts and continues to thwart inter-agency cooperation.

There is optimism all around with the increasing list of advertised jobs in the dailies and the upswing of tourism with increasing visitor numbers means those available jobs will remain constant and probably increase.

Discussing these issues with other employers in the construction, manufacturing, business outsourcing, mining, retail and airline sectors reveals that it is not just tourism feeling the impact of these skill gaps.

It might be starting to feel just like the old days, and while we are ecstatic about that, we are keenly aware that we must keep up the momentum so that we can come back full circle.

Fiji has been through too much already to simply allow things to slide, so let’s keep a wary eye open and always scan the peripherals.

We never really know what tomorrow will bring but we can be as prepared as we can ever be.

And that comes about from teamwork as working through COVID has taught us.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 16 June 2022)