Tourism Talanoa: Not Out of the Woods Yet

Tourism Talanoa: Not Out of the Woods Yet

FHTA, 3 June 2021 – As the skies rain down due to a deep low-pressure system over the Fiji group, the weather appears to mirror our collective gloom as we head into our seventh week of restricted movement and containment within specific areas.

Our active COVID case numbers continue to increase; an alarming confirmation that the virus is moving through far too many communities around the country, far too quickly.

Which unfortunately means we are still not heeding the medical advice to stay at home to avoid crowds, sanitise or wash hands often, mask up correctly and stop sharing everything as is our island inclination as caring Fijians.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, change over time. Most changes have little to no impact on the virus’ properties. However, some changes affect the virus’s propensity to spread more easily, impact humans more severely, or affect the performance of vaccines, therapeutic medicines, diagnostic tools, or other public health and social measures.

Due to the many variants of COVID-19 in the world right now, a new naming system has been put into place by WHO to correctly distinguish individual variants.

The variant currently in Fiji has been identified as the India variant of COVID-19 and is now officially referred to as COVID-19 Delta.

We certainly did not need a mercenary sounding name to make a havoc-causing virus that has held a bewildered population hostage for nigh on 2 months now, any more sinister.

This particular variant of COVID-19 that is running amok in our communities is highly transmissible and has increased in virulence. But the untold woe it has also caused the economy is just beginning to dawn on commercial and business interests that have not been impacted up to now.

Closed businesses must now apply to reopen after they have had to adapt to the current national regulations governing their operations and this is inconvenient and burdensome for many.

If you are a small operator, you must find a way to separate workers when they take meal breaks, constantly wipe down surfaces, provide accessible handwash stations with soap, make sanitisers available, take temperature tests at the business entrances and check that CareFiji Apps are on and operational with the use of mandatory smartphones.

This is neither simple to do, nor economical for a small garage with only 3 people working in it, or a small bakery with 5 workers and cramped space to sell baked goods from, or as a food restaurant responding to the demand for cheaper food options.

The bakers need curfew passes now to get to work by 4 am so that our fresh bread is ready when we wake up each morning.

Proprietors must now go online to apply for passes and organise transport for their staff to get to and from work. Large factories must rearrange workspaces, review delivery timetables, manage larger groups of workers to enable safer working environments and keep an eye on hygiene and correct mask-wearing to avoid planned on the spot fines.

Everyone applying to reopen their business must upload a copy of their COVID safe SOP’s. This key part of the requirement is not understood by many as being a critical part for the relevant ministries to be sufficiently confident that you have a guideline document in place, and more importantly, know how to go about keeping your staff and customers safe.

Unfortunately, there is insufficient help for small businesses to put this together along with training to ensure everyone does know what to do.

New protocols on reopening businesses have been rolled out but there is still widespread confusion on who needs to get approvals to reopen, and in the absence of known categories for trade, the majority of SME’s do not understand whether they are included in essential service listings, supplier listings or as support services.

For example, people must bury their deceased loved ones, so they must access mortuary services, who in turn need coffins made for them by suppliers, and for which carpenters need access to timber. However, the carpenters supplying coffins are unaware they are providing a support service for an essential service provider and timber suppliers are closed.

In the same manner that petrol stations were unaware they could be considered as support services for emergency service providers to refuel crucial transport lines.

Now might be the time for commerce and trade and all manner of businesses to gain a better understanding to being better prepared for business resilience for longer-term disasters, be aware of where they fit into supply chains and adopt plans to enable online connections and access clear communications.

For tourism businesses, navigating the wide range of business needs for SME’s, accommodation, activity and transport providers as well as suppliers to these and other forms of business within the tourism domain; requires understanding these separate but clear categorisations.

This allowed the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) to wade through the many requirements and clarify what needed to be done by who and how. Further bolstered by the already-in-place COVID safe operating procedures being practised that have been tested at various degrees of severity over the last 12 months.

But amidst the uncertainty of how we now operate under the new conditions and using the new normal ways to do business in such a way that we maintain some semblance of ensuring the economy continues to move in the right direction; we need to evaluate what speed with which we wish to move.

And more fundamentally, WHEN we decide we should be moving as a nation.

Moving back to work, to school and back home. To our families we miss and those communities we left and our island homes far away.

All still free of any COVID infections.

The pain tourism has experienced with the industry brought to its knees a year ago is as raw as ever, with severely diminished revenue streams and operational costs in play.

But no one doubts the risks COVID infections running through our communities would inflict, the disastrous impact on our population and how extremely difficult it would be to come back from that dark place that nations far more advanced than ours have found themselves in.

We do not believe we are quite out of the woods yet. And the rising infection rates certainly do not provide any confidence that giving in to economic pressure now is going to help the large community.

Lockdowns and containment areas are uncomfortable, puts pressure on already limited resources and pushes our informal sectors into desperate situations with access to food and medicine.

These are the areas we must focus on first.

Kudos to the Australian Government and other donor agencies for the generous support going directly to these needy communities through the CSO’s doing their very best with what they have, to reach those who need help the most.

Thanks also to those providing generously of their own time and funding to do what they can, including the provision of mental health support.

We also welcome the recent announcement by the Reserve Bank of Fiji approving another reduction in the interest rate charged on financial institutions that borrow under its Import Substitution and Export Finance Facility (ISEFF), Disaster Rehabilitation and Containment Facility (DRCF) and the Housing Facility (HF).

Financial institutions (commercial banks, license credit institutions and others) can pass on the reduction in interest rates to eligible businesses and households that have been struggling to manage during this crisis. The usual rate of 5percent will now be 3.99 per cent per annum effective from the start of this month.

Vaccination programs have been ratcheted up around the country and appear to be progressing well with more people recognising that being vaccinated can add a critical additional layer of protection. For them, their families and anyone they interact with.

With sufficient vaccinations, we could effectively reduce transmission, reduce the virus’s current strength and allow us to really open up safely.

We can open up safely soon enough. Let’s not rush this and regret it more painfully.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 3 June 2021)