FHTA, 5 June 2020 – The pressure is palpable. As a global economic recession starts to unfold and unemployment numbers steadily rise to record levels, an air of uncertainty and great anxiety continues to grow steadily around the country.
Fiji’s entire tourism sector took a nosedive as the borders were closed off and planes were grounded. The same of which was seen around the world as the current health crisis tightened its grip on global travel.
Most of the tourism hot spots like Denarau, Nadi, Taveuni et al are reeling from the effects even though the flow-on consequences have yet to make any real mark on the capital city, Suva.
As tourism’s revenue has been nullified for the first half of the year, the ripples will inevitably trickle down to Suva and throughout Fiji as Government’s main source of GDP earnings dries up.
The rapidly growing outreach programs for community assistance that includes food drop-offs, religious, charity and organizational support for the mounting numbers of the needy, the increasing demand for bartering programs and the huge demand on social services and access to the pension funds show a critical, underlying societal challenge created directly from unemployment.
While it has been over 40 days since new cases of COVID-19 have been reported, we still have three cases that are still recovering from the virus. Once these patients are given the all-clear, can we then begin seriously planning for a staggered return to what the new normal will look like? Or should we begin planning for that now?
Some plans have already been put into place. These include a date for schools to start and some relaxing of earlier restrictions like curfew hours, restaurants opening, some contact-less sports allowed, people have returned to work where work is still available, while buses and minivans have continued to operate at nearly normal levels.
We know that Fiji just cannot afford to have another outbreak of the virus. Apart from being a real threat to people’s lives and a real fear that it could overwhelm our health system with an all-out outbreak, it would also destroy any chance the country has in instilling confidence in potential travellers considering visiting visit our shores when the border restrictions are eventually relaxed.
No-one wants the virus to return and threaten lives and no-one wants to go back into full lockdown again. But what about the growing number of unemployment creating our rising demand for support for food, to pay electricity and water bills, manage loans, get rents and leases in order and send kids to school soon with lunches?
What is being done strategically to get people back their jobs and what are these plans and timeframes? We know that the fastest way to kickstart Fiji’s economy is to get tourism back on track and this, in turn, needs us to consider how we open up our borders and to which countries, so we continue to keep our population safe.
As the trans-Tasman bubble discussions continue, both New Zealand and Australia are firmly of the belief that they do not wish to spread the virus to the smaller island states in the region, while Fiji would want to ensure we could keep their citizens safe while here.
New players have now arisen in the Tasman bubble talks with Japan, Thailand and Vietnam weighing in with options like access to business travel only, noting no fatalities (Vietnam) and well-planned travel requirements.
Across the world, changes are also being seen already, even in places that suffered many casualties and had widespread infection. European countries are staggering their border openings to one another with tourism-dependent Mediterranean countries already opened with specific conditions in place. Many of them have outlined clear border control requirements and put in place strict public conditions like the wearing of face masks, social distancing rules and mandatory sanitation regulations.
Japan is reportedly budgeting around US$3 trillion in economic stimulus to help the country weather this health catastrophe. This is an astonishing amount as it is around 40 per cent of Japan’s annual GDP. However, the world’s third-largest economy is now in a recession and needs all the help it can get. That is why they are seriously looking at business bubbles and moving their economy forward in a stagnant market.
As these countries get their ducks in a row, Fiji is also kicking into gear, just not as quickly.
The Care Fiji app is expected to make its appearance this week following the completion of tests by mobile app stores and is expected to be the main tool in the fight against COVID-19 and the lifeline for the country’s tourism sector. We think.
We have yet to hear what plans are being considered to get the rest of Fiji COVID-Safe and whether there is a plan that discusses border opening times, under what specific conditions and whether the public in Fiji might need to change their behaviour to adhere to any new rules that may have to be put into place as a lead up to the opening dates. Like wearing masks in public, making soap and sanitisers compulsory in schools, reducing seats in buses, or enforcing social distancing rules at restaurants, in hospitals and waiting lines at supermarkets.
The tourism industry is ready and has been practicing COVID-safe rules for some time with planned training for staff considered once they open and currently working with Government ministries on a guidance document. Around the world, the aviation industry including the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and airlines have been gearing up with their own COVID-safe changes to operating and service procedures. Hotels and restaurants have their own guidance manuals in place and training institutions are catching up quickly.
Everyone wants to get back to business and get people working again. We just have to get these plans structured, budgeted for and operational so that everyone in Fiji understands what they must do to change and what needs to happen before we can declare any borders open. We will then start to reduce the rising unemployment levels and help our economy get back on track.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA
Published in the Fiji Times on 5 June 2020