Tourism Talanoa: Preparing to Live With COVID

Tourism Talanoa: Preparing to Live With COVID

FHTA, 20 May 2021 – Zimbabwean author Matshona Dhliwayo said that “When all seems to be against you, remember, a ship sometimes has to sail against the current, not with it.”

Life, as we know it, is getting tougher as we navigate this pandemic with wariness and often increasing pessimism that things are indeed going to get worse before they get better. And one might be forgiven for thinking that we had already hit rock bottom by late last year and that surely, the only place left to go was up.

Alas, there was a basement level we forgot existed.

The well-documented effects of the border closures and subsequent flatlining of Fiji’s tourism industry have been heard about often enough.

The Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA), through this weekly column, has endeavoured to provide background and insight into the industry’s workings, the multiplier effect it has throughout the economy, the impact of COVID more recently and how the industry was forced to respond, as well as the enormous repercussions of industry standing still for so long.

But in the background, far from that stillness, there are always discussions, planning and meetings still going on, to work on ways to support stem the outbreak worsening, prepare for the second vaccine jabs and review safe reopening preparations, amongst other challenges.

The capital city meanwhile, is in a state of collective shock with the lockdowns forcing family groups to stay within their bubbles, deal with the frequent rain, grumpy children in cramped yards and mountains of damp clothes, while their pantries had no doubt run out of food before the second day of lockdown had started.

In a population of 902,000, one out of three Fijians lives between Lami and Nausori with the bulk of low-cost housing and informal settlements located within this division.

No one understands why the few vehicles on the road are speeding or using sirens that scream incessantly and probably unnecessarily throughout the night. But it reminds everyone in the neighbourhoods they travel through even more poignantly, that everyone is locked in because this is supposed to help stop that sneaky virus.

How prepared will Fiji be for an inevitable reopening? Initially reopening sections in our cities, then regions and eventually our borders will have to be ready.

We can better understand now, the impact of not taking the virus as seriously as it should have been. It is now wreaking even more economic damage with other industries being forced to close. It is making more poor people go hungry and those on the margins of poverty slip further into it.

If you were able to plan your entire week’s meals during this week’s lockdowns and enjoyed those meals with a beer or a wine, consider yourself blessed and very lucky.

Those tourism workers that lost their jobs over the last twelve months have certainly not had this privilege. Their food handouts ceased many months ago unless they are still part of a resort or business community that still gets consistent support.

So, no resting for the businesses in the industry that will be at the forefront of any safe reopening strategies.
If the new thinking is to be believed and accepted more widely, Fiji needs to learn to live with COVID.

The COVID experts, growing by the thousands daily, advise that the first step is rapidly detecting people with infection, outbreaks and sites of increased transmission. We can check that off because this is what the controls in place now and lockdowns are all about.

The next 2 steps include isolating and managing infected people as well as investigating outbreaks. We can check these off as well because our nightly updates from the good doctors confirm this.

The ensuing measures of decreasing community transmission and strengthening control measures are probably the more difficult aspects to impose on our society.

Contact tracing, trusting people to self-isolate and insisting on mask-wearing, social distancing and enhanced hygiene can be difficult when people still believe they could not possibly get a virus they cannot see, do not understand and seriously doubt exists. Hygiene needs to be made more difficult no doubt when many parts of Suva still suffer intermittent water supplies.

We know the next three steps are in place which includes ensuring testing is strategic, protecting the health and social care systems and continuing mitigations of general risks. We certainly hope they are successfully done.

Involve the business and private sectors notes the next step and to a certain extent, we can certainly say we have seen this as well. Our COVID Safe Guidelines, the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) that all tourism businesses must comply with and our internal action plans have all been done in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

But a comprehensive response is not the only preparation that is required of countries around the world. And Fiji will be no different if we plan to re-engage with the world at some stage, as we must.

Learning to live with COVID means that we get used to snap-lockdowns, wearing masks in public and travelling with a keener eye on hygiene as part of our safety checks.

Even other risk mitigation strategies like PCR testing and voluntary or mandatory quarantine will not be sufficient because there is no optimum way to prevent COVID from being imported into a country, no matter how vigorously our testing protocols are applied at borders.

With sufficient numbers of people around the world vaccinated, we may reduce the virus to other flu-like occurrences it is hoped.

In being anticipatory to the fluid demands of business operations in this COVID environment, we are getting ready for our second jabs and working collectively on how long it might take to get an entire industry ready for reopening.

We are working to get everyone in the industry vaccinated, as lofty as that may sound. After all, if you could add another protective layer that could avoid you getting hurt, why wouldn’t you?

Resorts and hotels have already been working on their compliance requirements to have domestic and international guests accommodated safely.

And we have commenced gauging the needs of our marine operators to determine what it would require to get everyone operational and safety compliant.

Every vessel that expects to be operating safely on or in the water is being asked to check their equipment replacement or repair needs, safety certificates and crew training needs, so that we can support their efforts towards compliance and border reopening preparations.

Learning to live and do business with COVID might be strange but we may not have a choice in the matter. Better to stop fighting it, adapt quickly and learn to live with it.

This is our strategy for getting ready. Every industry needs to be working on theirs.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 20 May 2021)