FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Complicated Travel Rules

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: Simplifying Complicated Travel Rules

FHTA, 27 January 2022 – We wish our regional neighbours (and key tourism market) Australia a very happy Australia Day which was celebrated 26th of January.

Late last week, Australia really came through with what has been widely recognised as a game-changer for tourism industries globally, many of which have been struggling collectively with the often onerous requirements for travellers.

Their federal government confirmed last week that travellers returning to Australia will have the option of completing a rapid antigen test (RAT) within 24 hours before their departure back to Australia, rather than having to take an expensive PCR test within three days (four from Fiji) as is currently required.

Not only does that speed things up for departing guests, but it simplifies the process and significantly reduces the cost because they are still required to undertake another RAT 24 hours after their arrival in Australia.

This has come into effect from Sunday 23 January 2022.

Other areas have been simplified which will make travel and returning home less complicated.

For travellers testing positive, the isolation timeframe has been reduced to seven days before being issued a ‘Fit to Fly’ notice from Fiji’s Ministry of Health & Medical Services. No further test is required before their departure.

These changes to Australia’s re-entry protocols recognises the changing science around the virus and its current impact on highly vaccinated populations globally, as well as in consideration of the fact that despite high infection rates, the number of cases in intensive care units remains low.

But the highest priority surely would have been the impact this makes for anyone coming to Australia for a holiday where tourism has contributed AUD$122 billion to its economy prior to COVID.

While tourism stakeholders closer to home might have different reasons for arguing against these tests; key amongst them has been that the challenges of costs and testing logistics were eroding efficiency and productivity whilst not providing any real evidence that any battles were being won against COVID.

Staff, guests and communities were still getting sick, albeit for shorter and far less critical bursts, while anecdotal evidence appeared to suggest that any exposure and experience with Omicron actually provided many with stronger immunity.

With their 93% vaccination rate of people aged 16 and over, Australia’s authorities are steering away from a COVID-zero plan to a COVID-contained one.

This is essentially what Fiji had implemented into its protocols as we prepared ourselves for the border reopening.

Medical experts cautiously state that Omicron appears to have peaked, but this may only become more apparent once movement restrictions are eased and RATs are widely available.

However, the sentiments echoed by the good doctor is that Fiji will be aiming at making the virus endemic which essentially means that the pandemic will not end with the virus disappearing, but rather that enough people will gain immune protection via vaccination and from natural infection; so our anecdotal evidence might not be too far off the mark.

With the entire Fijian tourism industry well experienced in the Omicron variant now, we may be the new experts in testing, reporting, transmission, infection and isolation impacts.

There is still a critical need to improve worldwide public health structures and surveillance systems to monitor for and help respond to the inevitable next potential pandemic virus, as opposed to reactive measures based on past experiences with other variants.

As we move into a typical “low” season for tourism, there is a lot of work going on in the background to re-evaluate our responses to COVID related guest and staff illness, strengthening our staff training, adjusting testing and reporting protocols and reviewing COVID safe practices.

Included in these practices, businesses are relooking at improving air flows in public spaces, introducing air purification appliances and more efficient surface decontamination products.

Any practice or product that improves efficiency and health safety that also promotes a more efficient flow of people or processing is being considered for adoption.

High on the list of returning the industry to better efficiency and productivity is the consideration that like Australia; Fiji should also be thinking about reviewing its entry requirements for inbound travellers.

There is no ignoring our heavy reliance on tourism and the more barriers we place in front of potential visitors before they get here, whilst they’re here and before they leave; the more reasons we give them to choose another destination.

And we preface that statement with the reminder that Fiji is almost on par with Australia in terms of vaccination rates and just as hesitant to change or relax COVID rules despite the global evidence that might support any changes.

There is no denying we have had a horrific experience with the Delta variant and the pressures placed on our health system is not somewhere we wish to return to.

But even the World Health Organisation (WHO) waited till this week to issue a statement that noted ”The astonishing spread of the Omicron variant could help set the stage for the pandemic to transition from overwhelming to manageable in Europe this year”; potentially offering the world a glimpse at how countries can ease restrictions while keeping the virus at bay.

It did go on to provide a “heavy dose of caution”, adding that while the surge of infections would probably wane (we have already experienced this), new variants were likely to emerge and strain health systems.

We agree.

We are also expecting more cyclones till at least April.

We do not ignore the warnings and we do not let our guards down when it comes to the weather or COVID.

But if we are preparing with everything we can possibly use to be ready, how could the demand for an AUD$300 test protect us any better than an AUD$10 test?

Especially if we insist on retesting everyone again two days after they arrive in the country.

There is a collective commitment to the recovery of Fijian tourism better than it was pre-COVID, and for 2022 it has already become evident that the efforts to keep staff and guests safer requires far more stringent planning, more budgetary allocations, complicated training and far more dedicated staff to keep your business compliant as well as competitive.

If we must reimagine an industry with a refocus on COVID, cyclones and environmental safety, then the many compliances and regulatory requirements and expectations around tourism must be evaluated with the same sense of urgency, relevance and application.

Like many other tourism-focused destinations, it has often felt like we walked into a ring with some protective equipment and an instruction list that kept changing on how to fight an elusive opponent.

Our opponent changed, stepped out of the ring, came back and probably left again.

Nobody seems very sure.

We just want a fairer fight so we can continue to punch above our weight as a preferred tourism destination.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 27 January 2022)