FHTA, 17 March 2022 – The last two years have been an example of living through consistently shifting priorities and management of our private and social lives, how we do business, interact with each other, other communities and countries, and prioritise health and travel protocols.
The constant changes and shifting levels of urgency have dictated whether we can move, where we move and how we move.
The reason has been the only simple thing about the constantly evolving rules around movement in the pre and post-pandemic world. And that reason was that movement spread the pandemic further.
So, when movement was forced to stop, we managed to slow and then counter the pandemic while the science caught up with better applications of how we could make COVID something we could live safely enough with, seeing as we still have not quite worked out how to completely eradicate it.
And because tourism is all about the movement of people from one place to another; it is the industry that most feels the impact of travel limitations and is therefore caught up globally in how the pandemic starts, spreads and evolves.
As country after country now rolls back their travel restrictions, lifts mandates and cancels masking or testing requirements; it is clear that if a country has been open to travel for some time having vaccinated the majority of their population beforehand, that the reducing hospitalisations and infection rates are giving way to more travel freedoms.
Travel freedoms have been increasingly demanded because tourism and people movements have enormous multiplier effects that have never before been so acutely felt by economies around the world.
As indicated earlier, Fiji also continues to amend its travel rules and the previously announced restriction rollbacks will be joined by further changes over the next week or so that we have no doubt will further simply travel to Fiji.
We will move from the 3-day hotel stay requirement that automatically includes a rapid antigen test is taken on the second day, to the option to book a hotel for your holiday (and get the test automatically on the second day), or stay with friends or return to your family home by showing a confirmed booking for a test at the nearest approved medical professional (doctor, pharmacy or lab).
The mandatory initial hotel stay for all visitors was mandated to ensure that all positive tests were appropriately facilitated while the traveller was still locatable and made the hotels responsible for reporting test results while keeping tabs on visitor movement.
Four months post reopening, we are still reviewing how we can simplify travel rules, make it easier to come through borders whilst staying alert to possible outbreaks and use what we have learnt since December to improve processing, shorten queues and make travel fun again.
The difficulty has been to remove the fear that is now ever-present with travel while trying to provide and maintain confidence in safety.
The unending demands to confirm one’s vaccination status and prove you’re not carrying illness while being consistently sanitised and temperature checked is starting to grate on traveller’s nerves.
Especially if they have been through a number of these checks before and were confirmed as being cleared.
If you’re a Fijian passport holder travelling with a bit of paper confirming your vaccination status (that might be in your maiden name), you should be prepared for quizzical looks and furrowed brows on the faces of overseas immigration and border control officers where QR codes usually confirm vaccination status on scannable phone apps.
If you travel around Europe where all travel documents are scanned, the unfolding and presentation of that paper hold up fast-moving queues and processing lines (and makes you unpopular with fellow travellers).
But this too shall pass once Fiji gets its own electronic version of a vaccination pass.
Accessing travel insurance now has also taken a downward turn. There are now fewer quality options and even fewer that will include coverage from COVID related loss, incurred costs and travel plan changes.
Concerningly, options reduce even further if you are from a Pacific Island Country.
Fiji’s latest figures from our medical services people indicate that our vaccination rate for adults over 18 years is currently at 99.9 percent.
That is good news but this information is no longer as important to travellers who simply want the freedom to be able to travel again and to do so with as much flexibility, speed and a degree of safety that includes support for those “what if” occasions.
We have made Fiji safer for our population, our communities and our visitors, but we will need to continue to work on making travel as smooth and as simple as we can, with the element of safety becoming second nature with all we offer.
It will become an expectation and move away from explainable delays due to the need be cross-checking several documents and processes at every border checkpoint.
As we move through a humid and thunderstorm filled March and slowly out of tourism’s traditionally low season, we note the increasing and welcome visitor numbers from New Zealand, as well as the increasing number of local conferences and face to face training sessions that are being scheduled throughout the month and all over Fiji.
Training for tourism staff has continued in earnest since the reopening as more staff are needed to fill positions and more businesses prepare to reopen.
The next batch of resort reopenings is scheduled for April 1, all the way through to early June, if they haven’t already scheduled their reopening by the end of this month.
This will enhance our Destination Fiji product and services even further, and we hope that amongst these businesses are the wide variety of SMEs that provide entertainment, activities and experiences. All so important for a really exciting and fun-filled holiday.
These businesses in turn not only ensure that we provide more tourism attractions but also impact our local community interaction, tend to hire more informal workers and are critical conduits for tourism’s multiplier effect into our more remote areas.
So as travel starts to move from its complicated set of requirements that initially limited travel to specific areas, we are acutely aware of things snapping back into place in response to demand for easier movement, while noting that we can still see some gaps existing where our products and services have yet to return.
We might be demanding a move to more “normal” operations, but we are being reminded that we have to remain alert for new variants, not let our guard down and practice COVID safety.
But many of these reminders and requirements we are practising are the very reason some of our SMEs have not been able to make it back since closing.
Simplifying travel, therefore, must include ensuring we have considered those businesses that have not been able to get sufficient support to be considered “safe”, or who can replicate the standards deemed sufficient for their inclusion.
Inclusivity must include being aware of how difficult it might be to access the support to get your business COVID or regulatory compliant after being closed for nearly two years.
Just as simplifying travel must consider just how much we continue to worry about new outbreaks or emerging variants and refocus on all the other important areas we let slide while we were so COVID distracted.
Because they are all still there and COVID is no longer the same.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 17 March 2022)