Tourism Talanoa: The Fragility of Bubbles

Tourism Talanoa: The Fragility of Bubbles

FHTA, 16 April 2021 – The phrase ‘travel bubble’ gets thrown around a lot these days. It has been in circulation since mid-2020 when global tourism and tourism-dependent economies started sitting down to plan recovery programmes following the pandemic fallout.

Closer to home, the long-awaited trans-Tasman travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia has now been announced amidst some eager anticipation by the Tasman neighbours and watchful interest from the rest of us in the Pacific. In this bubble, as of Monday, April 19, travellers from Australia will be able to arrive in New Zealand without having to serve the usual 14-day quarantine.

These bubbles have had their fair share of ups and downs. Initially planned for October 2020, it eventually turned into a one-way bubble when new COVID cases hit Australia. This allowed New Zealanders to travel to Australia but not the other way around.

There have been other bubbles planned in the region that also never eventuated because the pandemic situation was constantly evolving. New Zealand had agreed to open a bubble with the Cook Islands but despite several “almost there” discussions, this did not eventuate.

Fiji had announced its own earlier plans to have a “Bula Bubble” with our regional neighbours, but this too has yet to be formalized.

Hong Kong and Singapore discussed opening up a bubble last November, but this got called off only 24 hours before the actual commencement because of a sudden rise in cases in Hong Kong at the time.

Bubbles can be very fragile and need often complicated conditions agreed to, in place and well managed by the agreeing parties.

While the trans-Tasman travel bubble is a long time coming for both nations, it teeters on a razor’s edge with the confirmation of several new cases of COVID-19 at an Auckland quarantine facility, with New Zealand warning that flights to and from some Australian states could still be suspended in the event of local outbreaks.

Like Fiji, tourism was New Zealand’s biggest export earner, contributing $17.5 billion or 20.1% of New Zealand’s foreign exchange earnings for the year ended March 2020.

With over 5 million in population, it is estimated that 13.6% of the total number of people employed in New Zealand worked directly or indirectly in tourism. That means around 384,186 people were working in the travel and service industry.

It is therefore obvious that they need this travel bubble to go ahead and in Fiji, we can relate.

We also value our health and the safety of our people and we too are proud of our COVID-contained status, but we also recognise that we need to urgently get the economy rolling again. To do so safely is a complicated, mega pronged arrangement,

fraught with risks doubling for every agency included and involved in the border management process.

Therein lies the need for countries entering into any bubble arrangements requiring the confidence to keep each other’s citizens safe.

So, while they commence their travel bubble arrangements, we can observe from afar and note areas for improvement when our involvement is eventually confirmed.

The worst-case scenario from a travel bubble is a mass community cluster of infections and we just could not risk that, nor do we believe we could recover from it from a tourism perspective.

The risk of the devastating impacts from sickness and death on society and the heavy toll on our medical systems aside, risking our reputation as a safe destination is an extremely difficult place to come back from.

Understanding those risks and realizing where we need to focus as an industry, has been what we have been involving ourselves in over the last 12 months.

Initially working on survival strategies, looking for other avenues to support workers as well as manage expenses without the usual revenue streams through international visitors; tourism operators have struggled as an industry to keep going and remain positive.

There has been an amazing response from locals becoming domestic tourists who have been locked in, just as international visitors have been locked out, who have used the opportunity to experience some of the holiday offerings around Fiji.

The domestic tourism impact has been positive, albeit intermittent with occupancies going from 70% to 100% over the 4-day Easter weekend to either closed or a 10% occupancy the following weekend.

Unfortunately, those feast or famine situations only take place in only 40% of Fiji’s total tourism product offerings.

In the last year, we have worked closely with many government agencies to come to an understanding or enter into arrangements that consider tourism’s reduced revenue streams and the struggle to maintain compliance requirements, so long as mandatory safety requirements are met.

We are working closely with the Ministry of Health & Medical Services to safeguard our workers by encouraging our members to register their staff and support the provision of venues and transport to enable vaccinations.

Last year the introduction, training and implementation of the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) took place and industry stakeholder numbers continue to increase as Tourism Fiji maintains their vigilant monitoring to ensure all operators get their approvals.

We are currently working to complete a framework for the initial Safe Travel Corridor in Fiji that may well be our first step to welcoming back visitors to our shores within specific zones. CFC compliance and vaccinations will be just some of the obligatory requirements.

We saw 146,905 arrivals into Fiji last year and most of these included repatriated citizens and residents having to isolate safely. Their quarantine stay was covered by Government then so there was very limited revenue coming into the economy as a result of this.

It makes sense, to us at least, that quarantine stays should be based on a “pay own way” basis now.

In 2019, tourism brought in FJ $2.065B and was the strongest in the third quarter of that year, with over FJ$1B in taxes also paid on top of that. A year later, it only brought in FJ $314.9M mostly due to the opening quarter before COVID, and we have no doubt many are starting to feel that shortage in revenue now across the country.

Fiji also plays an important regional role as medical supplies are warehoused in Fiji and we are often used as a hub for Pacific Humanitarian Pathway flights, which are part of the global COVID-19 supply chain system on their way to our Pacific Island neighbours.

We cannot stop now, having started with support for the vaccination roll-out, pushing out and extending the communication efforts on the vaccine through sharing the FAQs and other factual and positive information through tourism networks.

And we happily noted the positive uptake and eventual turning of that short-lived negative tide of anti-vaccination discussions on social media.

Our people will be ready – optimistic, vaccinated and ready to welcome visitors from Australia and New Zealand once we have convinced them we are ready to be included in their bubbles.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 16 April 2021)