Tourism Talanoa: Timing Our Comeback

Tourism Talanoa: Timing Our Comeback

FHTA, 4 November 2020 – Tourism is not just as one of the world’s largest economic sectors, it is one of the world’s highest revenue earners. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic brought it to a screeching halt.

Many pacific island country’s economies are underpinned by combinations of tourism, trade and remittances. With relatively small private sectors and limited production and export bases, island economies are also further challenged by their geographical remoteness from major markets and their susceptibility to the economic impacts of natural disasters. Some are still recovering from recent cyclones (Fiji and Vanuatu, Tonga).

Based on 2017 and 2018 UNWTO data, the top three countries in terms of tourism dependence are Maldives at 57.8% of GDP, Palau (42.2%), and Vanuatu (37.1%).

Due to very early intervention and effective management, there are currently only three Pacific Island Countries (Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) that have been directly affected by COVID-19. And while the Pacific has been commended for pulling off a “coronavirus miracle”, it has come at a price.

All Pacific Island Countries (PIC’s) have incurred significant social and economic costs with GDP expected to fall by at least 10% within the Pacific and as much as 22% in Fiji.

It is also well known that tourism is a fundamental source of revenue and employment in Fiji (~40% of GDP), Samoa (23% of GDP) and Vanuatu (~40% of GDP) and a key source of revenue in most other PICs notably Kiribati, Tonga and Solomon Islands. The changing trends of tourism are reflected in data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which show that the number of tourists from Asia tripled to 468.6 million in 2018 from 152.7 million in 2000, with Southeast Asia and South Asia posting the strongest growth.

Asia and the Pacific have also become major destinations over the past 2 decades. Even now, with the effects of the closed borders, grounded airlines and city lockdowns, the hunger for travel does not seem to have abated.

And interest in Fiji specifically in the last few months has increased steadily with the continuation of lockdowns as well as the increasing infection rates across Europe, Australia and the US.

It appears that even with soaring coronavirus rates, people around the world are still travelling, albeit more domestically and because of fears of the new trend of “travel shaming”, with far fewer postings about their travels on social media sites.

But there is a growing belief that a comeback for international tourism is expected to be positive.

In Fiji, domestic tourism has created an appreciation for what Fiji has to offer to international visitors at reduced rates for a captive market that may otherwise have gone overseas for their usual scheduled travel, as well as creating opportunities for those less adventurous locals to try more than just that one, short holiday trip.

Feedback from our more adventurous, self-confessed “foodies” indicate that their choice of great eating spots around Fiji has really opened up to include restaurants and resorts that offer creative cuisines as part of their holiday product and packaging. More importantly, it confirms that Fiji really does have the creative flair and skills to showcase our culinary diversity. Many miss out therefore when our local travellers choose not to utilise the restaurants and bars that open especially for them.

However, none of this detracts from the significant job losses that have continued to be felt even though many workers have been allowed to return to work on reduced hours. The economic impact of COVID-19 is expected to be worse for already vulnerable groups including youth, women, persons living with disabilities and those who are engaged in the informal economy. Most works in PICs tend to be informal, and it is widely accepted that informal sector employment tends to be more prevalent among youth and women.

In Fiji, there is a high reliance on informal employment which enhances vulnerabilities as informal workers are more likely to lose their jobs and unlikely to have paid time off or have access to social safety nets. While the Pacific generally is fortunate to have strong traditional social safety nets, these are not sustainable in the long term and can put pressure on larger households where more people have lost their jobs.

ADB’s recently released Policy Brief on “Strategies to Restart the Tourism Sector during the COVID-19 Pandemic” is a timely and interesting read that recommend ls three key focus areas. The first discusses the promotion of domestic tourism that while being embraced by many Fijians, is a limited market to cater to that is further restricted by only 44% of local tourism businesses who are able to open up.

Notwithstanding the acceptance that foreign visitor spending is always expected to be higher than domestic tourism spending, understanding the nuances and trends of domestic markets in any country requires time and study for tourism operators to effectively tweak products and services that were designed specifically for international markets and their demands.

The second strategy discusses establishing bilateral travel bubbles that even with just one country, has the potential to reduce Fiji’s tourism deficit by half.

And while everyone believes this as the key to kickstarting our economy from zero to hero proportions, the brief correctly points out the many facets to the challenges this seemingly simple solution comes with.

This includes the countries involved needing to be way past their peak of infection levels, the expected levels of preparedness to handle potential outbreaks, as well as containment measures, quarantine restrictions and testing requirements.

Added to all of this might be the local population’s fear of infection from visitors that may be far too easily tempered with Fiji’s natural welcoming culture.

The third scenario discusses subregional travel bubbles that are created between PIC’s and key markets like Australia and New Zealand.

Similar to the first scenario, movement may need to be limited to areas where visitor accommodation is located and more importantly, the requirement for those visitors to have to do a mandatory quarantine stay on their arrival back in their home countries.

Limiting visitor movement and quarantine requirements are not expected to get potential visitor interest.

So while there are some opportunities and a few more options that are being thought through for tourism-dependent countries like Fiji to consider; none are simple or quickly applicable without dealing with the many moving parts that require massive collaboration, training and commitment from all the stakeholders.

Lastly, the right timing for any of the options to work is ultimately the most critical element. And time is moving on.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 4 November 2020)