SUVA, 13 February 2020 – IT is widely understood that many factors influence the flow of travellers around the world.
Fiji as an island destination has its location with more than 300 islands offering their unique attractiveness, significant connectivity offered through enviable infrastructure in comparison with its regional neighbours and its cultural diversity and friendly people.
These form the backbone of a variety of products and services that have assisted to make tourism a critical component of Fiji’s engine for economic development.
As the highest foreign exchange earner for the country at more than $2 billion in 2019, and currently the highest employment sector at more than 40,000 directly (110,000 indirectly), with contribution to GDP at almost 40 per cent, you would be forgiven for thinking that the industry is ticking along with the phenomenal growth that has been expected of it and that the sun merely needs to continue to shine for those taxes to roll in.
Fiji is no different to any other country in the world in that it is impacted by geopolitical, climate, trade, currency and other changes. These may be slower to reach our pristine shores, but they do get here and some faster than others.
In the past six months alone, Fiji has dodged the threat of two cyclones, seen civic unrest unfold in countries you would least expect this to take place in and monitored from a distance as traditional trade partners fell out.
Then came news of the outbreak of a difficult to detect virus that spread fear through communities, countries and eventually the whole world.
Nearer to home, our neighbours and key visitor market Australia, has been through a long drawn out drought, followed by devastating fires across two states and are now having to deal with flooding brought on by a cyclone and more bad weather.
The year 2020 started like most periods for Fijian tourism; quietly but with the usual optimism that bookings would hold strong, boosted by our usual small, but steadily growing influx of Chinese visitors during this time.
But while the optimism remains, the effects of challenges being faced by markets that influence tourism and trade in Fiji is taking its toll on current and forward bookings.
The effects of border controls to address keeping the virus out and its flow-on effects on world tourism with the severely restricted outbound Chinese market (166 million travellers in 2019) will affect Australian visitor numbers, where the Chinese market reached an all time high of 1.4 million in 2018 – surpassing New Zealand visitor arrivals there for the first time.
Our biggest market for Fiji’s visitors is urging its population to “Stay home for the holidays” and encouraging Australian patriotism and support for many of its devastated communities.
Tourism Australia recently welcomed the Australian Governments’ initial $76m tourism recovery package as part of the National Bushfire Recovery Fund to protect jobs, small businesses and local economies by helping get tourists travelling across Australia again.
And rightly so. After all, that’s what we would do under the same circumstances.
So, Fiji must fight so much harder with its competing destinations that are often far cheaper to travel to because their guest to staff ratio is higher, staff paid much lower and airfares when packaged can be really hard to beat.
Where regulatory and legislative controls are less stringent — and it must be said that Fiji can often boast it is far safer as a result which is at least one positive element of this.
Obviously there are far more reasons and insufficient space to go into on why it will be harder to compete with our far larger and sometimes more developed competitor destinations, but while industry stakeholders are doing their best to provide alternative options for cancellations because of the virus controls in place and are preparing to deal with the probable situation of less Australian and other bookings, they are doing so with their other challenges still in front of them.
These include reduced room inventory with larger properties carrying out the required renovations and upgrades, increasing costs of business, preparing to comply with the new vat monitoring system (VMS), a lower than expected growth in 2019, keeping up with regulatory bodies as each flexes their considerable weight to penalise any perceived non-compliance and for tourism’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs), simply trying to understand it all and stay in business.
But it is an optimistic industry as it has always been.
It is hard not to be when the sun continues to shine in one of the most beautiful places in the world that is so well known for its friendliest people.
Local ownership of tourism businesses and tourism properties is higher than it has even been (56 per cent of hotels with 50 rooms and above) especially now with FNPF owning the bulk of these, Fiji must be prepared to fight back hard for its share.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA