Tourism Talanoa: The New Normal

Tourism Talanoa: The New Normal

FHTA, 23 April 2020 – A pandemic is raging around the globe. Borders have been closed. Planes have
been grounded. People around the world have been asked to stop moving around and stay indoors.

No matter where or who you are, the questions and frustrations are the same. “When will all this end? When will we get back to normal? When will the borders open up? How do we survive the waiting period?”

The answers are no clearer today than they were yesterday or last week. The fact is, nobody knows when this global health crisis will end. But each week we are seeing the effects of a world brought to a standstill and tourism brought to its knees with 50 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industry affected and its 10% contribution to global GDP severely eroded.

This week Virgin Australia, with its 20-year history of operating in Australia announced it had gone into voluntary administration. While no redundancies are planned for now, 15,000 airline employees as well as the airlines supply chain workers must obviously be anxious about their futures.

Back home in Fiji, over 90% of the 40,000 workers directly employed in tourism are already involved in finding alternative solutions to supporting themselves and their families. These include subsistence farming, selling food, fishing, carpentry or returning to their villages and communities to wait out this pandemic.

We are hearing firsthand the frustrations and anxiety of these workers that the funds they have been able to access along with their leave pay is quickly running out. That they’re having to review their accommodation options as they can no longer afford their rents, pay off their car loans or support their extended family members.

We are seeing the result of the impact on the supply chain workers that includes transportation with more and more taxis and buses (and planes) parked. It is no surprise then that the world’s biggest suppliers of crude oil are seeing a huge increase in supplies as worldwide demand drops to an all-time low. So too with farmers and fresh produce suppliers of fruit, vegetable, seafood and meat having excess produce now available that used to be used by tourism. The current spike in vegetable prices is not therefore sustainable in the long term and will be forced to go down based on lower demand and higher supplies.

And while we are also hearing from all businesses affected by the downturn in tourism looking for advice and support to understand all the new and constantly changing requirements for lockdowns, curfews, border controls, hygiene protocols and general movement restrictions, we are also hearing the quiet frustrations and deep anxieties of small business owners not being able to see their way out of this situation if tourism remains in this “holding pattern” indefinitely.

The longer we stay closed, the safer we will be in terms of flattening the curve and keeping this pandemic from affecting more people and overwhelming our health systems.

But the longer this takes, the more impact it is having on SME’s being able to survive the time it may take to be declared safe enough for things to start moving again. This may be as early as later this year or even as far away as next year. One thing that most industry experts around the world are certain of though, is that even when the borders do open up, people are not going to immediately travel in droves as they used to.

The “new normal” will require us to rethink the way we do business in the near future. For example, many countries are thinking about how far domestic tourism can sustain them, even if as a short term measure. In countries as large as Australia with a population of approximately 25 million there are certainly far more opportunities, locations and activity choices with enviable infrastructure supporting sophisticated transportation systems.

For Fiji, there are definitely benefits to be explored and certainly some limitations we would have to work through to make domestic tourism as effective. Targeting those segments of the workforce that have not been laid off, taken a pay cut and can afford to travel in-country might be a limited number though. People in Fiji will generally travel to visit friends and relatives and maybe even splurge for special occasions, but not to just ”sara sara vanua”. We are going to have to worker harder to make this work.

While we’re working harder on new ways to do business in this “new normal”, we might also have to rethink our key markets and how we work with them and who they are. Whether our low and high seasons will stay the same and consider whether our flight frequencies to some destinations might need to be changed to suit the economic situation in those countries.

To build visitor confidence, we are also going to have to review how we market the safety of travelling to Fiji in terms of our hygiene and cleaning processes. From border controls, to aircraft interiors, food preparation, accommodation and activities. Sanitation in transportation, restaurants, bars, swimming pools, gyms, sporting arenas, schools and meeting rooms will have to be able to inspire confidence in future and potential travelers that support what has been one of Fiji’s key tourism drawcards – safety.

The “new normal” might also start with being invited into the “Tasman Bubble” that is at this point in time, an initial discussion between the Australian and New Zealand Governments to open the borders between them with specific travel requirements agreed to. Fiji and other Pacific Islands have been less drastically impacted by the virus thus far with early interventions put into place. What might these travel requirements include that Fiji could comply with that would allow us an earlier window of opportunity, that no matter how small, is still an opportunity worth pursuing.

These are the weirdest of times for us. If we raise our concerns and worry about how bad things have the potential to be, we appear negative and alarmist. If we don’t say anything as we spiral slowly downwards, we appear to be out of touch and uncaring. It is difficult to stay neutral in this industry where so many lives and economies in Fiji and the Pacific are dependent on the tourism industry doing well. So, while raising concern and looking for opportunities, we are also trying to ensure we convince policy makers that we have to be ready to change direction as soon as the winds change.

And the winds are not only changing, they’re getting harder to predict and we don’t have the tools we usually rely on to tell us how it is all going to turn out. Common sense, empathy and reaching out to one another with compassion might have to be the new tools we have to work with to figure this new world out.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 23 April 2020