Tourism Talanoa: When a Shot in the Arm is What’s Needed

Tourism Talanoa: When a Shot in the Arm is What’s Needed

FHTA, 21 January 2021 – By mid-2020, most economists around the world had predicted that the worst economic impacts would be felt later in the year and that Government imposed lockdowns would ease gradually with the arrival of vaccines and the eventual decline of infection rates and increased capacity in healthcare systems.

But the virus has outsmarted economists, analysts and entire Governments across the world, moving stealthily undetected through humanity, undeterred by borders, climate or technology and even mutating into more harmful strains.

Plans for international bubbles have blown hot and cold in the last 6 months, along with containment confirmations being celebrated then moving back to the start line for the containment countdown process to restart.

While it has been difficult to see what course is being chartered for finding our own way back to happier economic times, it has been far more depressing to read through innumerable predictions of why countries will not be opening up anytime soon that are often based on accounts or perceptions of people who still have the luxury of a full-time job and the added benefits of robust medical systems with limited understanding of the livelihoods of entire communities torn between their health and safety and their need to earn a living.

While being isolated Pacific Island countries have spared us from the spread of infection, this has also exposed our vulnerabilities as small island states that could often punch well above our weight with developed countries.

To continue to compete, trade and grow our industries and economy, we need to access those international borders unless you are a large well-developed, self-sufficient economy that can sustain itself for 2 to 3 years. Apparently, most countries in this category still disagree they could cope with borders remaining closed for this long.

For the pandemic to end, a large share of the world needs to be immune to the virus. The medical experts believe the safest way to achieve this is with mass vaccine programs being rolled out alongside other mitigation efforts that include lockdowns, tracing, masks, social distancing and hygiene protocols.

As the first month of the year rolls through, tourism businesses are moving into the low season when demand is at its traditional lowest. At this stage, imagine if you will, a low tide where what little water was there is now sucked away completely with only the wet sand drying up quickly in the hot sun.

For those businesses that were open; equipment, boats, restaurants and rooms are being packed up, closed up and put away with staff numbers and hours being reduced even further.

As budgets get reviewed and reviewed yet again, it is time to pay suppliers, renew licenses, pay regulatory fees, bank loans and taxes. In a recent consultation, industry stakeholders appealed to Ministry of Health and Ministry of Tourism representatives for their understanding of the dire circumstances of many SME business owners struggling to make ends meet without knowing how long they must plan to stretch their meagre resources, hibernate their businesses or consider closing altogether.

But time is also being spent fine-tuning how they will keep their staff and guests safe when those borders do eventually reopen. Staff training, action plans and tested safety protocols are being put into place by every tourism operator who is keen to ensure their business is recognised locally and internationally with the required Care Fiji Commitment CFC) program that is Fiji’s destination-wide travel safe assurance. There is concern already raised that similar precautionary programs or safe reopening protocols be demanded of retailers, suppliers and anyone else along the tourism supply chain.

Fiji expects its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines in April and is expected to gain access to free vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility, which is intended to maximize the chances for people in participating countries to get access to COVID-19 vaccines as quickly, fairly and safely as possible.

We understand implicitly, the vaccination process is one part of a whole series of actions that must fall into place before we can see our way out of these trying times. There is also the acknowledgement that a failure to do things right could have drastic repercussions for which our economy would have far greater difficulty recovering from.

But unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures and we might just be able to do more to help ourselves if put our heads together and practised a little more talanoa sessions more often.

The next twelve months will be critical for countries around the world to embrace strategies that include how we live with the virus in the long term, how we change our focus from previous practices to ones that put their people’s most urgent needs first while laying the groundwork for boosting other sectors to reduce the reliance on only a few main industries.

In the Pacific and specifically Fiji, the heavy reliance on tourism is taking a heavy toll on our revenue earnings, employment and the consequent impact on supply chains losing their key markets.

Yet the very reason tourism became our key industry by default is the same reason we appear, on the surface at least, to be humming along as if we were simply waiting for something to pass. As we do with cyclones and floods and slowly receding coastlines; our patience, good humour and willingness to share and help one another get through a crisis continues to permeate our everyday lives and society in general.

It is hard to imagine how difficult things really are when the sun shines so brilliantly from out of the bluest skies and the palm trees sway gently in the breeze along shores lapped by rhythmic waves. Harder still when people are still smiling as they always do in Fiji even when the next meal is not guaranteed or it is a struggle to get your children into school or you are one payment away from your home or business being repossessed.

Some erudite individual is quoted to have said, “The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.” He may be right but then he probably never came to Fiji, where it is hard to leave and harder still to leave old habits.

We have become too used to letting things simply lie or waiting ever so patiently for things to get better and perhaps this is why our message that we are hurting so bad is not heard strongly enough by those that can make a difference.

Beneath the surface of a polite smiling people, there are genuine cries for help. People are needing formal counselling services like never before; mental health programs are being researched and religious organisations are having to manage simmering social issues more frequently.

And yet, even as our economic situation begins to move into more desperate territory, we still believe the economists predicting a return to a pre-COVID status not being likely to take place for at least 3 to 5 years, are getting it wrong again.

They too have not been to Fiji, where our resilience as a Pacific Island nation can be as astounding as the never imagined Olympic Gold Medal for our Seven’s Rugby Team. But there it is.

So, let’s get that shot in the arm and call on everyone to work together and we might just provide another example of Fijian resilience at its best.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 21 January 2021)