FHTA Tourism Talanoa: World Tourism Day

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: World Tourism Day

FHTA, 1 October 2021 – This week saw the commemoration of World Tourism Day with its theme of “Tourism for Inclusive Growth.”

The World Tourism Organization designated October 27 annually as an opportunity to look beyond tourism statistics and acknowledge that, behind every number, there is a person.

While it might feel that Fiji’s tourism sector does not have any reason to celebrate World Tourism Day just yet, we believe otherwise.

The inclusive growth of the industry has seen a burgeoning landscape of travel experiences, budget options and widespread tourism development throughout the islands that have encouraged more locally-owned enterprises than ever before.

This might therefore be as good a time as any, with vaccination levels at 70 percent, to set the launch point from where we prepare to return to some sense of normalcy once international visitors are given the green light.

Even though any version of “normalcy” is never going to be what it used to be.

That is if we can actually remember what it was like without social distancing, masks, constant sanitising and having to scan in and out of everyday situations that requires queuing for that service first.

Many things have and will continue to evolve once international tourism is rebooted in Fiji, and in and around the Pacific as we catch up to the rest of the world.

And while the travel landscape continues to evolve, we are learning to get used to new ways of doing things that involve living and working in a world with COVID in it.

Right now, everyone is waiting for that Reopening Framework to be announced and implemented before we can really say who is going to be able to be reopening ready and really prepared to welcome guests.

Much work still needs to be completed before then besides just dusting off implements, prepping properties and equipment, getting much-needed supplies, locating staff, and getting regulatory compliances in order.

Preparations and understanding the conditions of travel are also critical to confirm bookings.

The more complicated and/or later the framework is, the fewer bookings can be confirmed with the booking windows for our further markets getting smaller.

Many await confirmation to respond to queries on quarantine requirements, in-country testing, the freedom to travel around the islands, the ability to plan their wedding or special event and even whether they can visit their favourite village community to check on old friends.

Generally, visitors will only get a few weeks of leave from work if they’re lucky, while some will get between 5 and 7 days only.

So, spending as much of that time doing everything you could not do for nearly 2 years is a potential visitor’s dream that everyone in tourism is keen to make come true.

And part of everyone’s job will be to make that journey as memorable and as effortless as possible, because if you had a choice to travel somewhere that offered far fewer restrictions, why would you choose Fiji?

Regions like Europe, the US and the UK do not currently require fully vaccinated travellers to quarantine and instead require a negative COVID-19 test, 72 hours before arrival.

And as the weeks and days go by and vaccination levels rise, restrictions reduce proportionally.

Fiji has had its fair share of situations that have disrupted tourism (and other industries) in the past, whether meteorological, economic, or political.

We are not therefore new to the concept of ‘waiting out the storm’ as it were; usually just keep our heads down as safely as possible and doing what we can to survive until the all-clear is given to resume normal duties.

At the start of the pandemic and border closures, early estimations were quite optimistic and tourism operators continued with domestic tourism, adjusting business needs to demand or downsized with a skeleton staff to maintain operations.

If you were small enough to hibernate the business, you parked your equipment beneath a heavy tarp or stored it in a friend’s garage to reduce costs, let your staff go and looked for another way to sustain yourself.

But as the pandemic dragged on, our tourism members large and small, took more drastic steps to address cash flows that were hitting rock bottom and operational costs that didn’t just all go away the way their revenue streams had.

Domestic tourism opportunities were off, on-again, then back off for most businesses with containment zones effectively stopping the flow, and with scaled-back demands from the medical teams and quarantine services for repatriation flights, the tourism industry went back to almost full closure again.

Tourism’s SMEs and activity providers have had it much worse and have gone far longer without opportunities, and concerns have been rightly raised about whether the industry will see them return to business when borders reopen, if at all.

After all, what is a holiday without a range of experiences, adventure, and excitement; because our visitors are not travelling all the way to Fiji to simply stay in a hotel room.

So how have these businesses that are small in size, but vast in terms of the number of experience providers, been keeping?

The answer is complicated and varied, based on what the business is, its size, location and experience.

They might return to business when borders have been open for a while and there is a demand for their particular niche product but otherwise, they may remain in storage with very few overheads.

Ecotourism and local experiences like village visits with cultural offerings in entertainment, food and a taste of traditional living can re-emerge with very little scarring.

Marine based offerings like dive, yacht charters, sports fishing, transfers, day trips, snorkelling excursions and jet skiing have higher operational costs; with licensing fees, berthing charges and safety regulations they must comply with, as well as crew training and licenses to take care of.

Island-based resorts that can offer accommodation and a range of experiences have to contend with far more challenges that belie their idyllic locations.

These smaller resorts are exposed to more weather conditions, having to accommodate staff, manage with smaller staff numbers that must have a range of trade skills, address coastal erosion, insufficient water, rusting equipment and deal with being off the grid for power, internet, fuel and general supplies.

When containment zones cut them off, they are really cut off.

All these operators need access to financing options to keep their equipment safe and compliant in the same way that every other small business operator needed cash to keep the lights on and engines going.

A combination of access to finance and reducing overhead costs, coupled with the ability to retain key staff and keep assets safe has been their key focus.

The inability to access operational finance had been many an operator’s nightmares for months despite opportunities advertised widely last year with only a range of waived fees and penalties, or extended licenses provided for, offering respite from overheads.

Fiji does not have the luxury of wage or business support and while the options that were provided for unemployed staff accessing their own pension funds or small Government grants might have appeared meagre; we know they were welcomed by those that needed them.

Budgetary allocations in support of tourism’s restart along with the MSME targeted financing specifically for COVID-19 recovery that offered government-guaranteed credit, have provided a further, much-needed buffer.

However, it is not yet known how many have been able to successfully access these options.

But we do know that not everyone has needed to access these opportunities, choosing instead to put their (usually small) business into storage and find an alternative way to earn enough to continue to survive until the demand for their product comes back.

The industry has been around for over 50 years and has seen decades of changes, weathered a range of different challenges consistently and has learnt a lifetime of experiences that is drawn on to determine whether it is time to weigh anchor and find another fishing spot, or stay put and await the tide and wind change that must come eventually.

Will every tourism business be open come border reopening time?

Maybe not, but most will be ready and prepared for opportunities.

Will every experience or activity provider be available by then too?

That would depend very strongly on how many airline seats get booked and which hotels get filled, in which region and, while interest is high for Fiji right now; our potential visitors are still waiting to hear what the conditions for travel in and out of Fiji will be.

The sprint to December really starts when everyone knows exactly how Fiji will reopen.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 1 October 2021)