Getting ready to get busy

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Tourists capture memories at the entrance of the State House with guard Maretino Elo in Suva. Picture: FT FILE

Traditionally, the period between April and May marks the end of the quiet season in the tourism industry, as travellers prepare to embark on their vacations and tourist hotspots start bustling with even more activity.

This peak season usually runs from the end of May or early June through September, coinciding with school holidays in our key markets and the onset of our drier climate, as hotter temperatures ease off and the humidity starts to climb down from the high 90s.

More widespread relief is generally felt as we move out of our cyclone season, although it being the tropics and climate change is more widely accepted, many a wary eye will keep watching for the odd formation of an out-ofseason cyclone trying to sneak in as it has done a few times before.

Out-of-season cyclones, like lesser understood climate change, are usually accepted with the island shoulder shrug, in the same manner, lifted eyebrows can confirm an affirmative response.

Most days are perfect so what’s a bad day now and then? If you can understand that philosophical attitude, you can almost understand this generally happy nation of people. But other things are starting to change that are moving beyond weather patterns, with travellers rethinking their reasons for travel and doing more research on where they travel and when causing a gradual and almost radical shift in the usual timings of the peak and off-peak seasons.

Preferred times for travel become our high seasons and this generally falls into place with our drier and cooler months. So while pent-up demand for travel was expected to have been completely vented some 12 months postreopening, we are seeing some gradual changes coming through that are having a significant impact on tourism-related businesses that have always timed supplies and operational response based on the seasonal influx of visitors.

There are encouraging signs of economic recovery holding steady with expected off-peak seasons not quite happening in the first few months of the year and visitor numbers holding steady at 50-60% levels in most areas instead, just before the deep dive into peak season.

The reopening of international borders and the return of tourism have been very crucial elements to Fiji’s economic recovery even though the pandemic set the industry back by nearly a decade, wiping out years of growth overnight.

Additionally, businesses have had to review extensions, make difficult decisions to shut down to complete major refurbishments or review product offerings to cater to changed demands. The demand for Fiji remaining high into its second-year post-reopening is really positive but still received with cautious optimism within the industry. It is after all still cyclone season despite dodging three close calls in the last month alone.

Plus, it has been difficult to ignore the recent political and public debates on taxes moving back up, and concern for high debt levels that need to be brought down as we prepare for public consultations that will take place soon in the lead-up to the economic summit, followed by the national budget.

Both events are expected to address these challenges along with how this will impact Fiji’s future development plans and economic progress. Returning the Fijian diaspora, increased demand for conferences and conventions by local and overseas delegates and first-time visitors to the country responding positively to creative destination marketing efforts, are among some of the reasons for the current, continuing busy tourism activity some months after the last high season.

Sports activities with international teams coming through have been steady and are expected to increase with several planned large-scale events still to come. But these are spread around the country with the mismatch of higher room inventory located predominantly in the west, and the bulk of sporting stadiums and facilities based almost 200 kilometres away in the opposite direction in the Central Division.

It has also helped Fiji grab positive global attention through social media pages with high-end individuals dropping in over the last year to check out our famous hospitality and dip their manicured toes in our pristine waters.

Increased super yacht charters, early response to trending demand for nature-based experiences and the well-timed increases in, and commencements of flight schedules to offer visitors plenty of choices have all supported the higher and continued levels of visitor response, their increased spending and even longer stays than seen historically.

Continuing this current momentum is looking like a hard ask though, given the current environment — global economic pressures driving up prices and inflation, increasing skilled staff shortages and the inability to take any further shocks — climate or health-related.

Economists have been predicting a tough 2023 and the industry continues to brace expectantly while ploughing ahead with meeting the high demand. It is also important to note that many of our smaller tourism stakeholders, who outnumber the larger members; struggle to comply with the numerous and often outdated regulatory business requirements that erode productivity with their often replicated requirements across the broad spectrum of compliance demands.

This includes the smaller stakeholders like locally owned budget resorts in rural or maritime island locations, that have been unable to access concessionary loans despite the products currently on offer that are aimed specifically at SMEs — hence have remained closed since 2020.

FHTA has continued to identify and support changes that will further improve the Ease of Doing Business (EDB) and promote a more compliant business environment where integrity, safety, and ethical behaviour can be consistently practised.

We know only too well how much harder it can be for SMEs in any industry to manage especially when they don’t experience the same business levels as those located in the bigger tourism hubs.

While still a work in progress that requires working diligently with the many public service agencies to unpack the infinite number of processes that have been created to support policies and legislations against expected outcomes, most efforts eventually culminate in identifying where the best practice efforts can be implemented that would address several compliance requirements at the same time.

And then convincing the public sector that these changes will improve the business environment, promote compliance, and positively impact productivity. So that businesses can focus on what they’re all about.

From more efficiently processing visitor movement to creating a supportive infrastructure that enables new tourism businesses and entrepreneurship; simplifying how we do business makes Fiji more attractive and more competitive.

To truly stand out and compete at the next level, we have to have the ability to allow visitors to track where they’re going, feel safe at all times, and be confident that their complaints will be addressed quickly or that a reported incident will yield swift response from law enforcement.

New businesses responding to product and service demand have to be able to set up their businesses quickly, access a bank loan or get a bank account and credit facility, locate skilled staff and be aware of basic compliance requirements.

As we move into mid-March and prepare for the upward swing in demand; license and permit renewals have been completed, staff training, upskilling and onboarding are in full swing, marketing and packaging efforts are being fine-tuned, supplies have been ordered earlier than usual to try and outwit the dreaded Port of Auckland supply-chain bottleneck, and preparations are being completed to ensure the industry is ready for the first real bump up in numbers that usually takes place over Easter.

With forward bookings already looking strong, we are hoping that everyone, including our critical SMEs, will be getting ready for the long uphill run to the high season. If you’re thinking about taking a break yourself soon — book early.

• FANTASHA LOCKINGTON is the CEO of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of this paper.

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