Tourism Talanoa: Resilience and adaptability

While many tourism businesses have been open for months now, getting to full reopening status is still an ongoing challenge for hundreds of other resorts located on islands other than on the main island of Viti Levu. Picture: SUPPLIED

The ramp-up of activity in the tourism sector has been jolting but expected. There has been a flurry of queries and requests for clarifications on the myriad list of requirements for reopening from across the tourism family – the accommodation providers, the suppliers, the contractors and even potential visitors coming directly to the Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association (FHTA) website.

Tourism staff have started returning to full-time work while others who had moved on into other industries are being contacted with new offers so that the preparation of closed or semiopen resorts can reopen with full inventory being made available and all systems firing for full operational status.

But while many tourism businesses have been open for months now, getting to full reopening status is still an ongoing challenge for hundreds of other resorts located on islands other than on the main island of Viti Levu.

With lower vaccination levels on the outer islands still being addressed, many people may not be aware that getting staff out to these resorts is a logistical process that requires many complicated steps.

As enquiries from potential visitors turn to confirmed bookings, the rush to get reopening ready by 1st December is still a challenge for many island resorts trying to get tradespeople like carpenters, builders, electricians, engineers and plumbers out because this had not been possible before with lockdowns still in place for maritime travel.

And adding to the list of things that need to be addressed by resort operators that have had properties closed with only the required machinery running, is the storm surge damage from the cyclone last year that has often required the rebuilding and reinforcement of sea walls and other infrastructure.

In the list of people required in the clean-up and maintenance process, apart from resort staff for manning requirements, are also the regulatory and compliance officers who must ensure licensing and approvals are in place before reopening.

Vessel and vehicle safety inspections, OHS, hotel licencing, fire services, HR trainers and any other agencies with a need to poke around a tourism business to ensure compliance.

The massive task and associated costs of getting reopening ready, therefore, despite requiring stepping through a range of constantly evolving COVID safe requirements is difficult to appreciate unless one gets out to an island resort to see it first-hand.

Thousands of local travellers in Fiji have been able to do exactly this and experience for themselves through exciting gatherings set against the most amazing ocean views and aweinspiring sunsets, then sharing these widely on every available social media platform; further boosting Fijian tourism images for a country still prepping to make things even more perfect and just a little safer.

And ready they will be for whichever date each resort has targeted for its reopening.

Many have confirmed they will be ready over the next few weeks, while far more have already been opened and where possible, already enjoying domestic tourism. So come 1st December, who exactly is coming in or looking to book a seat on those flights that are selling so quickly that Qantas and Jetstar have decided to bring forward their own scheduled flights to Fiji.

Travel gurus have made all sorts of assumptions, while wholesalers and marketing experts have weighed in with their own theories based on historical travel data on Pacific Islands travel. But COVID has been that once in a lifetime curveball that put our world off-kilter for a while and forced a refocus on clean hands, fresh air and open spaces; the global travel industry is still ambivalent on how things will pan out.

Resilience and adaptability have been identified as the two fundamental characteristics that the travel industry must adopt for a successful rebirth because these will ensure we are ready for anything. As Australia slowly reopens by state and their citizens who have traditionally made up 42 per cent of Fiji’s visitor market share flex their travel freedoms, we are seeing a tremendous surge of interest and bookings for a variety of reasons.

We can expect that there will be more families and groups of friends choosing to travel together, having been apart for months (and even years) with restrictions on travel and crowds in place until only recently. Millennials are also expected to be a stronger segment of travellers who are recognised digital natives with a wealth of power as a generation that can find information and move quickly as a result. These younger travellers on the lookout for experiences, generally trust each other’s opinions over any marketing spiels or industry advice, with social media platforms driving their reasons for selecting a product, service or experience.

Understanding how and why these traveller segments book, should drive how we market our own products and services.

And threading through all the information being pored through by travel-hungry populations emerging from long lockdowns and nervousness around COVID safety is the need for reassurance that where they are going is considered safe, can keep them safe and that they will be able to return home safely.

Fiji has many mechanisms now in place to deal with all the moving parts of the resurrection of tourism as the biggest employer and the largest contributor of national revenue.

This includes the tax breaks and incentives announced in the last few national budgets to support the industry’s recovery, the COVID Risk Management Taskforce, the Tourism Recovery Team and the Care Fiji Commitment (CFC) – forums that have allowed wider consultation for tourism’s safer recovery process and the reopening framework.

The collaboration with the national tourism office, the private sector and the medical services people have now moved to ensure we have sufficient supplies for testing kits, that we can turn around test results for the thousands of visitors that will be moving through our systems, along with the thousands more tourism staff that will require regular testing as well, until these requirements for testing reduce or are eventually removed.

With testing kits suddenly tripling in cost, we may need to request assistance with price regulation to ensure we stay on track with getting reopening ready. So, with the addition of even more now to the moving parts that is normal for an industry that is coming back on to its usual non-stop operational nature; and to the question of whether Fiji will be ready for reopening and whether tourism will bounce back to its pre-pandemic highs; the response is that we are still hopeful we can yes to both.

Of even more interest, based on the current booking trends, is whether COVID has impacted our traditional “off-season” – the sudden drop in bookings we usually expect after Christmas, which lasts until the first school holidays in Australia and New Zealand around April.

Because it is looking like January, February and March bookings for Fiji are scaling upwards and are not going according to what has taken place historically or pre-COVID. Despite fully understanding the economic shortfalls without its usually formidable influence on employment, supply lines and the large, multiplier effects throughout the country; tourism still cannot afford to be anything but pragmatic.

We are still apprehensively watching our increasing and commendable national vaccination numbers because we want to reduce the number of ‘no-go’ areas that will identify lower vaccinated areas. We are working to come up with innovative solutions to the logistic challenges of getting test swabs to labs and getting reports turned around faster.

There are still safety protocols and onerous conditions that appear overly cautious or burdensome especially for SMEs, that require clarity or flexibility so that the many segments in tourism can comply and be included in the reopening because tourism has never been a “one size fits all” type of industry. However, the industry breathed a sigh of relief this week when restrictions were amended to enable more convenient travel pathways. Along with applying resilience and adaptability, we can also add flexibility.

Like a coconut tree – exemplifying all three characteristics and forever here in the tropics. So too will tourism if we can help it.

Fantasha Lockington is the chief executive officer of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of this newspaper.

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