Mar 08, 2021 Last Updated 9:51 PM, Mar 7, 2021
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The future of tourism

The end of breakfast buffets and garlanding on arrival. The rise of virtual travel experiences. The longing for solitude and simplicity. This is just a sample of the travel predictions being debated across the globe as we look to post-COVID tourism.

But how well is the Pacific positioned to respond to potential changes, and what is the current status of the industry?   

“I understand one of the greatest challenges that we have is uncertainty,” Fiji’s new tourism minister, Faiyaz Siddiq Koya told Fiji tourism industry participants in a webinar recently.

China, which has reopened for domestic tourism, has closed buffets, increased distance between tables in restaurants, has all staff wearing personal protective equipment, closed gyms and indoor swimming pools and switched off air conditioning, reports McKinsey’s China-based analysts. Magazines and newspapers are no longer available on flights, and food and beverages are packaged and bottled.

McKinsey predicts young travellers will return to international tourism first, not traditionally the Pacific’s strongest visitor dynamic, although it does provide an opportunity to further develop niche markets, such as adventure tourism.

Associate Professor of Tourism Futures at Wellington School of Business and Government,  Dr Ian Yeoman has identified a number trends which could characterise travel in the future, including the desire to connect with family and friends, the search for simplicity, the end of expensive, frivolous or environmentally-destructive expenditure and a move towards community and collectivism.

The Pacific is well placed to capitalise on several of these trends when borders open up, as long as we can differentiate ourselves from other destinations.

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Like many Pacific Islands, the French dependency of New Caledonia has restricted the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus through strong border controls, strict quarantine for overseas travellers and policies for physical distancing and lock-down. But now, this success is threatened by the passage of French legislation that overrides local regulations.

With the exception of Wallis and Futuna, all French “overseas collectivities” have seen cases of COVID-19, mainly from incoming overseas travellers or returning citizens. But the scale of the pandemic is completely different between metropolitan France and its overseas dependencies.

By mid-May, France had more than 142,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19, with 27,500 deaths. In contrast, New Caledonia has seen just 18 confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19, after local authorities managed to close the borders and halt further spread of the coronavirus. At time of writing, only one person of the 18 confirmed cases remains in hospital and there have not been any new cases for more than a month.

The disparity between New Caledonia’s success and the crisis in France highlights ongoing tension over policy, with New Caledonian leaders eager to maintain strict policies that have avoided the catastrophe seen in France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

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The Papua New Guinea government’s decision not to extend the mining lease on the economically important Porgera gold mine has shocked the joint venture operator, but the K17 billion (US$4.8 billion) Wafi-Golpu project is likely to be signed off in September.

The current Porgera lease expired last August, but Barrick New Guinea Ltd (BNL) had sought a 20-year extension as far back as June 2017. Barrick’s CEO, Mark Bristow had met with Prime Minister James Marape four times after his election last June to negotiate an extension.

In a shock statement on 24 April, the government said it had carefully considered the issue and decided it was "in the best interests of the State, especially in lieu of the environmental damages claims and resettlement issues", that the lease not be renewed. That weekend, Marape sent in 100 troops to secure the mine site.

Over the 30 years of the mine’s operation, there have been numerous controversies, claims and counter-claims about water pollution, environmental and social problems, questions around local economic returns and violent clashes in the area, according to ANU analysts John Burton and Glenn Banks.

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PICTA stands for Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement. It is a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiated amongst the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) to free up trade amongst themselves, under the provisions of ‘GATT 1947’, which morphed into ‘GATT 1994’ that is incorporated into the WTO Agreement. PICTA was signed in 2001 and came into force in 2003. But implementation was delayed until 2007. As of today, only seven PICs are trading under this agreement.

The situation depicted above has not changed since 2010, 10 years ago. In a workshop, sponsored by the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organization (PIPSO), the European Union (EU) and the Pacific Regional Integration Programme (PACREIP) in 2010, its outcomes document had this to say: “They are concerned therefore that only 7 of the 14 PICs are currently implementing PICTA. They believe that this is retarding regional economic integration and delaying the realisation of the collective economic and social benefits and improvements to the living standards of all the peoples of the Pacific region. They further believe that the delay in the benefits of regional economic integration under PICTA will constrain our ability and capacity to negotiate a fully meaningful PACER Plus with Australia and New Zealand.”

Later, on 5-8 November 2012, in a ‘What Can We Learn Symposium’, sponsored by six organisations including regional, United Nations and aid agencies, Dr Roman Grynberg, former Director of Economic Governance at the Forum Secretariat lamented the fact that PICTA “has thus far been of the most limited success.” He put the reasons down to: “there was no appetite amongst island officials and policy makers for any form of liberalisation that involved a direct adjustment cost. Whereas island officials have always been happy to write, sign and even ratify trade agreements, implementing them and accepting the real economic costs were quite another matter.”

After 19 years since signing, and 17 years since the agreement came into force, it can only be said that the current status of this trade agreement, the first for PICs, is most unfortunate indeed. The regional economic integration that PICTA was supposed to bring about is still very much at its infancy.

The founders of Pacific regionalism, way back in 1971, had conceived such a FTA would free up Intra-PIC trade and would further develop into an economic union, permitting initially the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services. By specifically targeting an economic union, the regional leaders then would have envisaged a Pacific-wide common market that went beyond trade, also envisaging prospects of coordination of various social, fiscal and monetary policies amongst participating nations.

However, after 49 years of regionalism, it can be said that the early regional leaders’ dream remains a pipedream. Recent decisions by those who could transform this situation have not helped. The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) Trade Ministers’ meeting last February failed to give PICTA the thrust it needs to get it urgently going forward and to expediently make a difference to regional economic integration.

The PIF Trade Ministers’ outcomes were a damp squib. For PICTA, the ministers “also recognised the importance of …PICTA and its potential to facilitate intra-regional trade.” This is essentially saying the obvious. The FTA’s importance and potential were the qualities that drove the early regional leaders to negotiate the agreement in the first place. What is to be gained from such reiteration? This speaks volumes of the foresight of our early leaders but not much about our current leaders.

Furthermore, the use of ‘also’ in this context implies that such a statement was an afterthought. This presents an interesting angle. PICTA is a matter for PICs trade ministers only. But in this case, trade ministers from Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) were present during the discussions. Was the language of the outcomes especially aimed at sugar-coating due to the presence of the two elephants in the room?  

It did not stop there. The next part of the decision was extraordinarily naïve. Ministers indicated the direction further discussions could take but provided only if such and such were done. They failed to give concrete direction and action-oriented instructions as how those issues that were thwarting the ratification and implementation of the FTA could be expedited.

Admittedly, the issues involved are not simple. These are to do with what is now termed as the ‘modernisation work on PICTA’, including the extensive PICTA review and the Rules of Origin review. I can imagine that someone had coined ‘modernisation’ since the issues have been there on the table for donkeys’ years and have somewhat lost their vitality.

For the PICs trade officials and PIF Secretariat (PIFS) staff after the ministers’ meeting, it may be just business as usual. They have not heard any plea for urgency and certainly no specificity of actions to be taken both at the national and regional levels. There was no mention of additional resources. There was no mention of the legal, technical, political and consultative measures that need to be mobilised to progress matters. There was no mention of the measures directed at mobilising the private sector representatives at the national level and at the regional level through PIPSO. There was no mention of the prospects of technical assistance (TA) that PIFS staff should extend to members especially to the Smaller Island States (SIS).

It is difficult to be optimistic about PICTA given its dismal history. But one can be proven wrong. The trade officials may have reached a tipping point and could now be driven to do all they can despite the vagueness and the absence of commitment in the ministerial directives. This is a possibility given the commendation they have received recently from Professor Jane Kelsey of Auckland University.

The good professor was a resource person for the ministerial meeting last February. Whilst she was impressed with the quality of some of our trade officials, she was not however with the Forum Secretariat. Her assessment of the latter was that whilst there has been an improvement, the Secretariat is still inadequate in servicing the needs of the PICs. The Secretariat lacks the ‘fundamentals’ and the ‘nuances’ to identify the real needs of the PICs and the ‘independence’ to address them. If there was a vindication for the provisions of TA by PIFS for its deserving members, this was it.  

The case of PICTA and its stunted history raises two big issues for Pacific regionalism. The first is that if PICs are not getting the benefits from this trade agreement as intended, then questions have to be asked about the suitability of the model around which the agreement is built. Professor Kelsey has already told us that the model is broken. So, what can be put in its place?

There is also the question of the suitability of a regional grouping of only small states. Can such create the net benefits needed? Would PACER Plus with ANZ be a better configuration for a regional trade agreement?

Big questions need critical thinking on the part of our regional planners. These are all food for thought for the regional strategists who are developing the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent and for the next PIF Leaders’ meeting scheduled for August later this year in Port Vila.

In the recent Vanuatu national elections, Dr Andrina Thomas stood for the rural electorate of Espiritu Santo. In this article, which was originally published on the DevPolicy blog, she offers some reflections to Elise Howard.

In the 2020 Vanuatu elections, 18 women campaigned and none of them got through again, just as in 2012 and 2016. I think the blockage is vote buying and candidates having no money for sponsorship and campaigning. We also need to work better at capturing votes. Support for women to run for elections needs to move out of workshops in lavish hotels in Port Vila and instead get down to the constituencies to encourage the grassroots to resist bribery and vote for women.

I want to say to the young women of Vanuatu, do not be discouraged! If we fail the first time we need to keep trying and believing in ourselves. The meaning of FAIL is First Attempt In Learning. Therefore, we can’t stop now just because there is still corruption and rampant vote buying in Vanuatu. Vanuatu defeated its fundamental principles of independence by selling passports, which is our identity, and selling land, which is our mother, because of money. It’s our civic duty to continue to preach good governance, and hopefully one day when we have more ethical people in power, better management, leadership, and governance will happen in Vanuatu.

Political parties and vote buying

In my small village of Matantas in Big Bay in the rural island of Espiritu Santo, the 150 people who were registered voters had to choose between 12 different political parties. For those voters to make their choice at the polling station, they are thinking of the people who paid them, who bought and gave them bags of rice, bags of kava, made promises for road contracts, and people who gave them money. It’s very difficult for someone like me to go in and say: “Look I’m not going to bribe you, but I’m going to come and tell you why I want you to vote for me because I have ethics and integrity. If I go into Parliament tomorrow, I will make sure I will not misuse your constituency development funds and I will report back to you how these funds were used”. But it’s difficult to compete with rampant bribery and corruption which is how men have always been voted into Vanuatu’s Parliament.

In Vanuatu our voters are handed a booklet of ballot cards when they go to vote. Their vote is supposed to be secret. When they go into a voting booth, the voter picks out the card for their candidate and puts this in the ballot box. For voters who aren’t literate, they are picking out a face from a photo on the card. In this election, political parties kept the voting cards – they were putting money in and returning the cards with money inside, a thousand vatu, and then getting people to vote for them. After the election the parties check whether any of their votes are missing. There was one incident when one husband went and beat up his partner with a stick and then asked her who she voted for, her response was that she couldn’t find the card for that person, so she took another one and put it in the envelope. The other problem is literacy. When people don’t know how to read, the only thing they can identify is pictures. In one instance on Malekula, a candidate only had his name on the card but no pictures. So, he was highly disadvantaged and now we have to ask, why did the picture not come out? This is something the Electoral Commission will have to look at.

Political parties and gender equality

The big political parties come with a lot of money and there’s no chance to compete against them. The smaller parties, who campaign transparently, are not going to dish out money. It is difficult to get the sponsorship that the older and bigger parties have because there are limited sponsors in Vanuatu.

Despite a lot of awareness around gender equality, when women are actually nominated, they are not nominated in their own right. Political parties will make a woman stand with another man; she is like a token. The parties say yes, we understand there should be gender equality but when it comes to vote casting, it’s usually the men that get the highest vote. So that’s why the women said look, we’ve tried. That’s the reason why the Vanuatu National Council of Women created the Leleon Vanua Democratic Party, a woman-led party on 15 May 2018. Access to funding is problematic which makes it hard to field contestants as our fundraising strategies were not sufficient compared to the bigger parties. We didn’t field any contestants in 2020, but we will do so in 2024. We want future leaders with good ethics and integrity standards.

Capturing votes

The next strategy is undertaking advocacy work for my community by spending time educating people and answering their questions. I don’t just do good governance educational work, I also do financial literacy training. I’ll be helping the Mamas who are market vendors, and other Mamas with their small businesses, on how to save and manage their business properly and improve their small businesses to prosper. There are 3,000 market vendors. If all these women actually rallied behind me, I would have gotten elected, but the problem is they don’t know me personally. I need to come down to their level, get them to trust me, and maybe I will do better in 2024.

Support for women to run for elections – what do we need?

International donors have run many programs to support women to run for elections. The aid funding usually benefits the INGO groups. They run lots of meetings, always with the same people, in expensive hotels rather than reaching out to the grassroots. Internal assessments are done, but not a lot of work is done with communities externally to sensitise them and encourage them to vote for women. Gender equality means going down to the communities to convince both men and women to vote for women.

This article first appeared on www.devpolicy.org

For over two months, Fiji’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Satyendra Prasad has been largely confined to his home, He describes life during the COVID-19 induced lockdown in New York, and how it is likely to impact on multilateralism and the representation of Pacific Island states at the UN and at other international global negotiations and fora.

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The outbreak of Covid-19 in Papua New Guinea represents an added threat to economic growth and stability, given the country's limited capacity to manage the health crisis, according to three global economic analysts. 

On the plus side, government has raised more than K1 billion (US$286 million) ‘COVID Bonds’ from banks and super funds and Treasurer Ian Ling-Stuckey says he’ll be seeking another K1.5 billion for COVID bonds over the coming weeks.

Fitch Solutions’ Country Risk Research Unit, the latest ANZ Bank’s Pacific Insight Report and ratings agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P) have all revised down growth forecasts, with both Fitch and ANZ predicting a recession this year.

But the Bank of PNG, the central bank, thinks the impact of Covid-19 will be ‘contained’ during 2020 and will be minimal next year and 2022, according to its latest biannual Monetary Policy Statement.

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