This past weekend, a number of resorts on Viti Levu opened to domestic tourists for the first time since the second wave of COVID-19 hit Fiji.
It was a trial run before international borders reopen, with a small number of rooms and bures open, limited services available, hospitality workers back on site after many months at home, and the implementation of COVID-safe protocols and requirements.
A number of resorts celebrated Fiji Day at this weekend’s reopening, with Fiji Marriott Resort General Manager Silvano Dressino to say they were especially excited to welcome visitors from Suva.
“The past few months of lockdown have been extraordinary times for us and the rest of the tourism operators as our domestic travel had been restricted. Thankfully the situation has positively progressed allowing us to travel and explore within Fiji once again.”
Surveying the domestic market
The tourism industry is not expected to return to thriving levels until 2024.
But tourism stakeholders are optimistic that domestic tourism is on track to recovery mid to long- term.
Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill said, “The Government has provided a very generous – $40M, which is being used to entice international tourists to Fiji at prices they may not have seen for some time.
With border closures, tourism operators have had to attract domestic tourists as the only means to generating any revenue.
The Domestic Tourism Study for Fiji – Insights from local travelers for post-COVID & beyond, released last month by the Market Development Fiji (MDF) in collaboration with the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Authority, the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism & Transport (MCTTT) and Tourism Fiji, revealed that while tourism generated FJ$2.06 billion and over 890,000 visitor arrivals in 2019, this declined by over 80% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study was based on surveys of more than 10,000 local travelers and focus groups. The findings will allow for the updating of existing domestic strategies by Government and the private sector.
Key findings included:
- Outside of the Viti Levu’s traditional destinations (Nadi, the Coral Coast), the top three destinations for local tourists are Savusavu, Taveuni and the Mamanuca Islands.
- There is a lack of activity in the development of new holiday packages for the local tourism market.
- Fully integrated destination packages inclusive of sir/sea travel, local transfers and events would increase inter-regional travel and spend.
- Local tourists are looking for unique destination activities and experience outside of hotels and resorts.
Brent Hill described the report as “fantastic”, saying it gave much insight into ways Tourism Fiji could improve its promotion to local tourist and where the value segments were.
“I think the long-term effect of this study is to really shine a spotlight on the role that domestic tourism can play within Fiji – and that it is a strong, healthy component of our overall market.”
“The domestic market is not one size fits all, and it is not just single faceted – there is plenty of opportunity across a range of different segments, so I would encourage tourism operators to read the report and consider the findings and see how they can adapt and grow their share,” he said.
“We’ve been really pleased with the response to date to our Love our Locals campaign…Popular places are starting to book out.”
Tourism operator Captain Cook Cruises is also pleased at the high demand for many of the destinations they visit, as well as a strong desire for cruising and day trips.
Chief Executive Officer Allison Haworth West said the study confirmed their experience with local bookings, and the kinds of experiences Captain Cook Cruises offers.
“It is an extremely useful study in mapping the attitudes and patterns of local tourists. Captain Cook Cruises have always had local marketing strategy and an interest in having Fijians tourists cruise with us, however the experience of the COVID period and information that has come out in this study further inform our future planning and product development moving forward.
This study has further confirmed to us something that we already know – Fijians like exploring their own country. They also like cruising and sailing,” she said.
West said the very nature of tourism is a constant attention to adaption and change.
“I think many operators have been surprised at the depth and breadth of the local Fijian market and the opportunities that have presented themselves.
“Our cruises have proven themselves to be very popular both in the day cruise and overnight cruising areas. It was also very interesting to see that it was our most expensive room categories that sold out first.”
The company aims to source its supplies locally and support other local businesses which is essential in the current environment and moving forward, “we need to work together” West said.
Like many tourism operators, the company has been working with other properties to support out-of-work tourism and hospitality workers. It’s flagship vessel, the Reef Endeavour, also served as accomodation for medica frontliners in Suva and Lautoka at the height of the second wave.
Appealing to Fiji-based expats
One of the segments the domestic tourism study analysed was expatriates based in Fiji. It found while they were small in number, they have the highest per-head spend of the groups studied, $822 for a two-night stay.
Ben Wheeler writes the Veni Vidi Viti travel blog. He has travelled extensively during the international border shutdowns, and believes Fiji’s strong advocacy for climate change and awareness could be a game changer for developing tourism initiatives. He believes this would strengthen Fiji’s image as accessible, clean, environmentally friendly, egalitarian etc.
“I would say building on Fiji’s reputation for climate change awareness and response might be an interesting angle to push, for example Savusavu’s developing Blue Town Initiative.”
Since the launch of the ‘Love our locals’ marketing campaign, Wheeler and his friends have travelled from Suva to visit the Radisson Blu, Hilton Denerau, Momi Bay Marriott, Blue Lagoon Cruises (Yasawas), and Captain Cook Cruises (Lau).
“The Love Our Locals deals have allowed us to explore resorts and regions that by and large we would not usually have been able to afford. The most enjoyable cruise so far would have to be to Lau with Captain Cook (April 2021). The most enjoyable resort stay would be Momi Bay Marriott (February 2021).”
He explained every resort and cruise is maintaining an approximate level of quality in these hard times making the experience at each place they stayed quite incredible.
“The main issue is that, with a reduced number of people who can afford even these wonderful deals in Fiji, most of the resorts have been (until recently with the explosion of movement out of Suva post-October 4th) rather sadly empty.”
Wheeler suggested giving bursaries to low income families and let them enjoy some of these resorts especially over the next few months while Fiji is still trying to generate/renew interest in the region.
“These bursary offers could be inclusive, so that such low income families would know they would not have to spend any more money upon arrival.
This could then be used for a different kind of advertising and branding of Fiji, one where anyone can come and enjoy a stay, rather than the more exclusive crowds who have tended to dominate in the past.”
In Taveuni, Garden Island Resort General Manager Leba Pareti agreed there is potential for growth in the local market, which would require development of specifically designed packages with very attractive pricing.
The report identified Taveuni as an emerging market, and Pareti said locals and tourists are guaranteed exceptional experiences in Taveuni, including diving the Rainbow Reef, visiting waterfall sites and nature experiences such as bird watching and viewing the unique Tagimoucia blooms.