The Pandemic, War and the Effect on Island Travel

Passenger ticket check (Photo: Aidan Golpak)

It’s an early Tuesday morning in the seaside town of Levuka. A fish salesman is busy opening his doors to suppliers as they bring in their catch after the night’s fishing. A shop owner scurries around preparing to open for his first customers of the day, and a teacher is clearing her desk and prepares to welcome her students into the classroom. They may be from different professions, but these three people have one thing in common, their reliance on sea transport.

Before 2020 and COVID-19 pandemic, Fiji was optimistic about its business, tourism, and other economic opportunities. So too were people on the small island of Ovalau, which is home to Fiji’s old capital Levuka. A short three-to-four-hour boat ride from Natovi landing, it attracts tourists, students, and local sightseers interested in Fiji’s history. Local business owners, students, working professionals, and townspeople use sea travel to get to and from Levuka to other parts of Fiji.

The spread of the virus impacted commercial fishing and trading in 2020 as research conducted in the Rewa, Macuata and Kadavu provinces showed a 54% drop in fish sales and difficulty in selling fish. The Institute of Marine Resources at the University of the South Pacific survey, conducted in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, found supply exceeded demand, especially during lockdown.

Notably, PAFCO was busy during the pandemic, at some stages operating 6 days a week. However it too has difficulty sourcing its staple raw input, albacore. Fisheries Minister Semi Koroilavesau said PAFCO had the capacity to process 30,000 metric tonnes of albacore annually, but processed just 19,000 metric tonnes in 20189 (the date of its most recent annual report).

The Minister said this was only 63% of PAFCO’s capacity and there was a need to secure around 11,000 metric tonnes of albacore for PAFCO to reach its full capacity.

All at sea

Alvin Kumar with a customer (Photo: Aidan Golpak)

There was a pause in inter-island shipping services from March 29 to April 25, 2020 and from April to November 12, 2021 . These restrictions were put in place by the Fijian Government in response to COVID-19 outbreak in the country.  

This halt in local sea travel affected not only the fishing and marine resources industry, but every part of local island living.

Alvin Kumar is a local seafood wholesaler. He is enthusiastic about his business but was deeply affected by the COVID situation. He relies on fisherman (suppliers) from Ovalau as well as nearby islands to bring in their catch and after paying them, he sells to the local townspeople, restaurants and eateries, and even to buyers in Suva. He says that during the pandemic he lost “about $10,000, in three months” as the boat stopped coming in and he stopped supplying to his buyers in Suva.

With the lifting of the lockdown, business has slowly picked up and is now going well, Kumar says.

Meanwhile, high fuel prices have also affected island travel and seafaring in the Pacific region. There has been a significant increase in marine fuel prices due to the Russian-Ukraine war since the beginning of the year. As such, the price hike has caused boat fare prices to increase. It costs $20 for a one-way passenger ticket via Goundar Shipping and $30 one-way with St Mary’s. 

Sarnil Kumar is a small grocery and bakery shop owner and says shipping services are a challenge. “One major problem that we are facing right now is with the ferry. So one shipping company (Patterson) can bring in the cargo, and we have two more running… one is Goundar and the other is St Mary’s (Venu Shipping). For Patterson, they give a good fare and for Goundar, they cannot bring in cargo as they offload at the Levuka wharf, and only small cars can come in, and for Venu shipping the prices are a bit higher.”

Kumar says they prefer Patterson, but recently the service has not been running as usual and they have to rely on the other two companies. “That’s why the prices of our goods have to go up as the fuel and fare price increases”, says Kumar. [We were unable to get through to Pattersons on their listed number for a response].

Because of the halt in inter-island shipping, Kumar found it harder to get store supplies from outside Ovalau. He served customers through a locked gate during the height of the COVID pandemic, and says he lost many customers over this period.

The pandemic was also a difficult time for students and teachers as they had to close school and study from home. As the lockdown restrictions lifted and school returned to normal, Wainisi Navara, a teacher at St Johns College reflects on this transition. She has been teaching for 13 years uses the ferry to travel back and forth from Natovi to Levuka on a weekly basis. She says in recent times this has proven expensive. “As a frequent traveller, I can see a lot of fare differences…and I think this is due to the past years increase in fuel prices, and this has caused parents, students, and teachers to fork out more money for fares”.

Alisi Niumataiwalu, a student at St Johns College echoed these thoughts. “Since I started using the ferry to travel, I can remember when the fare used to be $20, now there has been an increase by $5 where we pay $25.” One of the challenges to being a boarding student and travelling between Ovalau and Suva is transportation. Now, as the country recovers from the pandemic and is dealing with increasing fuel prices, the people continue to struggle.

The stories of struggle are not met with just hopelessness and despair. As Pacific people, each storyteller shares their hope and resilience in the face of economic crisis. “I am confident that soon, I will be financially stable and my business will continue to grow,” says Alvin Kumar. Shop owner Sarnil Kumar shares the same sentiments, having survived numerous challenges, including cyclones, but continues to run his business with perseverance and faith. And teacher Wainisi Navara says, “I enjoy teaching and I like travelling to Levuka for this job, knowing that it is benefits many students.”

The regular commuters, teachers and students, continue their daily tasks and their regular commute. For despite the difficulties, they will continue using these services as the only option for travelling between Ovalau and Viti Levu.