Unscripted and unplanned, Fijians have returned quietly to the land and the sea over the past months as the impacts of job losses brought about by the COVID19 pandemic began to bite.
In the tourism belts of Nadi and nearby Sigatoka, former hotel and resort workers – in their hundreds – are turning to farming and fishing virtually overnight.
Necessity is driving them, and no one knows when, how, or indeed if, this quiet revolution will end.
“With many in the village losing their work, we no longer have a steady income to buy food so we’re planting our own,” says Epeli Ganilau.
He is Turaganikoro, village administrator of Sanasana, the traditional owners of the land which hosts the multi-million dollar InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa and the Natadola Bay Championship Golf Course.
With almost all the men and women in the village laid off work from the resort and its neighbouring golf course, Sanasana has revived their youth and women clubs to spearhead the return to subsistence farming and fishing.
Other villages in Fiji’s tourism belt on Viti Levu’s west coast and Vanua Levu’s south coast around Savusavu town have done the same; closure of hotels and supporting businesses has driven jobless men, women and youths back to subsistence farming, or fishing.
Figures are daunting, and likely to worsen
A survey of tourism businesses by the International Finance Corporation and Fiji’s Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport found that if the current situation doesn’t change by this November (a likely scenario given recent increases in COVID diagnoses in the Australian and New Zealand source markets), over 500 of the 3,569 businesses surveyed anticipate bankruptcy. If international travel does not resume within six months, 60.5% of those surveyed will close or move away from the tourism sector.
The study further found that 20% of tourism businesses are currently unable to service their debt, and a further 16% expect to default on their debt within one to four months, and have called for loan repayment moratoria, further tax reductions/holidays, and financial support for recovery and rent deferral.
Meanwhile a study by the International Labour Organisation on the impact of COVID-19 on employment also released at the end of last month found half of the workers surveyed had lost their jobs, and most of those still in employment were on reduced hours. More than half of redundant workers said they could not find jobs and needed financial support, and 46% had ventured into subsistence living and operating a microbusiness. Almost all (99%) said the government should do more to protect their jobs and rights, “instead of depleting their retirement fund.”
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As Fiji’s largest foreign exchange earner pre-COVID-19, the tourism and hospitality sectors went into free fall when international borders closed due to the spread of the pandemic, and the nation entered into lock down mode.
Up to 112,000 workers were out of work almost overnight, most of whom worked in Fiji’s hotels and resorts. Most of them are now surviving by drawing on their life savings at Fiji’s National Provident Fund.
As workers adjust to the new normal, Fantasha Lockington and her team at the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association have been busy helping members to prepare for the wholesale operational and indeed, cultural changes, the industry requires.
She explains some of these changes in an interview with Islands Business publisher, Samisoni Pareti:
Fantasha Lockington: We’ve worked with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Tourism for COVID safe guidelines to be put in place. The Association is using those guidelines as a baseline for what we do in the tourism industry.
Obviously the larger branding properties would defer to their overseas brands or their sister hotels overseas to incorporate the requirements that get rolled out throughout the hotels. But we want to make sure that our medium and small size operators that don’t have those linkages can also do best practice themselves. So, we’ve used the government’s COVID-safe guidelines and we are putting more details into it that identify with the different tourism segments.
The idea is that we ensure that we provide the confidence level that potential visitors would need for them to actually book. Fiji will need to have every single business buy into this COVID-safe guideline. It can’t be just tourism businesses that need to do it. If you’re a bank and your clients are tourism businesses, you must be implementing these things too. If you’re a supplier of some sort, and you’re going to have to drop off some supplies at a hotel you need to do this as well.
That includes downloading the Fiji Care app, and already at the hotels if you check in now, they will be scanning you at the entrance of the door, they will be taking your name, they will be reminding you to download the app. Fiji Airways is making it compulsory to download the app to make sure they can do contact tracing. We’re just putting together the last part of the plan which will determine the training section of what the Ministry of Health would also need in terms of the special medical practices.
If somebody is sick what do you do, what are the processes, how do you isolate them, who do you call, and then what is the process that works from there. Every possible scenario or question has to be responded to.
I will be working with TLTB (iTaukei Land Trust Board), FITBA (the backpacker’s association), SOFTA, the transfer vessels and companies that take tourists out to the outer islands. They are not all our members out in the islands, so we want to be able to touch base with them and I’m hoping that TLTB can assist us do that, and we’re signing an MOU with them very soon to promote a closer working relationship with locally owned businesses that they work with.
Read the full interview at https://emag.islandsbusiness.com/
Australia’s Assistant Treasurer says in the post-COVID environment Canberra is willing to re-examine its policies including loan concessionality, debt consolidation and aid allocations to Pacific Islands nations but is not giving any promises or firm commitments.
Michael Sukkar is attending the Forum Economic Minister Meeting which kicks off this morning. Australia has already reallocated well over A$100 million to assist Pacific Islands respond to the health, social and economic impacts of COVID-19. But those funds have been reallocated from the existing aid budget.
The next federal budget is due for delivery on October 6, and Sukkar says: “if we do seek to supplement aid or humanitarian assistance to our region, that will be done with the broad principles of the Pacific Step up and will be focussed primarily on our immediate Pacific region and neighbours.”
Sukkar expects discussion of the A$2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility at today’s meeting. He says eight projects have been approved, utilising a mix of grants and non-concessional loans, and has not ruled out revisiting the nature of those loans, as there is “great value to moving to concessional loans”.
“Whilst I don’t want to necessarily announce any change of policy, I think the broad view is that we have to be nimble as we possibly can and that means re-examining all pre-existing COVID programmes,” Sukkar told Pacific journalists yesterday.
“I think it’s safe to say that in a post-COVID environment the Australian government is willing to re-examine everything with fresh eyes… and the view is that with the infrastructure facility, more concessional loan rates or loan terms would be likely to unlock particular projects.”
The Minister said discussions about consolidating debt in multilateral forums is “certainly gathering steam.” He also said the demand for Pacific island seasonal workers is likely to continue and the Australian government has done “some fairly important work in ensuring that appropriate quarantining arrangements and protocols are established to ensure they can continue to come.”
“With the Pacific yet to experience COVID-19, we need to err on the side of caution to ensure that the COVID-19 doesn't get a foothold.
“I think it would be a disaster with fragile health systems and other infrastructure for Australia to effectively be sending COVID into the Pacific through the Pacific island workforce,” Sukkar says.
Preparations are currently underway to send 120 ni-Vanuatu workers to the Northern Territory to help with the mango harvest and there are hopes in other Pacific nations that they will also be able to supply workers for upcoming harvests.
On tourism, Sukkar believes in the longer-term, travel bubbles are “an absolutely worthy way to go” but there is still a lot of work to do on protocols, and that no country in the world could say they have yet “perfected the art of contact tracing and ring-fencing before COVID-19 has the opportunity to spread like wildfire.”
“Until you really have perfected that, I think it is very hard to put in place a 'bubble'.
“But the concept of a bubble is really the only long-term solution and the only sense of certainty that we can all have in getting back to what is an economic engine room for the Pacific.”
The skipper of a yacht that has just been cleared under Fiji’s ‘Blue Lane’ program says Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific island nations should follow Fiji’s lead and create an easy pathway for yachts to visit their countries.
Keith Whitaker, who is sailing on the Zatara with his family, says this would ensure the sustainability of Fiji’s ‘Blue Lane’ program as the cyclone season approaches.
“In order for Fiji’s Blue Lane to be really successful you need a country like New Zealand or Australia that's out of the cyclone belt to create a Blue Lane and to imitate what Fiji’s done. And they need to do that right away because what's hurting the cruising community right now—yachties right now that are stuck in New Zealand—is the uncertainty of where they can go once the cyclone season comes.”
The America’s Cup is scheduled to be staged in New Zealand later this year and prior to travel restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pacific Island nations such as Fiji were hopeful yachts transiting from the northern hemisphere would call into island ports before continuing on the watch the race.
Whitaker says Fiji should be congratulated for taking the lead: “I think that Fiji has done an outstanding job with their Blue Lane program of allowing yachties to come in.”
“Yachties are the least risk for COVID spread, all of us are conscientious to the environment, conscientious to culture, conscientious to spreading any kind of disease. All of us are going to be clear when we leave the port we're coming from and I think it is absolutely necessary for all of these islands to open up to yachties. Most of us to have money to spend, we have boat projects to do and we bring some revenue to the economy that otherwise in a time of COVID-19 you're not getting.”
The Whitaker family has previously cruised Fiji, Tonga, American Samoa and parts of French Polynesia. They stopped at the disputed Minerva Reef en route from New Zealand due to bad weather, with the permission of the Tongan navy, according to Whitaker.
In his contribution to the 2020-21 Fiji Budget debate this week, Tourism Minister Faiyaz Koya said 26 yachts had been approved to enter Fiji and are anticipated to inject F$1million into the economy. Port Denarau Marina says it has received 100 applications from yachts and superyacht owners wishing to travel to Fiji. This is the only allowable port of entry into Fiji under the Blue Lane program.
In neighbouring Tonga, Matangi Tonga reports that two yachts, the Nadine and Clio that were on the way to Fiji have been allowed to anchor at Port Maurelle until weather clears.
“The situation is under control, they are not allowed ashore, the vessels are separated and we are keeping a sharp monitor on them,” Tongan Navy Commander Taniela Tuita told Matangi Tonga.
All international cruise ships and yachts scheduled to arrive in Tonga were barred indefinitely from March 17. Tonga has no recorded cases of COVID-19.
Meanwhile French Polynesia is also moving to welcome superyachts and reopening to cruise ships. Paul Gauguin Cruises is due to resume its schedule of seven-to-14-night sailings in Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific from next month.
One of Fiji’s oldest island resorts is now on the market.
Beachcomber Island Resort in the Mamanuca islands in Western Viti Levu was chalked onto the “For Sale” list by Bayleys Real Estate this week with a price tag of F$25 million.
“From time to time exceptional real estate opportunities are presented to the international market place. This is a one-time opportunity,” Bayleys’ advertisement reads.
“There are more opportunities for further development such as integrated resort rooms, villas, apartments, and residential homes. Interest has also been shown in the possibility of adding marina facilities to enhance the new resorts and residential lifestyle.”
Beachcomber Island Resort is the latest addition to the list of resorts currently on the market in Fiji, a list that may well grow if Fiji’s tourism sector fails to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic any time soon.
According to the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA), the struggle to stay in business will become more pronounced over the coming weeks or months if the current crippling impact of COVID-19 on Fiji’s tourism sector drags on.
“Many properties such as Beachcomber, Pullman, The Pearl, Smugglers Cove, etc, were listed for sale before the onset of COVID-related restrictions in Fiji and subsequent dip in the tourism industry. Other properties will be fighting hard to buck that trend of pulling up pegs and selling and this is evident by the mass layoffs/redundancies that have been hitting the news headlines in recent months,” FHTA chief executive officer Fantasha Lockington told Islands Business.
“No business will want to close up shop for good, so properties have gone into saver mode - reducing expenditure and focusing on domestic guests.”
The big resorts may be better equipped with cash to hold on longer, but the hardest hit, said Lockington, will be the smaller properties.
“Even if they release all their staff and minimise expenses, they still have substantial fixed payments to make and these don't just disappear. Sure they have been given grace periods by the various financial institutions but that all comes to an end in the next few weeks. We are sure that some of the properties that closed their doors because of COVID-19, have closed their doors for good. In the next few months, we project that the economic downturn will finally reach Suva and will affect many other industries and sectors. Tourism brought in 46% of Fiji's GDP income last year and it touches every person in Fiji, directly and indirectly. So the tourism downturn will hit the hardest in the next few months and Government has forecasted this, hence their historic National Budget,” said Lockington.
The extent of COVID-19’s impact upon Fiji’s tourism sector was recently quantified in a business survey conducted in May and released last week by the International Finance Corporation.
The survey – of which 620 of the over 3,500 respondents were tourism specific businesses – found that 29% (or over 170 tourism specific businesses) expected to go bankrupt if things don’t change by November.
The meltdown also involved a huge sector-wide loss of income, resulting in most operators identifying the “lack of cash flow to cover operating expenses” as their topmost concern.
“Things are not good, as you would expect. The industry cannot fully rely on domestic tourism due to the low revenue generation so they are struggling to even break-even, said Lockington.
“But FHTA is working together with Government and other tourism stakeholders to ensure that when the borders do reopen, Fiji is ready to compete with all the other tourism hotspots around the world.”
Beachcomber Island Resort owner Brendan Hannon was not available for comment when contacted by Islands Business.
The resort traces its roots back to the 1950s when it was founded by veteran local hotelier the late Dan Costello, who also started the equally well-known Beachcomber Cruises to complement the hotel business.
Costello, a descendant of the pioneering Costello family that came to Fiji in the early 1920s, was also a founding member of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association and remained a strong supporter of the development of Fiji’s tourism industry until his death in 2010.
At around that time too, Beachcomber Island Resort, which had quickly become a popular spot for young travellers, was bought by Hannon, who now also owns and operates Anchorage Beach Resort in the Mamanucas and Funky Fish Resort in Malolo.
Beachcomber Island Resort is about 30 minutes by sea from Port Denarau.