Small steps for sustainable tourism in Fiji
Fiji’s international border reopened to tourists on December 1, to public relations fanfare. It’s been 20 long months for the country, where tourism was the biggest industry before COVID-19 hit.
Everyone in the tourism business has been working on the reopening for months. In our agrotourism micro-business in Savusavu on the island of Vanua Levu, we have finalized our COVID-safe protocols and built up stocks of chocolate before the return of international visitors.
We survived the tourism shutdown. Most of the other companies we work with as part of the Duavata Sustainable Tourism Collective – a group of small tourism operators in Fiji, who have based their businesses on values ââof responsible and sustainable tourism – have also weathered the storm.
I speculated earlier this year that small tourism businesses are more vulnerable to sudden loss of income than much larger businesses. But I realized that I was at least partly wrong.
Many small tourism businesses in Fiji, especially those based on respect for the environment and Fiji’s cultural heritage, do not do it for the money. If you take the money away, it’s difficult – very difficult – but we still have the other pilots and the motivation for what we’re doing.
Duavata members took this opportunity to focus on some of these other interests. As the big resorts and other big businesses made a purely economic decision and put their businesses on the back burner, we’ve been busier than ever – just doing things different and, in many ways, more rewarding.
The Duavata Conservation Leadership Program is a big name for a simple idea developed in response to the disruption of international tourism. Several of Duavata’s members have reoriented their tourism experiences to attract young Fijians. For example, groups of young people spent a day snorkeling in Natewa Bay, learning its ecology from marine biologists at Ocean Ventures. Another day they visited our cocoa farm and heard about the benefits of agroforestry. They tasted our chocolate and considered the benefits of various farms that include high value crops, but don’t destroy the basic ecology to grow them. They returned home with stories to tell, and we were thrilled when community elders requested the same experience for themselves a few weeks later.
The German Embassy in New Zealand deserves special mention, as the forward-looking donor who helped launch the program. Thanks to their financial support, we received much needed funds to pay staff and bills, while the young people had a fun and hands-on learning experience.
The program has been successful and will continue alongside international tourism in 2022. The next phase will place more emphasis on community tourism and exchange visits between communities that are currently working to develop tourism experiences. In the spirit of social enterprise, Duavata companies plan to integrate these kinds of activities into their regular work as their profitability improves.
These activities are all very much in line with the recommendations of a 2020 International Finance Corporation (IFC) study on tourism in Vanua Levu after COVID. The report notes that âthe policy directions of all major global and regional development agencies underscore the need to focus tourism revival efforts on ‘rebuilding better’, with an emphasis on a more sustainable tourism sector, inclusive and resilient. “
While small, sustainable tourism businesses have been occupied at the grassroots level, progress has also been made at higher strategic levels. The Strategic Framework for Sustainable Tourism in the Pacific was developed during the period 2020-2021 and was endorsed by Pacific Tourism Ministers a few weeks ago. On September 27, World Tourism Day, Fijian Minister of Trade, Tourism, Transport and Commerce Faiyaz Koya confirmed Fiji’s commitment to sustainable tourism.
Progress has been made up and down, but there seems to be some kind of vacuum in the middle – at the operational level of most of the tourism industry. No new policies for more sustainable tourism have been put in place, and with a potentially huge influx of tourists over the coming months, there are concerns that provisional steps towards sustainable tourism may be lost in the race for economic recovery. .
This concern is not unique to Fiji. Coastal residents of New South Wales in Australia are concerned about the environmental impacts of a higher volume of cruise ships returning to their bays. They ask why the two-year hiatus has not been better used to address areas of conflict between the cruise industry and locals.
About a year before COVID, we saw the huge cruise ships arrive in Savusavu Bay, eclipsing the city. Even then, a cruise ship in town created tensions. As hundreds of tourists took to the streets for just a few hours, small business owners nearly came to blows in their efforts to capture some of the commerce. Ironically, there wasn’t a lot of cash on hand anyway – most of the tourist dollars were diverted by players higher up the chain long before the visitors arrived. We learned that our own tour, for which we charged F $ 25 (around A $ 16.50), was being sold on board for up to A $ 110.
When the cruise ships return to Savusavu, will it be back to this “business as usual” (rather shameful)? The IFC report recommends measures “to improve community benefits, focus on higher value-added expedition cruises, and reduce anxiety around cruise tourism.” Some form of regulation, or a code of conduct, could also help.
International tourists are back, and are welcome – but let’s hope the little shoots of sustainable tourism nurtured over the past year and a half aren’t trampled on in the rush to resorts. The pressure is very strong for businesses to recoup lost revenue, and occupancy rates are reportedly high for months to come, as vacation-hungry tourists encounter desperate airlines and resorts in a frenzy of offers and offers. Now would be a good time to push through a practical policy in support of a more sustainable tourism industry in Fiji.
Anne Moorhead is co-owner of KokoMana Pte Ltd, an agritourism company in Savusavu, Fiji. Opinions are those of the author only.