In-conversation with Halatoa Fua, Liz Pechan, Marita Manley and Johanna Loehr

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Pacific nations’ acted quickly to close borders in order to protect their populations from any significant outbreak of the virus. Most Pacific nations still have their borders closed, although French Polynesia opened in July, the Cook Islands will open with New Zealand in early 2021, and Fiji is proposing a bubble with Australia and New Zealand soon thereafter.

To help understand the pitfalls, challenges and opportunities posed by the current pandemic for the tourism industry in the Pacific region, the Griffith Asia Institute recently co-hosted a webinar with the Griffith Institute for Tourism on the topic of “Pacific Islands’ tourism during COVID-19: Danger or opportunity?”. Professor Christopher Fleming facilitated a conservation with the following esteemed experts:

  • Halatoa Fua, the CEO of the Cooks Islands Tourism Cooperation and Chairman of the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO),
  • Elizabeth Pechan, a leader in her co-owned multi-award winning, ‘The Havannah Resort’ in Vanuatu,
  • Marita Manley, Director of Talanoa Treks in Fiji and co-founder of the Duavatu Sustainable Tourism Collective, and
  • Dr Johanna Loehr, a Research Fellow at the International WaterCentre and the Griffith Institute for Tourism.

The discussion, informed by the speakers’ diverse geographical and unique perspectives, centred on the impacts of COVID-19 on tourism, how they as individuals, their organisations and the wider sector have responded to COVID-19, and also considered what ‘ideal’ tourism might look like in the Pacific in ten years’ time.

The discussion was diverse, with many issues facing the Pacific Islands raised. It was first acknowledged that the Pacific Islands region is diverse and the responses to COVID-19 have depended on health infrastructure, the level of economic resilience and broader socio-political factors. Discussions centred on the declaration of a state of emergency which is typically a natural disaster response which does not fit a long-term crisis such as COVID-19. Stories in the region of solidarity and creativity were shared, while acknowledging the diverse narratives of those affected. Overwhelmingly though, the everyday impact on people in the region is far reaching. While people are surviving, and many can draw on their land and gardens for subsistence, this is too simplistic as people are exhausted, and worrying about their family finances as one tourism job often supports 6-12 people in a household.

Halatoa Fua provided an insight into the situation in the Cook Islands. The tourism sector has been put into hibernation and to get through this period people have had to rely on the previous 10 years of the tourism boom cycle and a sector led tourism stabilisation fund. He shared that while many businesses went into a beautification process when borders closed, thinking it would be a three-month closure; it is now accepted that it will be a few years before a ‘new normal’ is realised. Halatoa shared that enhanced cross-sectoral and ministry cooperation is a positive outcome from the response to COVID-19 and, in his role as Chairman of SPTO, he hopes to put this cooperation to good use to meet sustainable tourism challenges across the Pacific. “Sustainable tourism was already an issue for the Pacific prior to COVID-19, what it’s done has elevated the urgency”, Halatoa said. He argued that SPTO could lead the way and, for example, use the sector to help address environmental issues that are usually being dealt with by environment departments in isolation. He said that SPTO could build on bilateral work addressing issues such as waste and renewables and adopt a wholesale approach across the region.

Elizabeth Pechan shared her personal role in supporting staff, as her business has had to severely reduce staff hours in the immediate aftermath of border closures. Liz spoke passionately about the time and energy that has gone into supporting The Havannah Resort’s staff (referred to as ‘family’), and in supporting them through such a difficult time. Liz shared that while many Ni-Vanuatu have access to resources to supplement tourism incomes, there are also a significant number of people from urban areas who are struggling without income and access to land. Liz challenged the simple discourse that people are ‘okay’ – “every single person has been affected, everyone has taken a cut”. Liz also shared she was proud of the Vanuatu tourism sector’s responsive, adaptable and supportive approach in both the formal and informal parts of the sector. She hopes that in 10 years’ time the industry will be at pre-COVID-2019 levels and that she is genuinely happy with how sustainable the industry in Vanuatu is.

Marita Manley echoed Liz’s experiences, sharing that for so many the “shock was pretty profound”. The individual responses of those whose tourism-dependent livelihoods have been affected have been impressive. However, “with that comes exhaustion and mental health issues and I don’t think that’s fully been recognised, the trauma that people have faced”. Marita noted that incredible food markets are opening and real entrepreneurial endeavours emerging from former tourism employees, as well as acknowledging an amazing network of civil society organisations that are helping people out. However, Marita also voiced concern about statistics emerging of increases in domestic violence. Marita shared her optimism for the future, and while huge work was needed in Fiji to support small and medium enterprises who struggle in the current system, she hoped deeper engagement with place and community and building on the incredibly rich cultural and environmental resources will offer great opportunities “if we get the enabling environment right”.

Johanna Loehr, drawing from her research experience with operators and tourism dependent communities in Fiji, shared that the challenge is nobody knows how long it will take for borders to open again and for tourism to be kick-started. While there are talk of bubbles, no one really knows for sure, which makes planning for businesses and households incredibly difficult. Johanna shared some important initiatives that have been developed in Fiji, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands for when international tourism resumes, initiatives that focus on sharing responsibilities between the host and guests in protecting both the tourist and host community in a ‘new normal’. She shared many of the sentiments of the other panellists and argued for fair, responsible and accountable tourism in the future. Echoing Halatoa’s thoughts that tourism should meet the needs of local communities and be aligned with cultural and environmental needs, Johanna emphasised that the question should be, “How can the industry support the host community, rather than just the tourist?” This approach may integrate local values more strongly into tourism recovery and give more weight to wellbeing considerations beyond simply tourism’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product – echoing Marita’s call for tourism in Fiji to move beyond being simply regarded as a tax revenue opportunity.

This conversation is one of many that are ongoing across the Pacific in the wake of COVID-19.

Watch the recording