YA SHE |
In 2022 most Pacific nations reopened their border to tourists. An absence of tourists for two years had caused disruption in these societies which relied heavily on tourism. Now, with international tourism returning to pre-pandemic levels, how are Pacific nations retaking their share of tourists and learning from the problems caused by COVID?
The pandemic had a massive impact on the economies of several Pacific nations, and the direct impact is obvious for tourism in those islands. According to a World Bank Report published in December 2020, tourism previously made up over 50% of exports for countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu, and Samoa. Within a few months of the pandemic beginning, these destinations had virtually zero tourists. As a result, by December 2020, 115,000 jobs were at risk in Fiji, about a third of the total workforce, an example that is illustrative of the dependence of many island economies on tourism. The impact of CPVID in the Pacific region is not only relevant to the survival of tourism businesses but also to the communities that depend on them. Many people had no alternative solutions to provide for their daily life during the pandemic, leading to adverse impacts such as an increase in domestic violence and crime. In contrast, the connection of some Pacific communities was forced tighter. People shared resources through Facebook groups and younger generations used their increased spare time to learn traditional fishing or crafting skills from seniors. Others turned to agriculture to support themselves during the challenging time. These reactions stimulated individuals’ mental well-being and have become a new source of ideas for post-pandemic tourism in some countries.
One such nation is Vanuatu, which was one of the last in the region to reopen its borders to tourists and has not escaped the economic impacts of this, Solomon Times noted:
“A staggering 70% of tourism jobs were lost in the past six weeks. As the backbone of Vanuatu’s economy, tourism has traditionally provided approximately 40% of national GDP. So, Vanuatu has no international tourists and severely reduced revenue from the industry.”
In addition to this slow reopening, Vanuatu, the most natural-disaster-prone nation in the world, endured two tropical cyclones in March 2023, leaving 80% of its population with no power or food. All this disruption demonstrated the harsh realities of a deep dependency on tourism, especially a dependency on two high-volume and low-margin sectors: discount packages and cruise ship tourists. With this in mind, Vanuatu was keen to not repeat its previous errors and looked for places it could value add to its tourism sector, building in more resilience. Agritourism has emerged as one of these solutions. In reaction to many people turning to agriculture during the pandemic, agritourism encourages these agricultural and food enterprises to market their products to the domestic market and service industry, while also providing tourism experiences as a value-add to their business, rather than a dependency on tourists. One Vanuatu government-led initiative, the Food Tourism and Agritourism Initiative (FTAI), won a global award in 2022 for supporting agritourism business through the establishment of an industry association, training and certifications. Despite these developments, Vanuatu’s tourism sector is still struggling while Fiji is performing significantly better.
In contrast to Vanuatu, Fiji was one of the first Pacific countries to reopen its borders to visitors in April 2022, removing any testing or quarantine requirements for visitors. It was impatient to get to this stage, proposing a “Bula Bubble” with Australia and New Zealand several times throughout the pandemic. Since reopening, Fiji has been quick to introduce new advertising campaigns, declaring it is “Open for Happiness”. The campaign has resulted in about 50% of the tourism workforce returning to work. Fiji has not only seen a recovery but also an expansion of tourism in the country with more visitors in 2022 than pre-pandemic (Fiji received 75,580 visitors, which is 102% of pre-COVID levels). ANZ Fiji has also said that the majority of clients who had paused their loans during the pandemic have now resumed payment. However, the bank has also cautioned that for Fiji the best opportunities are in diversifying its economy.
Although Fiji’s recovery appears to be very successful in the short term, it is unknown how it will survive with reactions to inflation issues in its biggest tourism markets, Australia and New Zealand. Fiji may see the realities of its dependence on tourism appear again. Meanwhile, Vanuatu’s cautious and progressive approach, while rooted in lessons from both the pandemic and recent natural disasters, reflects recommendations from banks and the United Nations – to diversify and target lower-volume, higher-yield markets. Successes here may become models for other struggling, tourism-dependent Pacific nations to follow.
Ya She is a Griffith Business School intern with the Griffith Asia Institute.