A plan for Fiji to open its borders

Denarau Island, Fiji (Credit: Matthew Buchanan/Unsplash)
Written by Brian Hennessey

Fiji is hoping to return to 70% of pre-COVID-19 tourism levels.

It will be much less if Fiji is forced to choose between being trapped in a travel bubble with Australia and New Zealand (which won’t include Fiji until later) or, access to the rest of the world, right now.

New Zealand, like Fiji over a month ago, now seems to have eliminated the coronavirus. Australia is having a harder time before the weather cools. Some modelling indicates that the virus will surge again based on lower temperatures and human behaviour (people spending more time indoors). Fiji’s success may be partially attributable to tropical weather reducing community spread. If there’s a disparity in disease burden, it’s unlikely New Zealand would agree to open its borders to Australia. They’ve worked too hard.

Tourism represents one-third of GDP in Fiji. Australia and New Zealand are more self-sufficient, inter-connected and less tourism-dependent, so their proposed bubble offers both of them more benefit and fewer drawbacks than it does Fiji.

Another possible model is that Fiji could make two bubbles: one for Australia and New Zealand (ANZ, when/if that happens) and another for the rest of the world (right now!). An internal cordoned-off area could be centred in the less-populated western part of Fiji, around the Nadi International Airport (NAN) connected directly to nearby isolated resorts/northern islands, which are naturally built for this. Resort staff would be required to live on-site and airline staff could also be quarantined in this same cordoned-off area. Both groups of workers would have to test and transition over two weeks before returning to the general population. This would remove the burden of testing and quarantining Fiji’s entire tourism arrivals, as they’d be functionally isolated. And this could be done today.

A hybrid model could involve having Nausori International Airport (SUV) serving the possible ANZ travel bubble, with those passengers released directly into the general population, as there would be no risk of infection. This would be an elegant solution because most arrivals from ANZ will be for family and possibly business, with a much smaller percentage for true tourism. A third of Fiji’s population lives within a few kilometres of SUV airport, so most visiting friends and relatives would be close to family on arrival. Hotels and resorts outside of the western NAN bubble could exclusively cater to any ANZ tourists.

Even with promising vaccine trials, we’re probably one to two years from anything approaching normalcy. If we achieve global herd immunity by then, ironically, that could put ANZ and Fiji at a disadvantage.

In the rest of the world, we’re already seeing a lot of quarantine-fatigue. This provides an opportunity for disease-free regions, like Fiji, which should be marketing itself as a safe destination for travel now. Fiji’s tourism competitors are already opening up. Europe is already discussing a similar concept called an “air bridge” that would allow quarantine-free travel and keep tourists out of their heavily populated areas – just as this hybrid model would.

Unlike tourism to ANZ, foreigners don’t flock to see Suva or other urban sites. Keeping Suva and other key urban areas out of bounds will not impact tourism.

One thing is for sure, time is of the essence. In business school case studies, corporations that have done well after recessions are those that kept their doors open and their brand front-and-centre in the public’s imagination through advertising and public relations. Fiji cannot afford to stop being considered a destination for any amount of time.

Another consideration is keeping the tourism sector functioning, even at reduced capacity, because rebuilding the industry will take years if it is allowed to atrophy during this period. The national airline just sacked 800 employees.

Fiji was one of the first to show the world how to eradicate the virus. It must now be the master of its destiny and use this advantage to market itself as a safe destination. If this opportunity is squandered, it will take a generation to rebuild.

The author has lived and worked in Fiji and is waiting to go back.

This post is part of the #COVID-19 and the Pacific series. 

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Brian Hennessey

Brian Hennessey is Vice President, Vineeta Foundation, a public health NGO, and President of Global Business Access, an international business consulting group.

13 Comments

  • Hello from Samoa….it’s great to be free of the virus during this entire time and able to move around and live somewhat normally within our borders…..but, we watch sadly thousands in other countries grieving for their loved ones dying of this horrible disease….tear jerking.

    Of course, the economy is really hurting with the complete blockade of tourists, but….at least we are safe for the moment….if the virus were to hit Samoa….OMG….due to the high number of diabetic people; even the entire government could be wiped out so fast…..not to mention that we have only a very few ventilators and isolation units in hospital….mildly put…it would be complete devastation…so….I hope, even though it’s not easy…..that we can hold off for allowing tourists to enter, thus keeping Samoa virus free until a vaccine can be introduced….

    • I hear your concerns because of the other disease burdens in the South Pacific, like diabetes and obesity. But we’re talking two years at least IF* a vaccine can be produced. None of the islands can last that long. Never mind the economy, just family visits. Being apart that long is going to lead to nationwide depression (not just economic). We have to find a compromise. And we can safely by having airports and isolated resorts as quarantined areas. This is much harder in some islands. But it would be easy for Fiji because it has two major airports, a large main island with significant tourism infrastructure and many island resorts that are far from population centres.

  • Governments need to work together urgently to open the borders of Australia/NZ/Fiji and surrounding Pacific Island nations. There has been a huge overreaction to Coronavirus.

    Just how long can governments keep us separated from our families?

    Finally, as Fiji Airways has sacked most of its cabin crew-I am interested to see how they are going to put planes back in the sky.

    Terminated cabin crew-even if invited back to their flying roles-will mostly have run out of currency in Emergency Procedures. Standard service and emergency procedure training for new recruits -once accepted .-takes a minimum of six weeks.! And it is very expensive to train cabin crew.

    Our “leaders” (George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind yet again) need to be in the same ballpark.

    Let us free!! By all means take temperatures and ensure travellers can be contacted!

    Enough is enough.

    • You make good points. While the pandemic is dangerous so are the measures we’re taking against it that we know will last at least two years. We can’t stay stuck in this initial phase (with an ongoing curfew in Fiji, for example). You mention the national airline but all the tourist industry and the industries that serve it are going through the same effects and restarting will be increasingly difficult. Fiji can’t wait till the end of the year to hear from ANZ. They can open now safely around Nadi and keep Suva as another bubble for later.

      • Fiji needs to let their locals back into the country. My friend is currently stuck in the Philippines for over 3 months and is trying to come back home to Fiji. The government should make it a priority to get their citizens back home and then make them quarantine for 14 days or more if required.

        • Shabana, sorry about your friend but the only way for these Fijians to make it home is for flights to resume. And that’s going to require tourism to fill those planes and get them on regular scheduled service again. Plus there are people stuck in Fiji who need to go their families in other countries. This pandemic isn’t going to look any different a year from now. Just as it doesn’t look any different from four months ago when we locked down. We can’t stay in this no-travel configuration for another year. And Fiji’s been pinning its hopes on this travel bubble. As I stated in this article, Australia wasn’t/isn’t ready. Fiji’s wasting time reopening waiting for other countries to include it in a bubble (where it will be a complete afterthought). Fiji needs to control their own destiny and make a travel system that allows it to reopen immediately . . . or realize it will be in this same position a year from now (which is unsustainable).

  • I am waiting to come back also. I have tickets for July 13 which have been cancelled and rebooked by Fiji Air for Aug. 11th…Is this a random date they pick or are they allowing U.S. residents in at that point? I can’t find anything online and even the airlines told me they were not blocking international travel that it was my country not letting me go. The fiji corona virus website in fiji was last updated in early march. I am American and have already paid for my stay at the Koro Sun Resort in SavuSavu (where I have stayed before) and was also going on a dive boat for a week. Just waiting to hear when it is allowed so I can confirm the dates with them.

    • The USG isn’t banning flights to Fiji. It’s the other way around. And the Fijian government is wary to open up because then they’d not be allowed into the ANZ bubble later. My idea is to have two bubbles so Fiji can open now to the rest of the world (and you can go in August) and then (when and if ANZ let’s Fiji in) they can have a second bubble around Suva.

  • But the vast majority of tourists to Fiji are Australian and New Zealanders, so it would make much more sense to push for that bubble first. I’m not sure why a NZ/Fiji bubble couldn’t happen now? And Australia can join when they’re ready. Plus the idea that resort staff have to be separated from their family’s and live in a cordoned off area seems a bit sad for the locals.

    • Kim I totally agree that there is no point waiting for Australia if Fiji was disease-free first. And they need this access more than Australia. On paper it seems that New Zealand and Australia have sky high tourist arrivals but so many of those are actually what they call family and friends. Either way tourists coming from Australia and New Zealand would have access to way more of the main island and even the other islands than those in the Nadi bubble. Most of all this would give Fij i a lifeline nowand a chance to control their own destiny instead of waiting for New Zealand and Australia to decide for them. And because Australia has not conquered covid yet and because New Zealand has said they would make the bubble with Australia first and then start looking at other islands, we may be looking at next year before Fiji has a chance to have a bubble with anyone. If New Zealand isn’t willing to do this immediately then Fiji should look to any other country(ies). This may also force New Zealand’s hand so they stop delaying and make a deal with Fiji now as they’re both disease-free. Why wait?

      • I completely agree with you about why is NZ waiting to join a bubble with Fiji now that both are Covid-free. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Politicians have said its to protect the Islands from Covid-19 spreading there. But that seems patronising to me – we should let the islands decide for themselves what is best for them. If they think opening to the rest of the world is what’s best, then I’ll be surprised, but that’s their choice.

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