Fiji’s decimated tourism industry is hoping the latest proposal to establish a travel bubble in the region will help see the return of much-needed Australian visitors to the Pacific island nation.
While the Australian and New Zealand governments continue work on their trans-Tasman travel bubble, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has proposed a ‘Bula Bubble’ to allow international visitors back into the country.
Australia and New Zealand are Fiji’s two biggest sources of international visitors and under the proposed Bula Bubble they would be allowed into the country under strict conditions.
The country had just 18 cases of coronavirus and no deaths.
Under the plan, tourists would either have to self-quarantine at home for two weeks prior to arriving in Fiji and then be cleared by a negative COVID-19 test.
Or they could serve their two-week quarantine at an approved hotel or resort in Fiji.
“This Bula Bubble will allow Aussies and Kiwis to once again enjoy the best of Fiji while remaining separate from any other travellers and the general public,” Mr Bainimarama said.
“To be clear, any tourists who come to Fiji on these terms still won’t be able to move freely around the country.”
More than 100,000 people no longer employed
Getting tourists back to Fiji is about more than just money, according to Mr Bainimarama.
“By slowly and safely bringing back vital tourism revenue to Fiji we will be in fact saving lives,” he said over the weekend.
“The long-term cost of complete closures and unemployment would risk doing immense harm to Fijians mental and physical health”.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated economies around the world but Fiji’s heavy dependence on tourism has meant it has been hit particularly hard by international travel bans.
“We have a little over 100,000 employees who are no longer employed and there isn’t anything else that they can turn to except go back to the land that many of these people have access to do sustainable farming for themselves,” said Fantasha Lockington, chief executive of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association.
Around one in nine Fijians work in the tourism industry and it is responsible for more than a third of Fiji’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“There is no other industry that can take its place,” Ms Lockington said.
“The only way that we can kickstart our economy very, very quickly is to get those borders open and to bring in the international visitors.”
Ms Lockington believes some tourists will still want to come to Fiji despite the quarantine requirements, though she hopes they could be eased in the future.
“Most of the times there are resorts that you could stay at that can provide you with everything that you need,” she said.
“Having said that we still feel that there should be a little bit more freedom provided to holidaymakers … so that you can choose to stay in a couple of different places if that’s the way you are inclined”.
Australia’s travel restrictions will need to be eased
Like Fiji’s tourism operators, travel agents in Australia are also doing it extremely tough with most of their business dependent on international travel.
Tom Manwaring, chairman of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, said if Fiji was reopened there would be plenty of people eager to head there for a holiday.
“Tourists are really after sunshine, the ocean, sand, nice food, great people, so Fiji is one of those attractive, close locations in the Pacific,” he said.
But until the requirement that international travellers arriving in Australia have to be isolated for two weeks is relaxed, Mr Manwaring does not think many people will take up the opportunity to holiday abroad.
“Because obviously, people can’t go on a holiday for eight or 10 days and then have to be isolated for another two weeks,” he said.
A spokesman for the Department of Health says the government is not negotiating any travel bubble with any countries other than New Zealand at this stage.
“The Australian government is closely monitoring developments in our region and beyond, recognising the economic benefits that a phased resumption of international travel could bring,” the spokesman said.
“In the meantime, … our primary concern continues to be the health and safety of Australians”.