8 Jul 2019

Kiribati aims to boost its status as a tourist destination

2:17 pm on 8 July 2019

Fijian Petero Manufolau has been appointed to spearhead the development and promotion of Kiribati as the Pacific's newest tourism destination.

The locals are set to embrace tourism in Kiribati.

The locals are set to embrace tourism in Kiribati. Photo: Supplied

He is the first chief executive of the newly formed Tourism Authority of Kiribati.

Mr Manufolau said the Kiribati government had recognised sustainable tourism as a potential contributor to the country's economic progress.

But in order to achieve this, Mr Manufolau said he first had to help the locals understand what the tourism industry was about and then convince the private sector to come onboard.

"The government has a 20-year vision for tourism, not only tourism but sustainable tourism," he said.

"And through a Tourism Act that was passed in Parliament last year, it gave the ministry the mandate to create what is now called the Tourism Authority of Kiribati to strengthen and stimulate economic growth."

The former head of marketing at the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO) said Kiribati looked to Fiji as a benchmark for successful tourism destinations in the region.

Christmas Island, Kiribati

Christmas Island, Kiribati Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

"They're looking to draw from expertise from Fiji and I think my experience with the tourism industry in Fiji and exposure to the international market probably gave me a better position in terms of understanding Kiribati as an island destination," Mr Manufolau said.

SPTO chief executive Christopher Cocker welcomed Mr Manufolau's appointment.

"He's very familiar with our small island states including Kiribati and he will bring in strong private sector experience and expertise," Mr Cocker said.

'A whole new experience'

Mr Manufolau said he hoped to use his global contacts to "kickstart" the tourism industry in Kiribati but he was reluctant to call the task ahead of him challenging.

"Challenge would have a negative connotation to it. I would say revealing. There are a lot of things we take for granted back in Fiji," Mr Manufolau said.

"It's a whole new experience. If I said it was challenging then I'd be limiting myself."

Mr Manufolau only arrived in the Kiribati capital three weeks ago and said he was already feeling "right at home" in Tarawa.

He admits he still has much to learn from the locals, as he hopes they do from him.

"I have to first understand Kiribati as an island - in the way things work here," he said.

"And understanding how they embrace tourism as an industry. Then working towards incorporating a vision of a stronger industry to a population that probably has not really seen tourism as a key industry.

"So that is a challenge in itself."

Petero Manufolau is the chief executive of the newly-established Tourism Authority of Kiribati.

Petero Manufolau is the chief executive of the newly-established Tourism Authority of Kiribati. Photo: Tourism Authority of Kiribati

A reall challenge for Mr Manufolau, however, is speaking the local language. But he is confident that with a bit of help from his assistant he will become an expert in the Gilbertese language - Taetae ni Kiribati.

"The Kiribati language is probably one of the most raw and powerful languages that I've heard. I've worked throughout the Pacific and in other other countries and I could easily understand much of what they say," he said.

"Kiribati is a very unique language. Words are spelled and pronounced differently. I've given myself the challenge of learning at least one word a day.

"A lot of the communication is still in the local language so that's probably an area I will need to work around," he said.

Personal challenges also await Mr Manufolau, who has has a wife and child back in Fiji.

The chief executive said he would travel back to visit them when he could.

Incorporating public and private initiatives

Mr Manufolau said things were done differently in Kiribati than what he was used to in Fiji.

"The processes, the way most of them understand tourism is probably not the way tourism is understood back in Fiji where it's more developed, industry-driven and obviously a lot of private sector involvement," he said.

"Whereas here in Kiribati, it's very much a government-driven process. The industry is driven by government initiatives."

Incorporating the private sector in government led programmes would therefore be necessary, Mr Manufolau said

"That's key to our role - providing that linkage between the private sector and the public sector to try and arrive at a common understanding in the way we will be taking the tourism industry forward," he said.

"Looking after the government's interest but at the same time encouraging the private sector."

"In the coming weeks, I will begin consultations with the private sector - making them understand what our roles are and identifying ways in which we can work together to take the tourism industry forward."

But first things first, Mr Manufolau said he was "getting a team together to understand the vision for the industry".

"And then this is my third week, I've only just started engaging with different stakeholders particularly with the high commissions and the agencies that are here introducing the Tourism Authority to them."

Christmas Island

Christmas Island Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel

Kiribati Christmas Island

Photo: RNZ Walter Zweifel