By Mereia Volavola*
Opinion - The Pacific Islands have been spared some of the deadliest health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
But by taking away the tourists, the virus has dealt a huge blow to economies and jobs largely dependent on foreign visitors' spending to stay afloat.
As of May, every destination on earth had put in place some form of travel restriction, according to the U.N.'s World Travel Organization, and all tourism in the Pacific has stopped as a consequence, depriving many communities of income. In Vanuatu, 70 percent of tourism jobs are estimated to have disappeared already.
In the midst of this crisis, small-scale farming has provided the region with crucial resilience. Pacific Islanders have been receiving seeds and encouraged to start their own backyard gardens to be food self-sufficient. A barter system was put in place in Fiji, so residents could keep eating a wide variety of foods. And, an unintended consequence of border closures, reliance on imported foods fell in favour of fresh, local foods, a welcome development in a region with some of the world's highest rates of Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases.
All of this goes to show why investing in agriculture is vital and how, when integrated with tourism, it can be a powerful engine for development, supporting farmers, consumers and the environment at the same time.
For decades, agriculture had been set aside in favour of more glamorous, more lucrative jobs in the cities, including in the tourism industry. But when local agriculture and tourism work hand in hand helped by "agri-tourism" policies, domestic production can be reinforced and increased, food imports can be reduced, jobs can be created, and nutritious foods be made available to more people.
Despite tourism making up substantial portion of Pacific economies - up to 90 per cent in the Cook Islands - it does not always result in improved economic opportunities for smallholder farmers. It is estimated that 60 per cent of food consumed by tourists in Vanuatu is imported, for example, driving food prices up and weakening local food systems.
Today, thanks in part to the work of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and of its regional partners, agritourism is firmly on the policy-making agenda in the Pacific and Caribbean.
After two years of policy-setting workshops and of developing agritourism projects, four countries in the region have started implementing regulations which support agritourism; six more have introduced new policies. This includes Fiji, which accounts for 40 per cent of Pacific tourism with a million visitors each year.
Some of these policies, which focused on helping farmers provide safe, nutritious and quality food year-round, have helped build the resilience necessary in the current crisis. But the full impact of better integrating tourism and agriculture, given the current context, will only be felt once the borders reopen.
Through the agritourism development project and via platforms such as Chefs4Dev and the Pacific Week of Agriculture, CTA has helped all actors in the food supply chains promote local, high-quality foods and expand their market opportunities.
Right now, we have to focus resources on the agriculture sector for Pacific Islands to not only support themselves during the pandemic, but to "build back better" after the pandemic subsides.
This should include governments supporting agribusinesses to develop new business models post-Covid19, and farmers to develop new farming techniques and improve productivity.
Dialogue and solidarity will be crucial. Cross-regional initiatives like the Agribusiness Forums, regional meetings which promote collaboration between farmers and local businesses, are vital to discuss the future of agriculture in this particular context and formulate long-term solutions. Our recoveries will only be as successful as our neighbours' are, as International Civil Aviation chief Dr Fang Liu said recently.
With the current strengthening of the agriculture sector in the Pacific Islands and agritourism policies widely adopted in the region, once the crisis subsides and the tourists return, more than ever our farmers and restaurants will be able to welcome them with ota miti and nama.
The tourism of the future will provide visitors with authentic local experiences, benefit smallholder farmers and allow both foreigners and Islanders to access affordable, nutritious, quality local foods. We can't wait.
*Mereia Volavola is the former Chief Executive of the Pacific Island Private Sector Organisation and is currently an independent consultant. Before her time at the PIPSO she headed the Capital Markets Development Authority in Fiji.