27 Jul 2020

Escaping Covid-19 in Fijian 'paradise'

4:42 pm on 27 July 2020

Fiji is creating what the government calls safe lanes for yachts and pleasure craft that wish to "escape the Covid-19 pandemic in paradise".

A month after the launch of Fiji's so-called 'Blue Lanes' initiative, the first vessel berthed at the Port Denarau Marina in Nadi.

The first vessel, Renegrade, arrives through the Blue Lanes.

The first vessel, Renegrade, arrives through the Blue Lanes. Photo: Supplied/Port Denarau Marina

The government said the Renegade, which sailed from New Zealand, had two people onboard and it was expecting the arrival of 100 more boats amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

With its supposed 'Bula Bubble' travel scheme with New Zealand and Australia yet to get off the ground, the Blue Lanes begins what the government hopes will be the ailing tourism industry's road to recovery.

The requirements for the 'Blue Lanes' are strict, with boat owners first having to complete 14 days or longer uninterrupted quarantine at sea. Vessels must not stop at any other port on their way to Fiji.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said boat owners must also show proof of a negative test result for Covid-19.

Bainimarama said everyone onboard would need to undergo screening by Fiji health officials once they were allowed through the lanes.

He said there was growing interest among international boat owners to use the Pacific in the lead-up to next year's America's Cup in New Zealand.

He said if the pilot project was successful, the government would consider extending Blue Lanes to other ports and marinas around the country.

"There's already been a great deal of enthusiasm shown for ideas like this one," Bainimarama said.

"In fact, interest has been expressed in using the Pacific for travel, maintenance and stocking in the build-up to the 36th America's Cup next year in which Fiji could be used as a safe 'parking lot' until the start of the start of cyclone season."

However Bainimarama said cruise ships would continue to be banned from entering Fiji.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama addressed the Flying Fijians at their World Cup farewell.

Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama addressed the Flying Fijians at their World Cup farewell. Photo: Fiji Government

'Covid Safe Economic Recovery' kicks on

Last month, the government adopted phase two of its Covid Safe Economic Recovery to help stop the importation of the coronavirus, ensure the health system's readiness, and Covid-proof Fiji businesses and the public at large.

On 17 July - the same day the first yacht sailed through the Blue Lanes - the Minister for Economy, Aiyaz Saiyed-Khaiyum, delivered the country's historic National Budget with a recovery rebate package worth $US28 million aimed to revitalising the tourism sector.

In his address, Khaiyum said the Blue Lanes was one way of getting the industry back on its feet.

Tourism Minister Faiyaz Koya said they had received dozens of inquiries from super-yacht owners who wanted to visit Fiji during the pandemic.

Koya said with the tourism sector depleted, the arrival of yachts and pleasure craft would have a huge economic impact on the industry.

"And it's good for us as we'll get more money in the kitty for government, more money for them to spend on the islands or wherever it is they are going to be located," he said.

"Obviously, they can't come willy-nilly. They'll have to follow all the necessary protocols.

"The discussion that was had prior to putting all of this in place was not just one department, it involved the health ministry and we looked at stuff happening around the world," Koya said.

Cynthia Rasch.

Cynthia Rasch. Photo: Supplied/Port Denarau Marina

More than a dozen boats about to arrive

There are 15 boats anchored outside the Port Denarau Marina in Nadi awaiting the end of their 14-day quarantine at sea before being allowed through the Blue Lanes.

The marina's chief executive, Cynthia Rasch, said two of the vessels were set to complete their isolation in the next couple of days.

Rasch said marina officers, along with those from the tourism and health ministries, were processing dozens of applications.

"As the information is going out that the lanes are open and the success stories of the first boats arriving, we have had enormous responses from around the world," she said.

"We are now giving the framework to understand what the requirements are to arrive into Fiji."

Rasch said these vessels, particularly the super-yachts, produced immense economic value for Fiji.

She said the super-yachts usually spent around 80 to 90 days in the country.

"The economic contribution was about $FJ250,000 per vessel," she said.

"Similarly, there's about 160 to 170 days that a smaller yacht spends in Fiji. And they spend about $FJ30,000 per vessel.

"The economic contribution would be around $FJ60-70 million."

She also said 98 percent of all boats that arrived in Fiji last year were berthed at the marina.

In 2019, 756 yachts visited Fiji, Rasch said, and while the industry had already lost a few months this year due to the Covid-19 restrictions, she was optimistic more than 800 yachts would start sailing into Fiji in the coming months.

Port Denarau Marina in Nadi.

Port Denarau Marina in Nadi. Photo: Supplied/Port Denarau Marina

Pacific Pathways still on the books

Meanwhile the prime minister said Fiji was also establishing its 'Pacific Pathways' initiative, starting with travellers from Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tonga.

Bainimarama said the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Tourism, Fiji Airways and medical experts were liaising with the respective governments to allow travellers from Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tonga to fly into Fiji.

"Upon arrival, they must spend 14 days in government quarantine facilities and then pass a Covid-19 test to enter society, both at their own cost or the cost of their respective government.

"As our risk assessments evolve, we may expand this arrangement to Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

"As the only sovereign nation with a WHO-certified testing lab and the heart of Pacific aviation, Fiji's poised to become a safely-regulated quarantine hub for Pacific countries," Bainimarama said.