10 Jul 2020

Hope fading for timely Pacific Bubble

From Nine To Noon, 9:07 am on 10 July 2020

The harsh economic realities of tourists staying away from Pacific island holiday spots are really starting to bite.

Not only are border closures keeping international visitors at bay, but imports of vital food and other supplies are also affected.

Covid-19 infections are low in the Pacific region, with the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau, Samoa and Tonga remaining coronavirus free, however, not so Fiji, with three new cases in quarantine this week, all repatriations from India.

Aerial landscape view of the beautiful Muri Lagoon and a Motu (Islet) in Rarotonga Island in the Cook Islands.

Photo: Rafael Ben-Ari/ 123RF

The Australasian bubble now seems further away with the latest lockdown in Melbourne, and with more Covid cases here as New Zealanders return home, a Pacific bubble doesn't appear to be imminent.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has recently used his own social media accounts to beg VIPs to visit his country to inject much-needed vitality in their tourism-based economy.

Fiji-based Chris Cocker, CEO of the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, told Kathryn Ryan the Islands were coping

“We’re at ground zero. This is unprecedented. It’s particularly devastating for the Pacific countries whose GDPs are highly dependent on tourism such as Fiji, Cook Islands, Tahiti, Vanuatu, Niue, etc… It was predicted GDP for the Pacific contracted by about 0.3 percent and economic growth is not expected until 2021, but now because things have changed it might be prolonged.”

Cocker says about 90 percent of the 150,000 people directly employed within the tourism sector are now unemployed.

He says a recent report estimated that the financial impact on nine Pacific islands, which included major tourism destinations, would stand in excess of $3.1 billion over a 12-month period. That estimate could increase without borders opening to tourists.

Ninety percent of Cook Islands' GDP comes from tourism, with 40 percent of GDP of Niue derived from the sector.

Cocker says the flow-on effect on people was severe but resilience and innovation by those affected was offsetting the impact.

“One of the good things we’re seeing, particularly from our experience in Fiji, is the tourism employees who are now unemployed are now turning to farming, the land is there… meaning you don’t have to go purchase your food. There’s a big change in terms of how people are thinking, people are becoming more innovative, more entrepreneurial, there’s a set-up of markets everywhere and people selling stuff.

“We are survivors, we’ve survived cyclones, tsunamis, natural disasters and we’re still here. But in terms of the economic recovery it will be prolonged.”

People are also being encouraged to barter and exchange food, goods and services and rely on micro-enterprises.

The country’s 'Love the Local' campaign has been a big boost in domestic tourism, with resorts in some cases halving their prices to accommodate the local market.

But operators remain pessimistic of a prompt recovery after a second wave of Covid-19 cases globally, and the delay of the Trans Tasman bubble as an Australian state goes back into restrictions. The best-case scenario for a Pacific bubble opening seems to be the first quarter of 2021, he says.

“The larger and medium hotel chain operators will probably survive until the first quarter, but beyond that I don’t know.”

The New Zealand Government’s decision to allow the Trans Tasman bubble to proceed first, before opening up travel to the wider Pacific will affect each of the 20 Pacific nations in different ways, he says.

“Each jurisdiction will weigh up the health concerns with the economic benefits carefully, but all would see a need to ensure their health systems are capable of responding to Covid-19 cases before any moves were made.

“The majority of our Pacific Island countries, although they’re Covid-19 free, have not got the health and safety facilities to protect themselves and have not got the ability or readiness to open their borders in this case.”

Niue Tourism Board member, Doreen Siataga, says calls for a bubble with individual islands and New Zealand stem from the severe economic implications of the lockdowns. But the scale of the nation’s health system’s resources is also causing hesitancy too. The country has no means of testing for Covid-19 at the border.

She says the tourism industry was currently “dead in the water” with a wage subsidy in operation for staff affected and a new focus on a local economic stimulus too. But government funds are dwindling and financial help for business is now looking uncertain.

Cook Islands Tourism Marketing Corporation CEO, Halatoa Fua, says the nation has now reached a crossroads in its response to Covid, and that the economic impact far outweighs the risk of spreading the virus there.

He says 3000 people are now receiving a wage subsidy until September, so that a plan to create a border reopening to relieve the situation was now essential, he says.

Talks with New Zealand Airlines and government officials were ongoing and his country was preparing for tourists returning, including the building of capacity within the health service, he says.

“We live in small communities and so contact tracing can be easily-mobilised here manually.”