With the start of the yachting season in spectacular fashion in Lau, TEVITA VUIBAU tells of the joy of the seafarers, their discovery of Fiji, their worries and the negative perception of yachties to our isles.
WHEN the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association conducted its 2012 Marine Industry Survey to discern the impact of the yachting industry on the economy of Fiji, there were many praises sung by international yachties of the joy of cruising Fiji waters.
Unfortunately, there were also a fair share of complaints.
Chief among those were that there was no port of entry in the Lau Group and the accuracy of charts within Fiji waters was questionable.
According to the Marine Survey 2012, Fiji received 662 boats in 2012 of which 40 were superyachts while 628 yachts visited in 2011 with 37 being superyachts.
In 2012, the yachts spent an average of 71 days in the country spending a combined $30million, an increase of $765,005 on 2011 figures.
And 39 per cent of these yachts visiting Fiji listed Tonga as their last port of call.
Sailing from Tonga to one of the ports of entry on either Viti Levu or Vanua Levu meant that many yachts had to forego sailing the picturesque Lau islands.
As the islands are located upwind of the ports of entry many yachties decide to forego the hassle of sailing windward to view the Lau Group and this showed in the survey with only 28.7 per cent of yachts visiting Fiji taking time out to travel to the Lau islands.
This meant that many of the villages in Lau missed out on benefitting from the $33million that yachts spend in Fiji annually.
"Would have been nice to come from Tonga and stay in the Lau Group before going to Savusavu," one yachtie mentioned in the survey.
Another yachtie also listed "not being able to stop at the Lau Group on the way from Tonga" as a disappointment.
So when Fiji border agencies decided to band together and offer yachts on the Oyster World Rally a chance to use Nabavatu in Vanuabalavu as a temporary port of entry two weeks ago, the idea was met with much welcome from those in the tourism industry.
Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association marine operators subcommittee co-ordinator John Philp said if a permanent port of entry was opened in Lomaloma, there would be benefits, not only for the yachts, but for the people as well.
He explained that as facilities expanded to cater for the yachts it would also mean that villagers gained access to more services and would be able to earn money by supplying international yachts with consumables.
He also said the arrival of the Oyster World Rally would boost Fiji's profile to international yachts.
"The Oyster rally is a big event and it's very high profile. The Oysters are like the Mercedes Benz of yachts, production yachts, so in terms of promotional advertising for Fiji it's very, very high-profile and we hope this will attract even more yachts to the country," Mr Philp said.
With positive steps being taken to address a port of entry in Lau, a major issue remains to be tackled and that is the one of inaccurate charts.
And it is a challenge that is being met by the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji (MSAF).
In the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association survey, a number of yachties were critical of the accuracy of charts in Fiji waters with many voicing their displeasure.
When questioned on some of their least favourite things about their trip to Fiji, one yachtie wrote: "Negotiating the reefs and poor buoyage. It was overcast most of the time and while you can't do anything about that, being overcast meant it was not easy navigating. An up-to-date pilot would make a good difference."
"Entering reef passages, for example on Makogai, as the leading marks have gone. Hearing of other yachts being destroyed on reefs," said another.
Another yachtie was critical as well saying that "navigating in Fiji waters was a distinct challenge.
"The mere idea of forcing a yacht to navigate through Fiji's enclosed reef-strewn waters at night is asking for disaster."
However, there were also some who said the inaccuracies were rumoured and that they did not have problems.
But this has not stopped the MSAF from working to address the issue with chief executive Neil Slack revealing that he was aware of the complaints made by yachties and work was being done to digitally log and record all reefs and hazards in Fiji waters to make cruising easier for yachties.
"This is all a part of the work the authority is doing. I have been interviewed many times and we've come to the media on many occasions. We are taking a paper-based system to an online system," Mr Slack said.
"We're going to take a vessel registration survey, accident and incident from paper to online and we are focusing the same attention on charting as well."
He said he could not comment on why the exercise was not done earlier.
"To pass comment on my predecessors and why they did do something or didn't, I can't comment on that."
With all the work being done to improve the services in Fiji to attract more yachts, Mr Philp said there was another issue to be addressed and this was the negative stigma attached to yachts visiting Fiji waters.
Mr Philp said the rumours of international yachts engaging in illegal activities were not reflective of the intentions of the majority of yachts visiting Fiji.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there. Some are saying the yachts are responsible for people smuggling or smuggling weapons and it's crazy," Mr Philp said.
"Most of these people (yachties) are hard workers who have worked most their lives and have sold their houses to buy a yacht to cruise."
He explained that many of the yachts simply wanted to cruise Fiji waters and enjoy the beauty the country had to offer and were also a major contributor to the tourism in the country.
According to the Fiji Marine Industry Survey conducted by the association, visiting yachts to Fiji spend $182 per day with figures taken over the last three years showing that yachting tourism produces $F33million in direct spending for the Fiji economy annually.
Mr Philp explained that this meant villagers in cruising areas such as the Yasawa and Lau groups could be on the receiving end of more tourism dollars.
"As you've seen from the economic survey, yachts spend an average of $182 per day and while a majority of this is spent at supermarkets or getting a new paint job or buying a new motor, there are other ways that they could benefit.
"These yachts could buy fresh fruit and other produce from the villagers which would give them a source of income."