Protecting our vulnerable

Tourists from the cruise ship Royal Caribbean Voyager of the Seas enjoy their day out in Lautoka. Picture: BALJEET SINGH/FILE

A year ago, the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA) was talking about Fiji’s readiness to welcome back international visitors when our borders reopened.

At the time, Fiji had just opened up its Blue Lane initiative and launched its VIP Lane, which when fully operational, were extremely popular with high-end visitors eager to sit out COVID somewhere private and quiet.

Between then and now, there have been countless studies relating to travel restarting and traveller impacts in a pandemic world and the results have not always made positive reading.

However, that was in a world without a COVID vaccine and its ensuing impacts.

So, while the data and information from the various academic and economic modelling and studies have remained conservative or cautiously optimistic at best, the increased vaccine uptake and subsequent reduction in severe illness and death have now instilled more confidence in potential travellers about the safety of tourism hotspots such as Fiji.

Spikes in traveller interest and confirmed bookings provide actual data to support this.

And after much anticipation and more pain than anyone cares to remember, the Fijian tourism industry finally heard the Border Reopening Framework announced on perhaps the most appropriate day – Fiji Day.

FHTA has been a very active part of the consultations that took place to get the framework confirmed and as laid out right now, it may look like we’re being overly cautious, but the framework (and the Prime Minister’s announcement), does carry a clear disclaimer that nothing in the framework is irreversible.

But reopening with a more cautionary framework that can be rolled back with some discretion is necessary for this continuing journey of learning to live with COVID. Plus, we have almost two months to get the framework adjusted.

Fiji’s Independence Day celebrations last weekend might have been more muted than in past years, but it certainly proved a great occasion for the announcement for a travel-safe reopening framework, our planned economic recovery and some updated COVID-safety measures as public movement restrictions got lifted.

The lifting of mandatory measures to reduce travel between mainland Viti Levu and other islands received the biggest applause as local families were able to be reunited.

It was also an opportune time to thank Fijians for achieving their 80 per cent target for fully vaccinated adults, a whole three weeks earlier than anticipated.

With smaller pockets of lower vaccination levels more easily identifiable around the country now, there is widespread hope that coupled with refocused efforts by the Ministry of Health and support from tourism businesses in those areas, we can incentivise those communities to increase their vaccination levels.

While ensuring that these community’s vulnerable members are as protected as possible, declaring these identified areas as “no-go” zones to all visitors will undoubtedly create further incentives for tourism workers and businesses in the area to support the vaccination messaging.

Fiji still has pockets of low vaccinated numbers due to a mixture of vaccine resistance as well as logistical challenges for getting the vaccines out there, considering the spread of the population along the many inhabited regions in our over 300 group of islands.

But as the good doctor has reminded us often enough, the larger the number of fully vaccinated individuals, the better the protection created for the smaller numbers of unvaccinated and the more vulnerable members of our communities.

Which include our valued senior citizens, our pregnant mothers, our younger children and those with comorbidity issues.

That means that despite relaxed restrictions and more freedom of movement, we cannot let our guards down and must continue to practice social distancing where possible, hand sanitising at every opportunity and mask-wearing as part of everyday habits whenever leaving our bubbles.

With many businesses reopening after months of closure or considering opening and with more staff getting used to working from home, it can be extremely challenging to keep up with the changing requirements.

The key requirements are still in place and the tourism industry is being consistently reminded, even unfairly scrutinised for compliance many believe, to ensure that COVIDsafe measures are followed and that complacency not be allowed to creep in.

With Fiji possibly being most recognised for its laid-back approach to living; it can be extremely challenging to reaffirm the need for maintaining vigilance around all things COVID safe – almost an anti-thesis for our most basic belief in sega na leqa (no worries).

But that’s what the new normal expects of us now.

Businesses, tourism or otherwise, must realise that entrenching layers of strict controls against (pandemic) disease into their operations, such as safe air, increased ventilation and masking when needed, will ensure that their businesses are far more likely to remain open and not be subject to disruptions, nor lose key staff or customers to illness.

Despite the nation’s vaccination figures, all embedded controls are considered vitally important to protect the health of both staff and customers as immunity to the vaccines is expected to wane and more variants emerge.

Vaccination alone won’t guarantee a COVID-safe workplace.

Science (and experience!!) has shown that even fully vaccinated people can be infected (albeit at a much lower rate) and they can be carriers of the virus (again, at a much lower rate).

We need to continually respect that risk and play our part to ensure that we stop the virus dead in its tracks, at all possible times, whenever and however we can.

In outlining a requirement to have incoming visitors test negative post-arrival before they are allowed unfettered access to any part of Fiji, Fiji’s medical service people are simply trying to protect our vulnerable communities.

This may change as vaccination levels continue to rise and is considered a far better option than controlling what areas visitors were allowed access to.

The Care Fiji Commitment from Tourism Fiji is being updated and strengthened to ensure that we have a reference toolkit and the relevant training on the safety measures that are our first and best line of defence against the virus.

The Fijian tourism industry was built on the lucky combination of a perfect location and the world’s friendliest people.

As Fijians, we are warm, funloving and happy.

We make friends with total strangers and welcome people with smiles, kisses, hugs and reassuring embraces.

It has been a difficult ask, but we have had to adjust our usual welcoming and trusting instincts to keep our communities safe.

Now our smiles are from behind a mask.

Not visible but you will see the happiness in our eyes and hear the same warm and friendly welcoming “BULA!”

The changes will not define us and they don’t make us any less welcoming as a people, an industry and a country.

They certainly don’t make us any less Fijian.

If anything, it will show that our smiles have gotten bigger and our appreciation more profound.

We are ready to welcome the world back and with any luck (and more vaccinations completed) will be doing so with visible smiles and warm hugs soon enough.

  • FANTASHA LOCKINGTON is the chief executive officer of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of this newspaper.

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