Could eco-tourism mark the post-Covid future for the Blue Pacific?

Boat in quiet waters off Fiji
Asia-Pacific Report
,
Pacific Islands

Could eco-tourism mark the post-Covid future for the Blue Pacific?

Unspoilt beaches, palm trees swaying in a zephyr of a breeze and the gentle sunlight dancing on the turquoise blue sea as the lapping waves shimmer on the breakwater make one imagine a pristine Pacific paradise.

Until into your imagination comes the sound of screeching breaks that have been put on the once-booming $4.2 billion Pacific tourism industry.

Tourism throughout the Pacific has been brought to its knees by the Covid-19 pandemic, throwing thousands out of work and making many more fear for the future.

Fiji and the Cook Islands have been desperately trying get their economies going through a Pacific bubble with New Zealand and Australia, but that has not come into fruition – and isn’t likely to any time soon.

The Pacific Islands experienced a 6.6 percent increase in tourists in 2019, welcoming 2.2 million visitors by the end of the year. Before covid struck, a boom year was predicted for 2020.

Over the short- to medium-term, visitor arrivals by air to Pacific Island countries are predicted to grow by an average of 3.3 percent and expected to reach 2.7 million in 2024, according to the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO).

Established in 1983 as the Tourism Council of the South Pacific, the SPTO is the mandated organisation representing tourism in the region. Its 20 government members are American Samoa, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Rapa Nui, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Wallis and Futuna, and Taiwan.

In addition to government members, the South Pacific Tourism Organisation enlists a private-sector membership base.

Pacific quick to close borders

However, shortly after outbreak of Covid-19, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu were quick to close their borders to prevent the virus from entering their countries.

Emerging tourism markets such as Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and Tonga are also closed to mass arrivals.

In its March Pacific Insight, ANZ Bank predicted that Fiji now stands to lose nearly 602,000 visitors by air this year (a whopping drop of 67 percent). That decline translates into a F$1.4 billion (US$657 million) loss in tourism receipts.

Vanuatu’s economy is expected to decline 13.5 percent, as is Samoa (-18.7 percent), the Cook Islands (-60.4 percent) and Tonga (-7.9 percent).

Such losses are devestating when you consider that tourism contributes to almost 46 percent to Fiji’s gross domestic product – about F$2.1 billion, according to the June ANZ Pacific Insight – and employs more than 150,000 people in various industries.

Last year alone, Fiji had 894,000 visitors. The bulk of its tourists came from nearby Australia (41 percent) and New Zealand (23 percent), which like many countries around the world have banned international travel.

Aerial view of Fiji
Aerial view of Fiji/ Credit: Alec Douglas on Unsplash

Heavily dependent on tourism

“Economies such as Fiji, the Maldives and Tonga are heavily dependent on tourism, with shares of tourism in total exports reaching 52 percent, 84 percent or 47 percent respectively,” according to a recent report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

“In many Asia and Pacific countries, more than three in four workers in the tourism sector are informal jobs, leaving them especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of the covid-19 crisis," the report says. “Informal sector jobs are characterised by a lack of basic protection, including social protection coverage.”

Economic growth in the Solomon Islands is expected to slow by 1.5 percent in 2020, and Vanuatu’s economy to contract from 2.8 percent in 2019 to minus 1.0 percent in 2020, according to the ADB.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will severely hit tourism, with the South Pacific economies the most affected. Growth and fiscal outcomes will be undermined in the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga,” says the ADB.

“The Cook Islands’ economy is expected to contract from 5.3 percent in 2019 to -2.2 percent in 2020 due to a collapse in tourist arrivals. Growth is forecast to recover in 2021 to 1.0 percent. Samoa’s economy is expected to contract from 3.5 percent in 2019 to -3.0 percent, before slightly rebounding to 0.8 percent in 2021," the report continues.

“Tonga, where economic growth was 3.0 percent in 2019, will see zero growth in 2020 due partly to a plunge in visitor arrivals. Growth will likely reach 2.5 percent in 2021, buoyed by tourism,” it notes.

‘We must act differently’

“The ocean is our shared resource and our shared responsibility," said Dame Meg Taylor, current secretary-general of the Pacific Forum and Ocean Pacific Commissioner. "Covid-19 has exacerbated our vulnerabilities as individual economies and as a region where timely public health and border protections have protected our people from the worst of Covid-19.”

Taylor warned of the “grim reality of recession," and said the focus of national economies throughout the region would be to revive economy activity and production.

“Covid-19 has also presented with us with a valuable opportunity, an opportunity to link global recovery efforts with the goals of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 agenda for sustainable development," she said.

Through collaboration and co-operation, things could be achieved in the Pacific both in terms of tackling climate change and sustainable eco-tourism, Taylor explained, pointing to the priorities set out by forum leaders.

“It is time to act differently and innovatively. We must act differently, creatively and constructively to make our ocean bluer,” she said.

Imperative to protect the ocean

Umiich Sengibau, Palau's Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism and a past chairman of SREP who will chair Our Ocean 2020 conference in December, has spoken about the difficulties that his country has faced in the starkness of the pandemic.

“As in many other places in the world, commercial flights have been suspended and borders are closed. But it has also reduced our tourism revenue, [which went from] over 40 percent of our GDP to zero," he said.

“This matters because our tourism economy and ocean protection go hand-in-hand,” Sengibau added.

“When life under our pristine waters thrives, that is how we attract visitors to dive in and see it for themselves. Tourism and protection are part of the same sustainable economy, and [when] one is undermined then so is the other.”

Sengibau said Palau recognises that sustainable eco-tourism is important in supporting employment, livelihoods and ultimately sustainable development.

"This is why it is imperative that we protect the ocean," he said, highlighting protections put in place to guard biodiversity in Palau's exclusive economic zone. Starting this year, 80 percent of that zone -- some 500 square kilometers -- will be designated as a “no-take” area.

"We know such protected areas foster great marine diversity, strengthen resilience to climate impacts and provide respite to fish stocks. Everyone benefits from a healthy ocean," Sengibau said.

Not so in Fiji, where locals are reportedly returning to subsistence farming to offset the collapse of tourism. Tourism accounts for 46 percent of  Fiji's GDP, and many who work within the sector and associated industries are now jobless.

 

Key industy shut down

Tourism is also the highest foreign exchange earner in Fiji at $2 billion plus a year, said Fantasha Lockington, chief executive officer for the Suva-based Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (FHTA).

It is also the industry with the biggest multiplier effects throughout the 333 islands that make up the Fiji. "The closing of the borders, therefore, effectively shut down the country’s biggest employment sector," Lockington said.

FHTA estimates that around 110,000 staff directly employed by tourism have been put on leave without pay, terminated (with little or no benefits) or made redundant (with payouts per contractual requirements).

“Fiji has no backstop for wage earners or salary support mechanisms," Lockington noted. "Instead, the government allows workers to access small amounts of their superannuation funds.

Many of the larger resorts have provided food support or living allowances to assist their workers – the large majority of whom come directly from the communities and villages the hotels and resorts are located near and from whom the land is leased,” she explained.

“Fijian workers need their jobs back – the next three months will be the most challenging for them as they do their best to return to their communities and villages and get into subsistence farming to ensure they can feed their families,” Lockington said.

Questions about whether it is time for Fiji to invest in eco-tourism have grown along with concerns around climate change and the environment.

Great record of ‘being concerned’

“Fiji has had a great record of being concerned about climate change and the environment," said Lockington. “But we do not do enough to walk this talk."

She said large numbers of tourism operators practice environmental sustainability, implement recycling and energy renewal practices out of necessity and cost-consciousness, since they're off the main island grids, and also want to protect their serene, isolated locations.

“These [efforts] are not recognised by the government in any way or often enough," she noted. "Instead, the tourism industry is the only industry that is charged the Environment Climate Adaptation Levy (ECAL) – which is 10 percent."

FHTA has requested that ECAL be reduced and spread to other industries that negatively impact the environment, such as transport, mining and extractive industries, or that the levy provide a credit environmental sustainability practitioners to both incentivise and change behaviour for the long term.

Making properties more eco-friendly

In the Cook Islands, questions about eco-tourism are more clear.

“More and more tourism operators are becoming involved in ecotourism and I expect this trend to continue into the future," said businessman Tata Crocombe, who runs three resorts on the islands.

In front of each destination Crocombe's business has helped create marine sanctuaries that have become major visitor attractions, he said.

“The growth in eco-tourism reflects the growth in ecological thinking in the population more generally because human beings as a species need to learn to live in harmony with our environment," Crocombe explained.

He's had to shut his three resorts and cut 200 staff as a result of Covid-19 economic shutdowns and is calling on New Zealand to lift its travel restrictions.

“New Zealand produces 70 percent of the visitors to the Cook Islands and so it is our call and major market – and vital that we reopen to New Zealand visitors," Crocombe said.

Jonathan Milne, editor of the Cook Islands News, was more blunt: “At present, the New Zealand government is effectively blockading the Cook Islands, it’s economy and its people. It’s painful for people here to realise that the country regarded as our closest friend, our closest relative, would do that to us – and we pray they reconsider very soon before the economy of this proud little Pacific paradise collapses entirely."

Equally important, Milne noted is the connected heritage and shared constitutional history between New Zealand and the Cook Island, as is the fact that Cook Islanders are recognized as New Zealand citizens. "These are ties that New Zealand leaders cannot in good conscience ignore," he said.

Safety and economic growth can't be separated

For Milne, both safety and economic activity are needed.

“It’s all very well staying safe from Covid," he said. "The greater danger now is that we can’t pay for food and electricity. And the answer isn’t aid – it’s trade, it’s tourism, it’s getting our resorts and restaurants running."

Vanuatu, where10,000 jobs have been lost as a result of the pandemic, is facing a similar scenario.

“Tourism has been decimated here,” Liz Pechan from The Havannah Vanuatu, a five-star resort on the island of Efate, told the ABC.

“I was shocked for a little while, I think I was a bit dumbfounded: like how can this happen, how can the world just stop?"

Like the vast majority of hotels, the Havannah Vanuatu currently has no bookings, and more than 30 staff have already been let go.

This is the first of a series of articles by the Pacific Media Centre as part of an environmental project funded by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) through its Asia-Pacific initiative.

Banner image: A wooden boat sits in quiet waters off Tokoriki Island in Fiji / Credit: Gary Runn on Unsplash

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