It's the first big light in the tunnel for Fiji Islands as vaccinations put the remote islands on the path to restarting tourism by December, with a new leader at the helm.
Sixteen months have passed with tourism yet to reopen in a Pacific island nation that ranks among the most tourism dependent countries in the world, and among the most hard-hit by the pandemic.
Prior to 2020, Fiji Islands’ visitor economy made up 38 percent of the gross domestic product and provided upwards of 110,000 jobs, according to a report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) on the pandemic’s impact on Fiji’s tourism businesses. Additional challenges have ensued since Covid, including a tropical cyclone in April 2020 that affected 48 percent of tourism businesses, and a surge in variants this summer.
But for the first time in almost two years, there’s hope on the horizon for Fiji Islands, thanks to vaccinations that are now advancing rapidly.
On the heels of this news, Skift spoke to Brent Hill, the newly appointed CEO of Tourism Fiji and a veteran in tourism marketing in Australia, about the gargantuan challenge ahead in steering Fiji tourism in an innovative direction post-pandemic, and his early insights on placing the Pacific nation’s tourism industry back on track. Below is an edited version of the interview.
Skift: During your time at the South Australia Tourism Commission, you faced huge challenges with the 2019-2020 bushfires, in terms of surmounting the crisis and bringing back travelers. How does that compare to the challenge you’re about to take on now?
Brent Hill: That’s the thing, I think actually there are quite a lot of similarities in the sense that obviously, a lot of devastation and two different things, of course, a pandemic and a natural disaster.
One of the things that was immediately obvious in South Australia was the media commentary about the bushfires, which was that it had obviously burned significant amounts of Australia — and certainly South Australia, Kangaroo Island, etcetera, had virtually burned down. So from our perspective on the ground, understanding that Kangaroo Island is a really big island, it takes two hours to go from one end to the other — so it was really important to actually engage the media and get a true story of what was going on across.
One of the things that I’ve observed already with Fiji is obviously the commentary has all been about Covid cases and that is difficult, that is something that’s very real, but at the same time there’s a really really powerful story about the fact that 90 percent of the population is now first dose vaccinated and 30 percent fully vaccinated, so we are heading in a really good direction.
So the thing I saw there was that using communication out to media, to trade, to consumers was incredibly important. And then very quickly moving into traditional marketing campaigns to educate people about what was going on. So yeah, I certainly came to bring some of that experience to the fore.
Skift: Last summer, the IFC published a report on Covid’s impact on Fiji tourism, calling for innovation as well as “collectivism” to help the nation recover because “ traditional solutions may not be enough to help us cope with the unique challenges of COVID-19.” What are some innovative approaches you hope to bring into Fiji’s tourism industry?
Hill: It’s been interesting actually just trying to get the information from on the ground about what’s actually been going on.
What’s been interesting is that a lot of resorts have taken that time to actually really invest in their properties as well. So I think one of the things that I’m really keen to look at with the team going forward is particularly now Fiji more than ever, is actually a place that the world is going to be looking for as we emerged from COVID-19 in the sense that it’s relatively uncrowded. You’ve got these beautiful open beaches, you’ve got amazing accommodation where there isn’t a huge amount of people, it’s not a congested city, there’s a lot of outdoor air, etcetera.
From that perspective the innovation that we’re looking for is actually really positioning Fiji to different audiences who might not necessarily have looked to Fiji before. So people that might have once thought about going to the big cities of Europe and America etc that might be thinking well I need a bit of a change of style of holiday, maybe a different change of pace and meet with that innovation on the ground in terms of what is being offered. You’re going to see a really well thought out and safe experience on the ground, which I think is something that will really appeal to tourists.
The other thing that I’ll probably want to highlight as well is that, particularly from my perspective, I’m really keen for people to leave with a sense of Fiji and Fiji culture, and I think that’s a really important piece. Of course people can come to Fiji and just relax and chill out and so on, but I really want people to be able to go away and have a sense of what Fiji’s all about — so some of that might be experiencing some of the more hinterland areas or some of those islands that they might not have gone to. And we’ll have to manage that through things like certification and so on because obviously we don’t want to put the local population under any risk.
But certainly, that kind of innovation in terms of broadening the appeal of Fiji. I think a lot of people for example in Australia, where I come from, would have no idea that Fiji has amazing things like whitewater rafting, quad bikes, waterfalls. They think it’s all beaches. So that’s exciting to me to really bring that out in due course.
Skift: Speaking of new markets, this means you’ll be targeting more Americans?
Hill: Americans are going to be first, we think. If things go the way that we are planning, we’re looking at reopening in December to vaccinated travelers who return negative tests without quarantine, so that’s a really important milestone.
And, at this stage, Americans probably going to be the first cab off the rank in terms of reciprocating that arrangement. You know the issue you have in Australia — it’s gonna take a little bit of time mentally for Australia to get around the whole issue of travelers going back and forth, as long as they’re vaccinated and they test negative.
Now as a traveler who is about to leave Australia, the process that I’ve gone through is similar to what everybody should be able to do going forward down the track — proof of vaccination, proof of negative tests within 72 hours, get it all on official documentation, show that to the airlines, etc, and away you go. Now the difference that I’ve got is when I get Fiji, I will have to quarantine, but in future if you produce all that documentation, you should be able to travel freely. So that’s what we’re working towards and North America will definitely be first cab off the rank.
Skift: What are marketing strategies you have in mind for 2021-2022, and any projections at all at this point?
Hill: It’s a little too early for projections just at this stage, but we have a flight schedule for example with Fiji Airways that we’re pretty keen to meet. They’re working on our December flight schedule for North America and so on that has pretty aggressive targets in terms of how many flights they want out of the US, so that’s probably going to be our first task is making sure we fill those plans.
From a marketing perspective, we’ve got an opportunity. I’ve got a fantastic marketing team — but obviously marketing is close to my heart — led by Emma Campbell. So I’ve spent some time talking to Emma about how can we come up with a campaign that repositions Fiji to the rest of the world and lets them know that it’s open and they’re welcome again, and do that in a beautifully quintessential Fijian way but in a way that puts us on the map.
So, look, watch this space, we have got some some plans, we’ve started the process already on what that looks like. And I think that’s gonna be exciting to make that and shoot that in Fiji and get that out to market. When we’ve been closed for two years to the rest of the world, I think it demands that we sort of come out of that Covid shadow if you like, with something really significant.
Skift: How does sustainability and regenerative tourism fit in your long term vision of your work in Fiji?
Hill: It’s really important to what Fiji is all about. They have such a vested interest for obvious reasons, because they’re in that highly vulnerable part of the world, so they see the impacts of climate change, with things like dramatic weather and so on which impact on the tourism industry. I think the world as a whole has really woken up to that and the tourism industry really understands that they have to play a role. So sustainability will definitely be front and center of what we do.
Going forward, I’d love to see strategies where the most effective sustainable or sustainability strategies I’ve seen previously is where you invite the tourists to participate. One of the most successful was the Palau pledge for example — it was a beautiful initiative, it was done really well so people who visited Palau understood this is part of how we roll.
So look, I would love for tourists to be part of that feedback solution, and I think that’s something that in time will develop for sure. So yeah, for sure watch this space — it’s definitely front and center in my mind, something I’m really passionate about.
Skift: The elusive travel bubble, which we’ve been covering at Skift, including the Trans-Tasman bubble — is that something you’ll be attempting to join at all?
Hill: It’s hard to say I think. To be honest, the travel bubble from a policy perspective exists when you’ve got two jurisdictions that are essentially operating in the same way. Australia and New Zealand were chasing zero Covid eradication and had done pretty well on that. Unfortunately now in Australia, only today Sydney has the highest number they’ve ever had; they’ve been dealing with Covid for probably a good month and it’s not going down.
So from that perspective I think it’s safe to say the zero Covid strategy will have to be abandoned, and we’ll have to come up with something new and the new is definitely like what we’re seeing across the world like U.S. and UK, where it’s about vaccination being the key to travel.
So from that perspective, of course Fiji would always put its hand up for involvement in any travel bubble, but I think that was initially around all the zero Covid locations. So I think now it’s more, how can we open up to vaccinated travelers. I think Australia will still consider the Pacific first before other countries, not based on necessarily where we’re at Covid or vaccination, but because of that Oceania obligation to each other.
Skift: Where does your optimism lie for the future of Fiji tourism? Where do you hope to be a year from now?
Hill: Definitely in a year from now, I want to be open to a lot of markets. I would love to see Fiji largely back open again and resorts doing really, really well. I think my optimism lies and part of this is you know why I took up the job — because a lot of people were like, wow, did you realize what’s going on over there and big challenge, and all the rest of it.
From that perspective, the thing that I’m really excited about is that Fiji for me has always been world class, beautiful, that quintessential paradise — that hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s still there and they’ve still got those amazing resorts, amazing facilities, diving beaches and as I mentioned the hinterland. Increasingly, as we emerge from Covid-19, that’s what people are going to be looking for.
For Australia and New Zealand, a lot of those countries into Asia as well, Fiji is not that far away. So I think initially people will probably want to take some of that short haul, medium haul travel, and that positions us really really well so from that perspective I feel really optimistic that we have got what people want.
I’m glad I’m not representing you know, a big city, and trying to get back a lot of people to a big city because I think that’s going to be really hard. People are going to change their habits a bit; going to really sort of crowded places and having lots of different restrictions on movement and whatever versus going to a wide open space that’s got beautiful weather and amazing accommodation — I know which one I’d like to go to.
Skift: The first thing you do as soon as you as you arrive and learned in Fiji, after quarantine and meeting your team?
Hill: I’m super keen to get in the car, getting into a few boats and get out and experience the product. What I was really passionate about in South Australia was you had to know the product, you have to understand the operators, you have to know their passion and then do that justice and represent that well on a global level stage and I think you can only do it justice if you’ve seen it and you know what it’s like.
That’s so important because Fijians put their heart and soul and their money into their products, so I feel like my job is at the very least to go and see them, understand what it is and then work out how we can assist to provide that product to the world.
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Photo credit: Fiji Islands' tourism industry is preparing to reopen to North Americans by December 2021. Trey Ratcliffe / Visual Hunt