Here's to hoping we don't see another one of these anytime soon. Host communities everywhere, irrespective of the destination's income level or racial makeup, are the face and the raison d'être of this global tourism industry — and they deserve better.
What happens when an all-white leadership team — tourism board, ad agency, production company and actress — comes together to design the tourism marketing campaign for an Indigenous archipelago?
You get Fiji’s new “Open for Happiness” video — a shocking visual display of colonial tropes, in a narrative that centers the needs of the privileged tourist, portrays the country’s host communities and culture as a mere backdrop, and sells the stereotype of a “happy Indigenous” brown island as “paradise.”
Tourism Fiji’s campaign, which features Australian actress Rebel Wilson and was produced by ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, tells the story of a white female drifting in a raft off the shores of Fiji, in search of happiness. The campaign was launched to coincide with the reopening of Fiji’s borders to the world on December 1.
In the story line, Wilson spots a tropical island in the distance through her antique telescope, a-la-Christopher-Columbus, and asks “Is happiness something that you can actually find?” Bula! greets a passing tour boat, with a local musician playing the guitar for a white tourist couple enjoying the views from the top deck.
Once on the island, she is welcomed at the shoreline by Fijian resort workers in uniform, one of whom is made to sound clueless – actress? he repeats in a tone that insinuates islanders are too dim to know about Hollywood. The destination’s showcase predictably sticks to sun, sea, sand, but as Wilson continues her dizzy blonde act, she says to the viewer, “Is it better to put yourself in a place where happiness finds you?” while strolling across a high end beachfront luxury resort.
Granted, two years of no tourism is a harsh economic blow for tourism-dependent Fiji, and travelers — particularly Aussies, Kiwis, Americans and the British — are desperate for tropical scenery and pampering after suffering some of the world’s longest lockdowns.
But must tourism leap centuries backwards to its colonial roots to lure the high spending visitor back?
Brent Hill, who hails from Australia and was named CEO of Tourism Fiji in August, told Skift that the criticism was well taken, but that the intent was not to paint a white savior kind of scenario. “It’s not about you’re coming here to save Fiji; actually, if you look at the ads, Fiji has saved her, she has discovered and found happiness in Fiji,” said Hill.
Rebel Wilson was also selected because she is representative of the tourist who comes to Fiji, Hill added. “She’s talking to a largely white, largely affluent, largely burnt out kind of audience in Australia, in the U.S., and going you know, in a post-Covid world, where actually are we going to find happiness? What is actually really making us happy?”
Let’s put aside, for now, Hollywood character picks for tourism campaigns, or the meaning behind a rich white female seeking happiness on a low income brown island. In a post-pandemic industry context in which global tourism is grappling with ways to be more inclusive and equitable, as well as sustainable — which includes rejecting the treatment of destinations and their host communities as a mere commodity — the portrayal of island resort workers whose sole existence revolves around servicing and making wealthy white explorers happy is a disturbing reminder of tourism’s pre-pandemic bad habits.
“For too long we have led marketing campaigns from the lens of a savior mindset because tourism leaders have convinced us all that tourism, and tourism alone can save entire islands and communities,” said Carol Cain, a veteran communications professional and founder of public relations firm Brave World Media.
“And this saviorism manifests itself in the traveler in ways that disregards the real concerns of locals, from health vulnerabilities to lack of living wages, to fear of gentrification on their islands,” Cain added.
Sure, Tourism Fiji’s campaign is likely to lure back the high end tourist of pre-pandemic times who’s ready to shell out over $3,000 in a single stay and do as she or he pleases while on the island. So far, according to Tourism Fiji media reports, there are approximately 1,300 daily passenger arrivals. That’s great and needed, but what’s the long-term trade off of portraying locals and a valuable culture as means to an end in one’s privileged search for tropical bliss? Couldn’t those same visitor numbers have resulted from focusing on Fijian traditions and Fiji’s diverse landscape of 300 islands offering sustainable tourism activities?
“One factor I’m very conscious of, tourism is about 40 percent of our GDP here in Fiji,” said Tourism Fiji’s Hill. “So, as much as I’m a huge advocate for diversity, of employment and lots of different things, and I’m aware of the fact that you know, often with tourism there is a disparity between the tourist who comes versus the worker.”
Hill said that typically in the tourism industry, locals earn more than the minimum wage of $2.65, or around seven or eight dollars an hour. “Still for you and I that’s very low but at least it’s a) stable employment, b) more than the average and enables them to support their family.”
Imagery and Words Matter
But imagery and words matter. They can uphold racist stereotypes or they can drive the narrative of a more conscious tourism industry as beneficial and not just extractive.
Indeed, throughout this second year of pandemic, responsible travel campaigns have emerged from U.S. destinations, European and Latin American tourism boards that are seeking to attract a more conscious consumer while balancing culture with the euphoria of a vacation in foreign lands, by choosing messaging that places visitors and locals on equal footing and places the culture above all else.
“We had a huge amount of local production, we had musicians and stand up paddle boarders and snorkelers and amazing local kids and we shot it at Vomo resort,” said Hill. “So we used a lot of the staff from there, and that’s what they do every day they actually go down onto the beach when you arrive, they sing, they welcome you in.”
While the quality of service of Fiji workers isn’t in question here, nor the fact that they are the face of the destination, the imagery in the campaign does nothing but uphold the ongoing inequality that the travel industry continues to drive between luxury tourist and luxury resort worker, one that remains unresolved.
Living out a fantasy at an all inclusive resort, with little genuine local interaction save for the on site tourism workers who are portrayed as happy — not new, nor is that demand disappearing. But the tourism industry’s problematic rise in friction with locals globally pre-pandemic — whether related to equity or overcrowding — remains fresh in the minds of residents in many parts of the world, and was largely driven by an industry that prioritized the visitor’s needs and comfort over those of the host communities.
“When we convince an entire consumer market that not only are they deserving of the wealth an island has to offer, but that their very presence on the island is what saves it and makes it better, then we create a power structure that disregards and glazes over the actual societal issues that no amount of tourism money can fix,” said Brave World Media’s Cain.
With generations of Indigenous traditions in Fiji, including enviable landscapes across its more than 300 islands, Tourism Fiji missed a huge opportunity to reject tourism’s colonial history and racist underpinnings, and to instead push a sustainable tourism message forward that dispels the stereotypical perception of islanders and directs travelers to become more conscious in the future.
“We can no longer ignore what these past two years have taught us, and that is that tourism and irresponsible travel incentives around the globe contributed to the increased rates of infections, and ultimately deaths of many low-income communities and small islands,” said Cain.
“If Rebel Wilson, frazzled and undone, arrived onto an island where people are happy and thriving, then it is clear that her tourism money isn’t what contributed to it. A more interested, and creative angle, would be how, albeit the absence of the privileged tourist, the soul of Fiji never wavered. And it is through this more local lens that we should inspire tourism.”
Photo credit: Actress Rebel Wilson features in Tourism Fiji's new campaign "Open for Happiness." Courtesy of Tourism Fiji / Tourism Fiji