Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Aussies still avoiding Fiji despite massive holiday discounts

A Special Industry Insider Report by John Alwyn-Jones, eTravelBlackBoard’s Special Correspondent

A Sydney Morning Herald Report this week says that despite, massive discounts at luxury resorts, Australian travellers are still avoiding Fiji, with the latest figures showing Australians and New Zealanders are still staying away from Fiji and especially the resort strip of Denarau.

The report goes on to say that visitor arrivals to Fiji are down 30% compared to this time last year and occupancy rates are below 50%, a drop from the healthy 70% in previous years, with visitors to five star resorts including those on Denarau most affected, despite massive discounts of up to 80% offered on hotels and flight deals designed to counter the slide.

On top of this, three major developments on the island have hit trouble in recent months, including receivership of a Hilton resort extension that was funded by dozens of Australian and New Zealand investors.

eTravelBlackboard has reported an number of times on the challenges facing Fiji and in particular I have said for a number of years that discounting is not the answer for hotels, because if affects the price point and perceived value of that room or stay in the eye of the consumer, which when discounted is then very hard to get back to previous values. Offering added value is the key, but never affecting that perceived value or price point.

Fiji has also had more than its fair share of problems over recent years, not least of all the coups, but also the January floods deterred thousands from visiting over summer and of course, the global economic downturn has had its effect – and of course, the perception of the country's political leadership by a military regime has also taken its toll. Much of that though is actually is media hype in Australia and New Zealand with travel advisories being used as political sanction tools by Australia and New Zealand.

Please be clear, there is no risk whatsoever in visiting Fiji and I will be doing so again very shortly. Also, be clear that by Aussies and Kiwis not visiting Fiji, it is only the people of Fiji that suffer, not the political adversaries!

I have just returned from Vanuatu and interestingly business is booming, with hotels full and yields and rates strong – there are also plenty of Aussies and Kiwis in Vanuatu, with no sign of the effects of an economic downturn.

In Fiji, as reported by the SMH, there is no doubt that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s refusal to return the country to democracy before his chosen election date of 2014, the suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, the cutting of aid funding from the European Union and, just this week, ousting from the Commonwealth, are all playing their part in Fiji's tourism slump, but it also appears that Fiji’s, recent “Fiji Me” ad campaign has had less impact than anticipated or needed to boost visitor numbers to Fiji.

Dr Steven Ratuva, a Fiji academic at the University of Auckland, said in the SMH that politics plays a big part in Fiji's tourism slump, adding, "The regime might not like to think so but the coup and the unsettling relationship between Australia and New Zealand and the Fijian government is undoubtedly putting people off visiting," and, "It's not that it's unstable there. It's actually quite fine at the moment.” "But people don't like the rift and have a lurking fear things could boil up." He also says tourism is an extremely sensitive industry, and even though the suspensions do not alter security in Fiji, it affects the "imagination" of tourists, adding, "They imagine something has changed and that's enough to stop them going," the specialist says.

He also says that the paradox is that a 2007 survey showed Fiji was one of the top 10 marketable names in the world, with several European businesses using the word to benefit from "romantic" connotations, adding, "And yet you have Fiji itself struggling to use the benefits of that very sellable name to generate economic benefits".

Other islands in the pacific, including Vanuatu, who are about to launch an extensive new campaign and brand, and Samoa and Cook Islands are all sadly for Fiji, cranking up their tourism to take advantage of Fiji’s problems with Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, an open critic of Fiji's regime gleefully telling the SMH that their campaign was working at Fiji’s expense, adding, "Of course, because Samoa is better". Mr Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi – what happened to friendship and cooperation when a fellow Pacific Island was suffering?

Very strangely, the International Federation of Journalists this week also appears to have joined the trash Fiji campaign, calling for travellers to rethink any plans to holiday there, with the group's Sydney based spokeswoman, Deborah Muir, telling Radio Australia," Tourists who go there blithely unaware of the reality of the quite severe repressions being inflicted on the people of Fiji are supporting a dictatorship with their tourist dollars,".

If all tourists around the world followed Ms Muir’s advice, their travel would be restricted to very few countries indeed!

Frank Yourn, executive director of the Australia-Fiji Business Council, thankfully says that advice is misguided, saying, "It's not a matter of propping up the dictatorship; it's really a matter of trying to ensure the economic survival of people who are really suffering quite badly."

Dr Ratuva also dissuades tourists from voting with their feet, saying, "Life is too complex for travellers to be basing their travelling decisions on who is running the country", adding, "Think of George Bush for instance, and John Howard, too" “I didn't like Howard's political stance but I still went to Australia. "That's just life."

I fully agree with Frank Yourn and Dr Ratuva and it is time that the Australian and New Zealand Governments to get off Fiji’s back or at least the Fijian people’s backs, because at the end of the day, they and not the Fijian Government are the only people that suffer as a result from Aussies and Kiwis not visiting Fiji.

Over and above all their lofty political objectives, it is a mystery to me what Australia and New Zealand and for that matter Fiji, all hope to gain by continuing their ongoing disagreements. Somebody, somewhere, potentially even at United Nations level needs to intervene in this ongoing political impasse or the financial and social consequences for the Fijian people, tourism and the overall economy, will be very serious indeed with the potential of Fiji’s tourism industry collapsing in heap – with the consequence then being that the rescue will be a lot more serious than it is now – perhaps that is what the Australia and New Zealand Governments want?

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