Solidarity Tourism to Support Fiji after Cyclone Winston
Cyclone Winston has left a trail of death and destruction over large areas of Fiji. As I write this article the death toll has reached 42 and as news from Fiji’s more isolated outlying islands is confirmed the toll in death and damage is likely to rise. The South Pacific has experienced some very severe storms in recent years. Less than a year ago, Cyclone Pam devastated large parts of Vanuatu.
Cyclone Winston packed some of the most severe wind gusts in the recorded history of sea storms with some wind gusts clocked at over 300 kms per hour. Although the Fijian people are courageous and resilient in the face of cylones, Winston has tested their endurance to the limit. At its height, Cyclone Winston disrupted air travel in and out of Fiji and caused damage to some hotels and resorts in the northern part of the main island Viti Levui and on a number of outlying Fijian islands. Severe as the damage was, the destructive path of Cyclone Winston missed the primary cluster of Fijian resorts and tourism hotels on Denaru Island (near the gateway town of Nadi) and the coral coast on the south of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu. Damage near the cruise port town of Lautoka was somewhat more severe. Many people are unaware that Fiji includes 300 islands and while some parts of the counttry sustained severe damage, many parts of Fiji emreged unscathed. Although a full damage assessment is yet to be completed, to date there is no evidence of tourism casualties.
Damage to hotel and resort infrastructure has been minimal in the most popular tourism areas of Fiji. Damage to tourism infrastructure is confined to a relatively small number of properties in the North of Viti Levu and some of the northern Fijian islands. To their credit the Fijian government, military and disaster management services have undertaken the task of rescue, relief, shelter and evacuation with great professionalism. The Australian and New Zealand governments and emergemcy management services have been quick to provide material and logistical support. The Fijian tourism industry has an impressive record of responding to and receoveruing from natural disasters. Winston occurred during the traditional cyclone season (low tourism season) in Fiji and the number of tourists affected by it was relatively small compared to an event which may have occurred during the high season months (May -September).
The challenge which the Fijian tourism industry now faces is to convince tourists from its main Australian and New Zealand source markets that the entire country has not been laid waste. Unfortunately media report in both countries and the wider global media, especially those from the more sensationalist areas of the media have created an image that Fiji is all but totally destroyed. Tourism represents 40% of Fiji’s economy and a large slice of its employment. Recovery of tourism post Cyclone Winston is vital to the morale and economic sustainablity of the Fijian natiiona and its people. Although Visit Fiji and the key hoteliers , resort owners and tour operators are indeed spreading the word that its safe to return to Fiji. However, the PR battle will be long and expensive and social media needs to be the tool of choice. There is a concern that that some tourist may feel guilty about luxuriating at resorts whole Fijians are homeless and hungry.
One form of tourism which comes to the fore under these circumtances is volunteer tourism programs which may offer a mix of comfortable accommodation combined with volunteer work to help Fiji’s recovery. This appeals to many people in the 18-30 age group. There is a growing market for solidarity based volunteer tourism and this has certainly helped Nepal in its post earthquake recovery.
Aussies and Kiwis have used Fiji for decades as a flop and drop destination to lie down and soak up the Fjian sun. Perhaps its now time for at least some of these tourists visiting Fiji to exercise some muscles in solidarity with Fiji and wholesalers may find a ready market for volunteer tour programs in Fiji.