Fiji wants to broaden the tourist catchment. It is looking to tap into valuable niche markets for Chinese and Indian tourists, despite them not being traditional beachcombers.
" Across [Fiji], from agriculture to technology to tourism, diversification and the need to develop a unique product are seen as vital."
Mark Skulley, Freelance business journalist
About two thirds of arrivals to Fiji come from the ANZAC contingent but the government wants to grow the foreign exchange earnings from tourism from about $F1.6 billion now to more than $F2 billion by the year 2020.
Tourism Minister Faiyaz Koya and other players have noted the growth of Chinese tourism to destinations like the Maldives and want a bigger slice of the action.
"These particular tourists that we are looking at, they’re into everything," Koya told Bluenotes.
"It’s the younger generation that really want to go out and do the adventure tourism … all the weird and wonderful things that we have like white water rafting, shark diving. It's no different from the Aussie or the Kiwi tourists who come looking for that kind of stuff."
The strategy to diversify tourism streams is one evident across Fiji: the economy is dependent upon reasonably robust but quite restricted sources of revenue across tourism and commodities. That’s a risk.
Across the nation, from agriculture to technology to tourism, diversification and the need to develop a unique product are seen as vital.
National airline Fiji Airways has three services a week from Hong Kong and is investigating direct services to mainland centers like Shanghai and Beijing.
It also operates a service from Singapore, which aims to be a gateway for Indian tourists. China has followed up long-term infrastructure spending in Fiji, with investment in tourism projects like the $F500 million Wyndham Silkroad Ark Hotel
However, the Fiji government is cautious about seeking direct China flights- particularly where it would require a reciprocal 'open-skies’ policy that could see Chinese carriers swamp Fiji Airways.
A major tourism operator, Tony Whitton (also a director of the Reserve Bank) says airline access sparks regular debate but he supports having a strong national carrier.
"It's a delicate balance,” he says. “If you ask me, 'Should we go open skies?' You are completely at the mercy of foreign interests."
Over the last few years, Whitton's Rosie group has organised charters from Shanghai and Beijing and also from Taiwan. The charters have been timed in February, around Chinese New Year, and during the low season for Fiji's tourism sector.
Whitton says Fiji can satisfy both tourists and travellers.
"The tourists are potentially the people coming here from Australia and New Zealand who are coming here on packages,” he says.
“The travellers are the ones who are coming because they've heard of the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort in Savusavu or they've heard about some beautiful diving up in Tavenui."
Minster Koya says Fiji can't compete with Bali and Thailand on price but can play to its strengths – its people and the environment – without pushing the infrastructure to the limit.
"It's 100 per cent about the yield for us" he says, emphasising the importance of a unique Fiji offering.
This includes developing ‘wellness tourism’ and organic products, a good fit with Fiji's natural attractions and reputation as a safe, relaxing destination for both families and high-end travellers.
Fiji’s natural brand opportunity extends beyond tourist nights. A system is being developed for certifying farmland as organic, which will work well with the increased connections to Singapore and China.
"People are getting more and more conscious about what they eat and Fiji by nature is organic," Koya says.
"There's a lot of people who plant their own cassava plant or the taro plant … they don't use fertiliser."
The Minister cites organic pink ginger grown on the island of Wakaya by the Canadian entrepreneur David Gilmour, who founded FIJI Water, one of the country's biggest export earners.
"Their ginger really is 500 times more powerful than any other type of ginger in the world,” Koya says. “We have the potential to have a huge organic base here, huge."
(Chili, too. For those who like it hot, the author can recommend Fiji's cult-status ‘bongo’ chili, even though it almost had him calling for the fire brigade.)
However, the growth of niche agriculture raises the issue of land, which remains sensitive in Fiji. About 88 per cent of Fiji is owned by the mataqalis (or clans) of indigenous (iTaukei) Fijians and, under the Constitution, can only be leased, not sold.
Traditionally, most of the country's sugar cane farms were run by Indo-Fijian families but the long-term leases are expiring, which makes it harder to attract on-farm investment. The younger generation is also opting to look for other work, making for manpower shortages.
Fiji's ageing sugar mills also need investment and a long-term preferential trade deal with the European Union on sugar has just ended.
The Asian Development Bank concluded in a major report last year the sugar industry was making a "gradual recovery" under reforms by the Fiji Sugar Corporation, but it remains unfinished business with some 200,000 people still relying on the sector.
NOT JUST SAND, LAND
The iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB) had a monopoly on the leasing of customary land but this changed in 2010 with the creation of a government-run Land Bank in 2010 which then leases land to the private sector.
Fiji-born economist from the University of NSW Satish Chand says the overall Fijian economy is travelling well at a macro-level, but land tenure remains an impediment to investment in agriculture.
Chand says the Land Bank provides competition but can only offer 30-year leases while the TLTB can offer deals for up to 99 years. He cites development mistakes such as building on arable land around Nadi, while trying to farm on poor soils.
The Asian Development Bank agrees on the need for land reform, while arguing the new constitution and national elections in 2014 have boosted investor and consumer confidence.
But the ADB says Fiji faces a "double whammy" of a small population and a remote location.
"[Fiji’s] development trajectory is therefore unlikely to resemble that of East and Southeast Asian economies,” the ADB says. “Its growth is likely to come from sectors that can surmount the constraints of high costs imposed its smallness and remoteness."
That again highlights the importance of high margin, exclusive products.
"These can take the form of differentiated or niche products that can be sold in imperfectly competitive markets, or natural resources such as fisheries, or products sold in markets that are protected,” the ADB says.
“Indeed, Fiji’s growth drivers remain a combination of such goods and services—niche products like mineral water, skin care products, and high-value, low-bulk garments; and natural resources like seascapes and pristine beaches, gold, and fish."
Two-star international performers in the luxury niche are Fiji Water and Pure Fiji cosmetics.
Minister Koya, whose other portfolios include trade and industry, says TC Winston reinforced the need for Fiji to diversify its economy.
"We were quite fortunate that major tourist centers didn't get hammered,” he says.
“Absolutely we were so lucky for that."
"The vision is that … we are looking at raising the income of our grass roots people, joining the economy. The informal sector became more formal.”
“We're setting up an SME council similar to what’s been done in Malaysia … as an engine for growing these small-to-medium, enterprises, it’s the main thing for us."
So what are these niches, then?
BANGALORE, MANILA … SUVA?
Fiji's modern role as an international hub dates from the first trans-Pacific flight, by Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith and his crew, aboard the Southern Cross in 1928.