Pacific well poised for the return of tourism

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    The South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO) says Covid-19 has caused many Pacific region nations and territories to re-think their tourism strategies.

    The organisation, which has 20 government members, represents tourism in the Pacific region. Its member nations cover a large area of the Pacific region extending from Rapa Nui in the east to Timor Leste in the west, as well as from the Republic of the Marshall Islands in the north, all the way south to the Kingdom of Tonga.

    “We also have more than 100 private sector members from the industry,” said SPTO CEO, Chris Cocker.

    Covid-19 has had a significant negative impact on the tourism sector. Some member nations have effectively had zero external tourist arrivals over the past two years; leading to a significant reduction in GDP.

    Tourist numbers, under normal circumstances, would be expected to be about two million across the region. In 2019 that number fell to 391,000, which is about an 82% decrease. Tourist arrivals from cruise ships have fallen by 73 percent.

    Cocker noted that while Covid has had a negative financial impact it has also created an opportunity for countries to re-think their tourism strategies. The Organisation will need to take a regional perspective when it considers how to reset, rethink and rebuild tourism in the region.

    He said that Pacific nations who have not yet reopened their borders can use this opportunity to consider their individual points of difference in marketing their tourist attractions.

    Out of the 20 Pacific Island member countries only three have re-opened their borders: Fiji, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, their success in re-opening has been an inspiration to other members, as they look ahead to a time when they too will be able to receive tourists.

    Cocker said that these three countries have not “just opened overnight, it’s been a lot of planning, a lot of preparation for the industry in health and safety in re-opening.”

    Re-opening the borders involves multiple stakeholders including numerous government departments, particularly the local Ministry of Health.

    “For example, it took Fiji eight months to prepare for the opening of its borders last year.”

    He said the key to reopening is a high level of vaccination.

    Cocker admits that reopening borders for some members has been slower than expected, due to the outbreaks of Covid variants such as Delta and Omicron.

    Last year, French Polynesia had about 80,000 visitors, which was a 63 percent drop over pre-pandemic 2019. However, by mid-2020 French Polynesia was the first South Pacific destination to relaunch international tourism by resuming air links to the US, which is its key source of travellers.

    Cocker said that the SPTO has been running online sessions for members to allow Fiji, French Polynesia and the Cook Islands share their experiences with re-opening their borders.

    “Tourism is a resilient industry, we are hit from left right and centre by natural disasters, volcanic eruptions, cyclones etc. but we rebound. In the case of Fiji, it has rebuilt.”

    Cocker predicts that post-Covid travellers will be people who are looking for off-the-beaten-track destinations and will be more environmentally responsible.

    The SPTO formally announced a partnership between various tourism organisations representing Small Island Developing States (SIDS) last month in Palau.

    Chris Cocker noted the importance of collaborative and durable partnerships to the SIDS grouping.

    “The SIDS tourism sector faces a number of unique challenges that must be addressed through strengthened sustainable tourism initiatives, achieved through innovative regional and global partnerships,” he said.

    SOURCE: RNZ PACIFIC/PACNEWS