June 22, 2024
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Rethinking Tourism — It’s all about authenticity

My colleague Fantasha Lockington penned a recent story for the Fiji Times which we have posted below. Fantasha is CEO of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, which is on the cusp of “re-inaugurating” the org’s annual tourism conference, heretofore delayed by Covid over the past few years.

The theme of the event is “Rethinking Tourism”.

The conference, dubbed Tourism Talanoa, will be held at the Sheraton Fiji Golf & Beach resort on the 27-28 of this month and will be a who’s who of the “Fiji Tourism Plant”. Hoteliers, agents, wholesalers, government people and all the other “usual suspects” will be there to cut deals, meet friends and perhaps more importantly, examine the perplexing state of post-Covid tourism.

The angst is palpable.

Is Covid going smack us again? What about the war in Ukraine? What about inflation, the price of oil and the threat of a world wide recession?

There are many questions and Fantasha frames them cogently.

She asks:

“With all the lessons we’ve learnt this year since our reopening, are we as an industry prepared for what the next few years have in store for us, and what does the new version of tourism look like?”

It’s a query that reverberates all the way to Honolulu.

Back here (as in Fiji) tourism seems to be on track for the time being. We’re still missing the Japanese but they will be on their way. Thankfully the U.S. Mainland has made up for any shortfall from Asia. The short term looks fine, but there is a caveat. In Hawaii the natives are a bit restless. They are not always so happy to see visitors.

This is where we in Hawaii differ from Fiji.

Hawaii has a markedly different colonial/historical experience than Fiji. Many locals, even though their jobs depend on it, are ambivalent at the millions of visitors (about 10 million came in 2019) who wash up on our shores yearly. Fiji residents, on the other hand, had a more benign experience with the Brits. It wasn’t perfect but they still have their land and their culture. They also haven’t experienced the same influx of “vulagi” (guests) that we in Hawaii have had to contend with.

Thank goodness.

The massive numbers of visitors to Hawaii has taken its toll. The question tourists often pose is “what happened to the aloha spirit?” In Fiji, the equivalent of the “aloha spirit” is very much alive. It didn’t go anywhere and that’s a big attraction.

The people.

Downtown Lahaina-sort of a Disneyland experience--not authentic
Downtown Lahaina

Locals genuinely welcome visitors and vulagi respond by coming back year after year.

Yes, it’s all about authenticity

So what I do I see in my crystal ball?

I’m not a professional psychic but I believe authenticity will be one of the most important components of tourism in years to come. Visitors want the “real deal”. Local culture, local art, local food (grown in Fiji) and real people, with real smiles.

That’s where Fiji shines.

Case and point: In Hawaii visitors flock to Lahaina, founded as a whaling port on Maui. It’s a nice town but it’s gentrified into slick version of Disneyworld. It’s about as authentic as a $20 Rolex. In Fiji, by contrast, there still is an authentic, 19th century whaling port (Levuka) that happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage site.

You can still visit those old buildings, have a beer in a 150 year old private club and chances are, there won’t even be that many tourists around.

Downtown Levuka is what Lahaina was 100 years ago. And yes, it doesn't get more authentic
Downtown Levuka

I’ll make a second case for Fiji.

On September 15th the Wall Street Journal published a story entitled “A Fijian Island That Turns Visitors Into Expats”. The “Fijian Island” the piece was referring to is Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest, and home to Savusavu, an old plantation town that reeks of charm.

Here’s an excerpt from the WSJ piece by Tom Downey, that says it all:

“While Aussie and Kiwi families on school breaks gravitate to the big international chain
hotels on Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, Savusavu attracts a much larger percentage of
Americans, often here on longer holidays. One of this region’s draws is that Savusavu’s
properties are, so far, all smaller, independent hotels, not chains. One night at my hotel bar I sat next to two Floridians who usually travel to Hawaii but decided to vacation in Fiji this year. “Savusavu feels untouched, probably how Hawaii felt a hundred years ago,” the man said to me.”

Mr. Downey makes my point.

I’m not dissing the upmarket properties–the Wakayas, the Vomos and their ilk. Same with the Denarau complex, which like Waikiki is an income generating engine.

Who wouldn’t want to spend a few days in a 5-star property and luxuriate?

That said, I suspect there are quite a few people, the kind of folks who read the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times and can afford a 5-star property may be more interested in destination that’s a little more unconventional and intimate. These are people that are well educated, well traveled and curious about the world. They appreciate farm-to-table and fusion cuisine but they are also into history and culture.

In short people want more than turquoise water, sand and palm trees.

In researching my latest book, Suva A History and Guide I was told both by my local contributors and an executive at Tourism Fiji, that heritage and culture have become more of a focus, especially with European visitors. Whether it’s watching Vou, Fiji’s world class dance troupe on Denarau; visiting heritage buildings such as the Borron House in Suva or viewing an art masterpiece; such as Jean Charlot’s famous “Black Christ” fresco in Ra, Fiji offers a range of attractions for the sophisticated traveler.

That said, more prosaic experiences that connect the visitor with the culture can be just as rewarding.

For example in Savusavu you can watch a villager boil her family’s dinner in a volcanic hot spring, visit a nearby plantation to see how artisanal soap is made out of “home grown” copra or learn from a local Vuniwai (traditional healer) the how to use medicinal plants.

Meeting local people and connecting with the culture is more likely to happen in a community like Savusavu or Levuka than at a resort complex.

Savusavu Bay--does it get more authentic than this?
Savusavu Harbor

The upshot: Visitors have the best of all worlds in a place like Vanua Levu which in addition to its great properties is, as Mr. Downey’s article notes, more like Hawaii was “a hundred years ago”.

Perhaps you could say the future of tourism in Fiji is inextricably tied to its past.

In Fiji, which still owns its culture, this is something to celebrate.

You can read Fantasha’s story here…

There’s nothing like the mother of all challenges to force you to review how you do what you do. And for governments, industries, and businesses around the world, this has meant dusting off strategies and reframing them with a post-pandemic lens considering that many things have changed including consumer behaviour, the wide spectrum of digital solutions available and the hunger for online experiences influencing everyday choices.

Globally, tourism also changed once the experience of being forced to stay still (or in the same place) resulted in people’s enlightenment and appreciation for nature and the human potential to destroy or preserve it.

Hence the reviewing or rethinking of tourism, where as an industry we have the inherent capacity to be a leader in rebuilding back sustainably and conscientiously.

This week saw the celebration of International World Tourism Day on September 27.

The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) initiated World Tourism Day celebrations in 1980 and this was to promote awareness of the value of tourism among all individuals and communities worldwide.


Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 29 September 2022)

Rob Kay

Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner Rob Kay wrote the original Lonely Planet Fiji Travel Guide, and is Founder of Fijiguide.com.

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