PACIFIC PANDEMIC DIARY: By Sri Krishnamurthi, contributing editor of Pacific Media Watch
As New Zealand prepares to go to alert level 2 in the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, the attention turns to the recovery of the economy – and we must spare a thought for the economies of the Pacific.
Most of the Pacific relies on tourism, as does New Zealand, however devastation of the industry has rendered it almost non-recoverable.
As Ingrid Leary, who was director for New Zealand and the Pacific for the UK cultural relations organisation British Council for 11 years, says, the recovery is going to be “tricky” for the Pacific.
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While it is easy to dismiss her as just another Pākehā voice in the distance – who is standing in the Dunedin safe seat of Taieri for Labour, succeeding Clare Curran – nothing can be further the truth.
She has a deep love for the Pacific, in particular Fiji, having gone there in 1997 and helped develop the University of the South Pacific journalism school with the Pacific Media Centre’s Professor David Robie for several years.
Leary understands the Pacific’s estimated US$4.2 billion tourism industry has been destroyed and with no social welfare to fall back on this leaves the people of the Pacific facing poverty and unemployment.
“The question of Pacific tourism is very tricky and yes thousands of jobs are lost, as indeed in New Zealand as well,” she says.
“The tourism industry has been devastated by covid-19 and it is going to take a lot of imagination and rethinking to get the industry back up and running.
“I think some of the answers will be around eco-tourism and also making use of the fact most Pacific Islanders didn’t experience any cases of covid-19,” Leary told Pacific Media Watch.
She hopes that the trans-Tasman bubble can be extended to the Pacific in due time.
“So, promoting tourism within the region and when New Zealand and Australia form a bubble then perhaps extending that bubble to the Pacific when it is safe to do so, so there can be regional tourism and regional travel,” says the award-winning former television journalist who went to Banda Aceh after the 2004 tsunami and covered the devastation there.
“And that climate change and climate orientated services and products are very much at the centre of that tourism offer,” says Leary, who is also a lawyer.
Ironically, covid-19 might be a blessing in disguise for the environment and climate change when it comes to rethinking tourism, she thinks.
“If that does happen then covid-19 in the tourism sector might be a blessing in the Pacific because the rate of destruction of the environment through climate change was so massive as the Fijian government knows and has led on,” she says.
Projecting the environment
“Having a reset and having tourism being done differently so that it protects the environment and the communities which survive on it would be a fantastic long-term outcome from what is otherwise been a devastating pandemic,” she said.
No one can doubt her sincerity, as I found out myself when returning to Fiji after 30 years away.
“Recently, in my role with the British Council I was working on a project to vision the new art gallery with the Fijian government,” she recalls.
But it is the next sentence which left me gobsmacked – here is a woman who doesn’t just love the islands but belongs there.
“Every time I got off the plane the familiar smell of Fiji, warmth and vibe just reminded me that I was home again, my second home and that feeling will never leave me.
“I love Fiji. I have two Rotuman children from my time in Fiji. As much as it is my second home, Fiji has such complex cultures, and politically and there are always surprises and for that reason I will always find Fiji fascinating,” Leary says.
The expectation is that the tourism industry will take at least two years to get back on its feet.
Pacific tourism report
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) commissioned a report in conjunction with the Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO) titled “Pacific Tourism: Covid19 Impact & Recovery, Sector Status Report: Phase 1B” which was released last week on May 5.
The major focus on countries in the report are Cook Islands, Fiji, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga.
The report says: “At this time, all tourism in the Pacific has ceased. All borders to Pacific countries, including New Zealand, are closed to commercial air traffic and cruise ships.
“There are currently no commercial air services, and global tourism has halted. Flights are operating on a charter basis only.
“Currently, there are no cases of covid-19 in Cook Islands, Niue, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu.
“There are confirmed covid-19 cases in Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and PNG.
“Impact on all Pacific nations is significant, with the tourism sector and all associated businesses and sectors effectively shut down commercially and in maintenance mode at best,” the report says.
For instance, Fiji’s economy is projected to shrink by 4.9 percent in 2020, Cook Islands 2.2 percent, Samoa 3 percent, Tonga zero growth, Vanuatu 1 percent and Tuvalu 2.7 percent.
“If there were limited cases and no travel restrictions, New Zealanders are willing to travel,” the report goes on to say.