Bula, the welcome many Australians have been yearning to hear from the friendly faces of the Isle of Smiles, may not be as far off as we think.
Fiji, the South Pacific’s most developed country, has suffered a massive blow since the start of the pandemic, considering tourism makes up nearly 40 per cent of its gross domestic product.
But there is some hope with news that vaccinations are now advancing rapidly around the globe. Tourism Minister Dan Tehan has remained hopeful that a number of travel bubbles will open up as soon as 2022, once the government’s 80 per cent vaccination target is reached.
“The next three to four months will be trying for all of us but there is still a strong ray of sunshine,” Mr Tehan told the tourism sector last week.
“Once we hit that 80 per cent rate by Christmas, we will be able to turn the corner.”
He had also hinted at the reopening of the trans-Tasman bubble between Australia and New Zealand and confirmed officials in the Pacific Islands and Singapore are “very keen” to open doors to Australia once case number and vaccination targets are met.
“Obviously the New Zealand one we had put in place was working successfully,” he continued.
“The Pacific Islands and Singapore are very keen for us to do a bubble and I have committed to work being done. The United States is very keen to engage with us, we will be able to get those bubbles in place. But ultimately it will depend on how countries are dealing with the COVID virus.”
Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill said, in an interview with travel industry researcher Skift, that he hopes Australians will soon grace the shores of Fiji. But the country has yet to decide whether it will open to unvaccinated travellers.
“What’s been interesting is that a lot of resorts have taken that time to actually really invest in their properties as well. I think one of the things that I’m really keen to look at with the team going forward is particularly now Fiji more than ever, is actually a place that the world is going to be looking for as we emerged from COVID-19 in the sense that it’s relatively uncrowded.
“You’ve got these beautiful open beaches, you’ve got amazing accommodation where there isn’t a huge amount of people, it’s not a congested city, there’s a lot of outdoor air, et cetera.
“But certainly, that kind of innovation in terms of broadening the appeal of Fiji. I think a lot of people for example in Australia, where I come from, would have no idea that Fiji has amazing things like whitewater rafting, quad bikes, waterfalls. They think it’s all beaches. So that’s exciting to me to really bring that out in due course.”
Mr Hill said that Australia would consider Fiji as one of the first places to start international travel but said that the country would have to rethink its strategy around partnering with COVID-free countries.
“Fiji would always put its hand up for involvement in any travel bubble, but that was initially around all the zero-COVID locations. So I think now it’s more: how can we open up to vaccinated travellers,” he said.
“I think Australia will still consider the Pacific first before other countries, not based on necessarily where we’re at with COVID or vaccination, but because of that Oceania obligation to each other.”
Singapore, another country which Australia has earmarked as one of the top on the list with which to start a travel bubble, is preparing to re-open its economy and establish quarantine-free corridors for inoculated passengers. The country has reached a milestone with almost 80 per cent of its population vaccinated.
The city state’s multi-ministry pandemic taskforce has announced that it would begin the transition to becoming a “COVID-19 resilient nation” next month, loosening curbs and travel restrictions in a bid to treat the virus as endemic.
But while Australia has longed to establish a Singapore travel bubble, Singapore’s health minister, Ong Ye Jung, did not confirm which countries would be on the list but said “we have to find ways to start opening up borders”.
“Singapore is actually considered a low-risk country by several regions including the United States and large parts of the EU,” he said.
“Singapore-based travellers can already go to these countries without quarantine or [stay-at-home notices]. So it is really up to us if we are comfortable to reciprocate the arrangements and immediately you open up the travel lane.
“The onus is on us, so we have to assess the risk level of some of these potential other countries.”
The country’s finance minister, Lawrence Wong, said Singapore would “start with countries where we assess the risk to be similar to ours, [with] the infection situation under control”.