On a recent trip to Fiji we thought it might be useful to get an idea from the people of Fiji as to how they feel about the 2006 coup and the impact that it has had on the country.
By way of background Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama who instigated the coup was the man who had originally installed the Prime Minister that he then ousted. The PM was entrusted with the task of restoring democracy and rooting out corruption. The reasons given for the coup were that he had not done either and there was far too much corruption under him.
The Commodore issued repeated warnings before announcing that power would soon be taken back by the military. The coup was anything but a shock announcement and was even delayed until after some important rugby games took place.
The immediate aftermath saw an increased military presence in Suva and elsewhere in the country where the army were dutibound to take over policing activities.
The following is based on feedback from Fijian locals and expatriates…
First and foremost the overall feeling was one that the coup did not in any material way have an effect outside of Suva. Where the military were deployed was mostly to protect major governmental installations and to police certain areas where they were deemed to have in fact done a better job than the police force, viewed by many as wholly corrupt.
No-one was surprised that a coup was coming because it was clear that the government were acting in a way that was inconsistent with their role of cleaning up the institutions and acting in a fair and democratic manner.
Unfortunately the governments of two of the key markets of Fiji tourism , Australia and New Zealand reacted with harsh political rhetoric and even more harsh actions namely the suspension of bilateral trade and the imposition of travel restrictions. NGO work whose aim was to provide for the most deprived communities of Fiji continued unaffected.
Despite the coup being bloodless, pre-announced and broadly welcomed by the Fijian community, the Australian travel advisory gave travel to the South Pacific nation the same danger assessment as Iraq.
The short term effects of this in the tourism industry were enormous. Numbers dropped significantly, some estimates suggest that the monthly arrivals declined by around 60% in the immediate aftermath of the event. Many resorts dropped their rates by some 40% or more meaning those who chose to go ahead with their travel plans achieved incredible deals. Since there were no visible signs of any political upheaval anywhere but the little visited state capital, dive tourists who generally visit more remote islands found themselves enjoying a blissful holiday with low diver numbers yet with everything else living up to the Fijian holiday ideal.
By law all Fiji tourism brochures meant for distribution to the market in New Zealand had to bear the full details of these restrictions in a large red box. Numbers of tourists from both New Zealand and Australia plummeted. Interestingly the USA, the 3rd major source of tourism business was not affected in remotely the same way. Perhaps this was because of less alarmist travel advisories but certainly there was less of an impact in the USA from the media broadcasts of the event.
According to some, the footage that accompanied the story of the coup in Australia and New Zealand often featured events not of the time or the place. Some images of the army on the streets were shown which was archive footage of the previous Fijian coup in 2000. Others tell of news coverage showing a tank in the street, despite the fact that there are no tanks in Fiji at all and the footage was apparently taken during historical political upheaval in the nation of Tonga.
The over-riding emotions of owners of Fijian resorts and those working in the tourism industry are twofold.
Firstly they seem unable to understand the position adopted by their two neighbours, Australia and New Zealand. What could they seek to achieve by imposing such penalties on a poor peaceful nation? Aside from the obvious benefit that their citizens may choose to vacation at home rather than spend their money elsewhere what did it benefit these two wealthy countries to see Fiji thrown into such financial turmoil? Why have the warnings been so harsh when there is never a bomb here, or kidnappings or killings or any of the things that have happened elsewhere? Why are tourists told not to come here when they are never in the slightest danger? When other countries such as Thailand undergo a very similar political upheaval not a word is uttered nor are any political manoeuvres made by either antipodean state yet their politicians were queuing up to condemn Fiji and warn against travel there in the strongest possible terms.
Secondly in typical charming Fijian style they shrug their shoulders and resolve to keep on going, hoping that the corner will soon be turned and that people will return to Fiji for their dream holidays of the future. When many would be bitter, it is commonplace to find the Fijian smiling broadly and simply getting on with it knowing that the more they please their guests the more word of mouth might spread and gain greater influence over the minds of potential visitors than the self-interested declarations of politicians of nearby countries.
Fiji has undertaken to reach certain milestones towards a reinstitution of democracy that were agreed at the recent Pacific Islands forum. The national census is complete, the Boundaries Commission has almost finalised the process of demarcating the electoral zones and elections are due to take place in the first quarter of 2009. So the positive approach of the people may be borne out by events in the near future.
Far from being a harsh and power-hungry general, the overwhelming, if not unanimous, view is that Commodore Bainimarama does have the best interests of the country at heart and he is a vocal proponent of a government where power is shared between Fijians and Indo-Fijians alike acting in the best interests of the populace as a whole.
It is difficult not to sympathise with the Fijian nation and those in the tourism industry who have been worst hit over the course of the last year. However visitor numbers are growing and it seems that by the end of 2007 the annual figures will not be as far short of 2006 as many had projected.
So the proud Fijians march on with a smile and a warm welcome for all those who visit their shores. It is hard to imagine a place where tourists are less in danger or made to feel more welcome by the genuinely warm locals. It is hoped that the future for Fiji can be as bright as the spirit of its people and that many more will come to appreciate the splendour of this South Pacific dream destination.
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