Opinion: Tourism in the Pacific: what’s behind the smile?

Thursday 1 April 2021
Put up your hand if you'd jump at the chance to take a tropical vacation in the near future? 2020 was a tough year for many of us in New Zealand and Australia and those keen to tempt us with an island escape know how to keep this idea front and centre in our brains.
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Development researchers Dr Apisalome Movono and Professor Regina Scheyvens

Last updated: Tuesday 22 March 2022

By Professor Regina Scheyvens and Dr Apisalome Movono

Put up your hand if you’d jump at the chance to take a tropical vacation in the near future? 2020 was a tough year for many of us in New Zealand and Australia and those keen to tempt us with an island escape know how to keep this idea front and centre in our brains.

Last weekend the Sunday Star-Times ran a full page advertorial titled ‘Return to Happiness in Fiji’. Alongside beautiful images of people swimming near an island, and a woman relaxing on a swing hanging from coconut trees, the text reminds readers they’ve had a stressful year and that; ‘There will be no better way to draw a line under the events of the last year and put Covid anxiety behind us than with a trip to one of the happiest places on earth’. 

Immersing oneself in a sunny place where the people are perpetually happy certainly does sound tempting.

There is also a picture of Professor Lea Waters, a positive psychology specialist at the University of Melbourne, who has studied the happiness of Fijians. We are told that when asked about their unique breed of happiness, employees at Malolo Island Resort say: “Wake up in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself a big, bright ‘Bula’ smile”. 

Can we really expect tourism employees to be constantly happy as they devote themselves to indulging us in a relaxing, reviving vacation? The reality is that many tourism employees have faced tough financial struggles over the past year, having their hours reduced or losing their jobs. And there has been increased tension in many households due to lack of money to cover school fees and other necessities.

Last Friday, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, declared at a tourism awards event that “your government has your back” and that it had paid out over FJD$118 million in unemployment benefits. This resulted in outrage on social media with hundreds of former employees noting that there had been no wage subsidy and the only help they had received came from withdrawals from their own compulsory retirement savings scheme, the Fiji National Provident Fund. By November 2020, a total of FJD$136 million had been withdrawn from this fund, with most of this (FJD$92 million) comprising employees’ own retirement savings. This has left many tourism workers without financial security in the future.

Tourism has long been seen as a key to enhanced well-being for those of us fortunate enough to travel abroad, helping to improve our mental, physical and social well-being. But whose well-being should be at the centre of efforts to re-set or re-build or re-imagine tourism in the Pacific? We suggest that the well-being of those living in tourism destinations also deserves attention – especially when it’s their smiles and hospitality that are central to a positive tourism experience. 

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Pacific Island employees in the tourism sector have had a tough year because of pandemic restrictions (photo/Sangga Rima Roma Selia:Unsplash)

How to adapt to tourism in the time of COVID-19

So should Kiwis wanting a break take that tropical vacation they’ve been dreaming of once borders open? Absolutely, and you should look forward to the sense of escape and relaxation those holidays will bring. However, you should also lend a thought to those who are working to provide you with the perfect experience of paradise: they are often earning small wages and sacrificing time with their children, wider families and communities to meet your needs. 

Realise that behind their smiles it has often been a tough year for them, too.

Tips on how to have a great holiday and be considerate of your hosts when taking that longed-for tropical vacation:

  • Be respectful of your hosts and treat them as fellow human beings with children and families and homes of their own. Have a chat to them – whether those cleaning your rooms or serving you at the pool bar – and ask how they are doing. 
  • Realise that wages are not high in the Pacific – the minimum wage is less than NZ$2 per hour in Fiji – thus consider tipping, even if you think that’s against the Kiwi way of doing things.
  • Support local businesses: the more you stay in locally-owned accommodation, or purchase locally-run tours, or buy from stalls along the road, the more your money will circulate within the island nation you are visiting, rather than a nice chunk of the profits going offshore.
  • Be patient: businesses have been working hard to upskill staff through various training schemes but many have lost a number of key employees to other sectors because they could not afford to continue to pay them. This means other staff might need to work longer hours for a while and could be a little stretched in meeting tourist needs. 
  • Be understanding: most Pacific governments have been among the world’s top performers in preventing the spread of Covid-19. So, to protect the health of Pacific peoples and your health as a visitor, there will be new norms – perhaps eating from the breakfast buffet will not be an option. But alternatives will be put in place. Realise that health and safety-related changes are hard for your hosts too. As the manager of a Rarotongan resort recently told us, they will find it hard not to embrace returning guests, because “… it’s Cook Island culture to welcome someone and kiss them on the cheek.”
  • Be willing to pay a little more for your experience: abiding by Covid-19 protocols including extra cleaning regimes requires more personnel and more products, and comes at a cost – it is reasonable that this is added to the overall cost of the tourist experience when it is being done to protect our health, too.

Covid-19 has allowed us to reimagine tourism in ways we could not previously. We believe that to build tourism back better, planning and consideration must be done respectfully and be centred around the well-being of destination communities. That way you can be assured of a genuine ‘bula’ experience and a multitude of welcoming smiles.

Professor Regina Scheyvens and Dr Api Movono are lecturers and researchers in Massey University’s Development Studies programme.