By Saskia Giraud-Reeves
Ever wanted to retreat to a small South Pacific island littered with palm trees and blessed with eternal sunshine? Well, if you happen to be one of the few economic elites who possesses the status of billionaire then you’re in luck. During the summer, Fiji – a nation whose economy is heavily reliant on tourism – made a rather unique appeal to the wealthiest of wealthy and offered an open invitation to any billionaires in search of a retreat during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In June of this years the Fijian Prime Minister, the infamous Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, announced not only the gradual reopening of the islands travel sector, but also went on to tweet an invitation to billionaires everywhere: “So, say you’re a billionaire looking to fly your own jet, rent your own island, and invest millions of dollars in Fiji in the process — if you’ve taken all the necessary health precautions and borne all associated costs, you may have a new home to escape the pandemic in paradise.” This offer, although unusual, has not gone unnoticed by the economic elites of the world. Fiji’s Attorney General, Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum when speaking at a recent national budget consultation confirmed that over 30 VIPs have been granted permission to relocate to Fiji during the pandemic. It was announced that these very special ‘guests’ were to arrive – of course- by private planes discreetly hidden from the eyes of local Fijians.
The government has also proposed the introduction of an additional initiative named “Blue Lanes” which aims to encourage and welcome tourists who plan to arrive by yachts. It is expected that travellers would be able to live out their 14-day quarantine on board their vessels either before arrival or once stationed in Fiji. Said tourists would then after a negative Coronavirus test, would be able to explore the archipelago of Fijian islands freely. Furthermore, the country has chosen to welcome any film or television crews who wish to film on the islands and who will contribute to the struggling local economy.
The Fijian government unsurprisingly has received considerable criticism from the general population and some of its own parliamentary members over the potential health risks posed to the local population through allowing outsiders to enter the country. The Attorney General, Khaiyum, responded to such concerns stating that from the government’s perspective, there needs to be a balancing act between protecting the health of the Fijian population and maintaining the country’s GDP, 40% of which traditionally comes from tourism. Fiji so far has managed to keep its confirmed cases of COVID-19 relatively low with so far only two deaths and 35 positive cases, however, restrictions on international borders during the pandemic have not only damaged the economy but have also destroyed household incomes across the archipelago.
For example, in parts of Nadi, Shia Kiran -the chief executive of the Fijian Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development – announced that weekly police reports of crop theft had multiplied by over a hundred. Furthermore, Shamima Ali who is responsible for co-ordinating the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre said that her organisation is currently distributing food parcels to many families who have been left without any income on a daily basis. In addition, healthcare services across the country are struggling as many citizens lack the funds to pay for basic medicines of essential surgeries and public funding for medical care has been largely directed towards COVID-19 measures and treatment.
Prime Minster Bainimarama announced earlier this summer his intention to create a “Bula Bubble” which would allow for carefully controlled travel between Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. The Prime Minister went onto to state that “Everywhere they go will be wholly dedicated to others who match the same criteria, safely guided by what will be called ‘VIP lanes’, allowing them to vacation in paradise”. However, Bainimarama and many of the other Pacific island leaders have expressed frustration at Australia and New Zealand’s prioritisation of creating a ‘bubble’ between each other before opening travel to any of the neighbouring South Pacific islands, a majority of which have avoided the virus almost completely.
Although comparative to many other countries around the world Australia and New Zealand have handled the pandemic reasonably well, they have both in recent months experienced surges in infection rates. Their reluctance to ‘bubble’ with the nearby Islander nations therefore appears not only increasingly illogical but also exclusionist towards their neighbours that exist outside the global cultural ‘West’. The lack of cooperation from Australia and New Zealand to re-establish tourist routes has arguably forced Fiji to take other measures – such as its welcoming of billionaires and wealthy yacht owners in order to restimulate its economy. Fiji is of course not alone in its struggles, other small islander nations such as the Maldives whose economies are similarly reliant on tourism have also attempted to reach out to the wealthy of the world in order to minimise the COVID-19 woes. The changes that the coronavirus has brought to international travel are unlikely to disappear entirely anytime soon, so the question arises – how will small nations with tourist-reliant economies survive financially in the coming years?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.