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The return to tourism strewn with pitfalls for the Pacific

Vax and vacation? Regina Scheyvens and Apisalome Movono explain why this Pacific Island vacation will always mean ‘traveler beware’.

Pacific island countries are betting big on immunization as a strategy to resume tourism by Christmas and bring much-needed relief to their struggling economies.

For much of the Pacific, tourism has long been the goose that lays the golden eggs. But the pandemic has underscored just how fragile and temperamental tourism can be. It is based on stable social and economic conditions both at the destination and at the source, unlike what has happened since the start of 2020.

While border openings dependent on vaccination rates may seem hasty, some Pacific leaders see them as the only viable way forward for economies that have plunged due to Covid. As the second South Pacific pandemic summer approaches, the question is how to balance the risk of further epidemics with a return to tourism and some sort of economic normalcy.

Race to vaccinate

Amid reluctance and misinformation, vaccination rates in parts of the Pacific are now breaking world records. Niue and the Cook Islands have almost fully vaccinated all eligible citizens this year.

Samoa is also stepping up its vaccination program in hopes of joining the Cooks and Niue if and when travel resumes in a bubble contained between New Zealand and the Pacific. With vaccination also gaining ground in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji, tourism officials hope that a fully vaccinated population will allow them to reopen borders while protecting the health and safety of citizens.

But some tourism-dependent states that opened earlier are now struggling. Guam had to suspend a “vacation and vax” program – which allowed international visitors to receive a Covid bonus in a bid to revive tourism – after a Delta surge caused massive deaths and hospitalizations.

With some 278,000 inhabitants, French Polynesia has recorded more than 40,000 cases of Covid and more than 600 deaths. With only 54% of the population having received their first dose of vaccine, tourism is now largely exempt from quarantine for fully vaccinated visitors.

In Fiji, despite the virus spreading to tourist spots such as Yasawa, Beqa and Kadavu Islands, tourism players are optimistic that the country (which has started to ease local restrictions) will reopen its international borders on November 1.

Caution against despair

The flip side, of course, is how prepared and willing tourists will be to plan a vacation in the Pacific – and what conditions are placed on their trip (such as Nova Scotia’s current quarantine requirement). Zealand for the start of the school year).

After opening to non-quarantine travel with New Zealand in May this year and then closing borders again due to a largely Auckland-based Covid outbreak in August, the Cook Islands have taken an approach careful.

Going forward, it will allow inbound travel only for fully vaccinated people and only when there has been no community transmission in New Zealand. Given the stubborn long tail of Auckland’s current outbreak, that could mean longer delays.

Likewise, New Zealand has taken a cautious approach with Fiji after declaring it a high risk country and limiting travel for the foreseeable future. For its part, Fiji is banking on mass vaccination and adherence to guidelines, including strict application of vaccination for certain workers.

And despite its recent devastating epidemic, the Fijian government has said it is showing regional leadership in managing the resumption of tourism. The aim is to offer quarantine-free travel to visitors from “green list” countries (Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Korea, Singapore and parts of the United States), visitors to be fully vaccinated. and tested negative for Covid before departure.

But the rush to reopen is not shared by all, including the country’s opposition leader Bill Gavoka, who said: “We have to have our priorities right – health first over the economy. I don’t believe Fiji is ready. ”

Who wants to travel?

Ultimately, given these many uncertainties, the fate of tourism-dependent Pacific countries will depend less on government proclamations than on the risk calculations of the tourists themselves.

Elsewhere in the world, tourist destinations have tried to reassure travelers while protecting their own populations.

Pacific countries could implement similar policies in selected locations. But it remains to be seen to what extent vaccine “passports”, touted as a prerequisite for international travel, will be the crucial breaker. The ability to track visitors is also important, with some countries wanting close monitoring of tourist routes, while others are hoping that voluntary use of tracking apps will suffice.

However, there are limits to the use of these technologies in the Pacific, as they rely on people owning and carrying a mobile phone, having sufficient data and having GPS activated at all times. Network coverage is very poor in some places, and phones often cannot provide sufficiently detailed location information to determine virus exposure.

Whatever the measures, governments in the Pacific face a major challenge, especially given the weakness of their public health systems. Having bet heavily on tourism as a pillar of their economy, they must now live in the hope that the hen that lays the eggs of tourism can start laying its golden eggs again. –

  • Regina Scheyvens and Apisalome Movono are from Massey University.

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