Pacific tourism is desperate for a vaccine and travel freedoms, but the industry must learn from this crisis



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Apisalome Movono, Massey University and Regina Scheyvens, Massey University

News of successful COVID-19 vaccine trials has raised hopes in the Pacific that the hard-hit tourism industry will begin to re-open in 2021.

Even before the vaccine announcements, there was excitement in the Cook Islands over a recent New Zealand government delegation to survey the country’s borders and discuss a potential travel bubble.

Cook Islands Private Sector Taskforce chairperson Fletcher Melvin spoke for many when he said:

The New Zealand officials are here, and that has been the biggest breakthrough for many, many months. We are hopeful they will get here and see we are prepared and confirm that we are COVID-free and we are ready to welcome Kiwis back to our shores.

At the same time, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern dampened hopes of a trans-Tasman bubble before Christmas due to different tolerances for community transmission in New Zealand and Australia.

Beyond the ongoing uncertainty, though, the possibility of a Cook Islands-New Zealand bubble raises further questions about how Pacific tourism can and should be revived in general.

Culture and commerce

Our research examines these questions and provides interesting insights into how Pacific peoples are re-imagining the place of tourism in their lives.

The global pandemic has effectively closed Pacific state borders to international tourists for eight months. With thousands of jobs gone and economies undermined, many people in Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, Cook Islands and beyond have had to make huge adjustments.




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In many cases, they have adapted to the lack of tourism income by drawing on their natural, cultural and spiritual resources. From this we can appreciate the strengths of Pacific cultures and how they might adapt to future uncertainties, including those associated with climate change.

Those affected by the pandemic now report wanting more time for family (including caring for the vulnerable), planting food and fishing, sharing surplus harvests, attending to cultural and religious obligations, relearning traditional skills and strengthening food systems.

Fale in Samoan village
Beyond the resort (Upolu, Samoa): Pacific communities have been resilient and adaptable.
GettyImages

Old ways should change

The crisis, while difficult, has allowed people to consider a more regenerative approach to tourism based on well-being and better work-life balance. As one Fijian elder put it:

Tourism must complement our way of life, rather than taking over.

The “old” tourism model is now seen by some as compromising their family’s well-being. Working long hours while commuting daily from a village to a hotel, or spending six weeks away from home at an island resort before getting one week off, is not ideal for parents of young children.

Many are on casual contracts and earn just above the minimum wage: FJ$2.68 (NZ$1.84) per hour in Fiji and NZ$7.60 per hour in Cook Islands.

Most tourism employees want tourism to return, but they hope for better terms, wages and working conditions. While a few called for caps on numbers in heavily touristed areas, others urged governments to open up new locations and promote off-season tourism.

People would also like to see greater local ownership and control of tourism enterprises, including joint ventures, building on existing strengths such as cultural or tropical garden tours and agri-tourism.

hands basket weaving
More local control of tourism ventures is called for, building on traditional skills and strengths.
Pedram Pirnia, Author provided

Life beyond tourism

Despite 73% of those surveyed living in households that experienced a major decline in income due to COVID-19, 38% were unsure about staying in tourism, or would prefer to find jobs in other areas.




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Those interviewed sought more opportunities to pursue higher education, training in IT and trades, and wanted greater government support for creative industries.

This need for economic diversification is acknowledged across the Pacific region. But there has been little progress or policy development by governments to diversify economies in meaningful ways during the pandemic.

Perhaps understandably, given the severe economic pressures, many governments have focused on returning to the way things were. Fiji has enthusiastically urged tourists to return, opening “blue lanes” for yachties and a “bula bubble” for wealthy travellers.

Towards a new model

In this context the pandemic is being seen as an interruption, albeit welcome in some ways, to business as usual. As one Cook Islands elder expressed it:

This time to me is about restoring and renewing things, relationships, and giving our environment time to restore and breathe again before it gets busy, because I’m optimistic we will come out of this. People want to travel.

However, the pandemic should also provide an opportunity for Pacific countries to reset and chart a new way forward. When travel bubbles do open, they should do so in a way that benefits Pacific peoples, complements their way of life, and builds resilience in the process.




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If and when Pacific travel is allowed again, the clear calls for culture and well-being to play a more central role in the lives of communities must be heard. One woman, a former resort employee in Fiji, put it well:

This break has given us a new breath of life. We have since analysed and pondered on what are the most important things in life apart from money. We have strengthened our relationships with friends and family, worked together, laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. We have strengthened our spiritual life and have never felt better after moving back to the village.The Conversation

Apisalome Movono, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Massey University and Regina Scheyvens, Professor of Development Studies, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China wants to be a friend to the Pacific, but so far, it has failed to match Australia’s COVID-19 response



FLORENCE LO / REUTERS POOL

Ian Kemish, The University of Queensland

The photo of the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati walking on the backs of schoolboys caused a storm on social media earlier this month. Some saw it as a symbol of China’s sinister intentions in the Pacific and others argued it reflected local customs which should be respected.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in its defence,

We fully respect local customs and culture when interacting with the Pacific countries. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Let’s set aside the argument over the incident itself. I’d just note in passing there were several occasions when, as a senior Australian representative in the region, I had to quietly back away from ceremonies where my involvement could have sent the wrong signal.

The foreign ministry’s statement raises a more important point. As a genuine regional partner, it’s not enough for China to “do as the Romans do”. Those who aspire to a meaningful partnership with the Pacific also need to be clear about what they stand for themselves.

What then, does China stand for in the Pacific? Does it really have what it takes to be a constructive, long-term partner for the region?

What does China want from the Pacific?

There’s been no clear answer to the first question from Beijing, apart from broad statements about “mutual respect and common development”.

China maintains it does not have strategic interests in the region, and that its engagement there is simply a function of its growth.

Many observers point to its hunger for resources, however, and believe its growing military engagement in the Pacific betrays a long-term objective to establish a naval base there — an unthinkable outcome for Australia.

Others say China’s financial aid is essentially “debt-trap diplomacy”, with unsustainable loans providing a pathway for China to control the strategic assets of Pacific states.




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The Lowy Institute has shown that China has not been a major driver behind rising debt in the Pacific, but it nevertheless has a responsibility to help prevent future debt risks. The scale of its lending patterns — and the absence of mechanisms to protect recipients from debt — present substantial hazards for some countries.

There’s been no sign yet that Beijing is prepared to collaborate with western donors as they engage with regional countries to mitigate these risks. This would signal China cares about the region’s sustainability — an important qualification for a genuine partner.

A development site for a Chinese Investment bank in Nuku’alofa, Tonga.
Mark Baker/AP

A top-down approach isn’t going to be effective

Chinese representatives sometimes struggle to understand that centralised control is not the Pacific way. In the commercial sphere, effective partnerships require patient management of multiple stakeholder relationships — with landowners, local authorities and environmentalists.

In Papua New Guinea, however, Chinese firms like Shenzen Energy and Ramu Nickel have been disappointed that agreements they have signed with the country’s prime minister haven’t guaranteed smooth project implementation.




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China also showed great frustration in the Solomon Islands when provincial leaders thanked Taiwan for coronavirus-related aid, which was delivered after the national government had switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Success also requires conscious support for national development aspirations and a willingness to lean in at difficult moments.

Australia and New Zealand don’t always escape criticism from the region; climate change and labour market access continue to be sore points.

But over time, these traditional partners have shown their commitment to the region’s development through the investment of billions of dollars. They have helped run elections, repeatedly deliver disaster relief and mount stabilisation missions in regional hot spots.

This kind of comprehensive partnership, recently reaffirmed in a new economic and strategic development agreement signed between Australia and PNG, is outside Beijing’s traditional comfort zone.

Australian humanitarian aid sent to Vanuatu earlier this year after Cyclone Harold.
Andrew Eddie/Department of Defence

China hasn’t stepped up with real coronavirus support

The current pandemic poses very serious risks to the fragile economies of the Pacific. It’s an important moment for regional partners to show their commitment.

Beijing has highlighted its Pacific Conference on COVID-19, a video link-up in May between the Chinese vice foreign minister and senior Pacific representatives, as a sign of its support for the region.

But there were no substantive outcomes, and despite multiple press releases, China appears to have announced only A$3.5 million in virus-related regional support.




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This contribution by the world’s second-largest economy is about half what one Australian mid-sized company has committed in COVID-19 support to PNG alone.

It also pales in comparison to the A$100 million that Australia announced in March would be redirected from existing aid programs to mitigate the regional effects of the virus.

Australia has also stepped up in other practical ways, for instance, by processing some coronvirus tests from the Pacific, sending rapid diagnostic testing equipment to the region and deploying Australian Medical Assistance Teams to support PNG’s response to rising cases there.

And perhaps most notably, Australia announced recently it will deliver a future coronavirus vaccine to the people of the Pacific, once it’s approved.

China might actually have some things to offer the region, including lessons from its highly successful development model.

But it will need to be more thoughtful about the region’s actual needs and aspirations if it wants to build a substantial and effective partnership with the Pacific in the wake of this pandemic.The Conversation

Ian Kemish, Former Ambassador and Adjunct Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Pacific people have been ‘pummelled and demeaned’ for too long – now they’re fighting back



Arorae/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Patrick D. Nunn, University of the Sunshine Coast and Roselyn Kumar, University of the Sunshine Coast

Sea level rise is a serious threat to the low-lying islands of the Republic of Kiribati in the central Pacific Ocean. To fight it, their president recently announced he plans to raise the islands to make them habitable as long as possible.

President Taneti Maamau will seek support from China for this ambitious strategy, and recently switched his nation’s allegiance from Taiwan to China to make this happen. It’s a bold move, considering China’s sights are set on military and economic expansion across the Pacific region, yet Maamau insists on maintaining Kiribati’s independence.




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Maamau’s response to the looming climate crisis in Kiribati shows he is a president determined not to capitulate to western narratives of vulnerability.

Unlike President Anote Tong before him, who held the widely commended policy of migration, the Maamau viewpoint is not simply a difference of opinion – it’s a culturally grounded expression of human dignity.

Demeaning narratives

Kiribati is made up of atolls – the sinking summits of volcanic islands from the flanks of which coral reefs grow upwards. Unconsolidated sands and gravels tossed up onto these reefs by storm waves form the atoll islands, which are typically narrow, sinuous and low.

Most of us cannot imagine the everyday challenges of life there. The ocean is omnipresent, impossible to ignore, and a threat that could extinguish life on the island with just a short-lived flourish.

President Taneti Maamau stands behind a podium at a UN conference.
President Taneti Maamau recently switched his allegiance from Taiwan to China.
UNIS Vienna/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

But for too long, the people of Kiribati have been pummelled and demeaned by global narratives that treat them as vulnerable.

This view ignores the fact that proud peoples have lived on atolls in the equatorial Pacific for millennia, surviving countless disasters.

For example, the people of Pukapuka Atoll in the northern Cook Islands speak of a night about 400 years ago as “te mate wolo” (the great death). Then, a giant wave washed over the island, destroying all the houses and food gardens, and killing everyone save two women and 17 men who were left to rebuild Pukapukan society.

Fight or flight

By the end of this century, the average global sea level may be over a metre higher than today. The highest point of most atolls in Kiribati (and elsewhere) is less than three metres.

Such stark figures might ring alarm bells for those pondering atoll life, but many atoll islands show few signs of shrinking. That said, no scientists studying this unexpected resilience believe the situation will last indefinitely.




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Like sprawling low-lying river deltas and low-lying coasts in every part of the world, the effect of rising sea level for the remainder of the 21st century and beyond will force profound changes to coastal geographies – atoll islands included.

There are two ways to respond. One is to agree with the Western narrative and accept that the rapidly rising sea level will progressively eat away at the fabric of your islands until they become uninhabitable, and eventually submerged. This idea of moving elsewhere – to a less fragile place – is a natural response, and the view former Kiribati president Anote Tong held.

But Tong is no longer in charge. Taneti Maamau has been elected president of Kiribati in the last two elections. His response, which clearly has popular appeal given his latest resounding win, 26,053 to 17,866, is quite different.

He is confronting the overwhelmingly negative international rhetoric about atoll futures, designing and driving a way forward that will ensure livelihoods can be sustained in Kiribati for the foreseeable future.

He needs help, a role China appears willing to assume, but on his own terms – no large loans and no military bases.

Whether this position proves realistic is uncertain. Like many smaller Pacific Island countries, Kiribati has exhibited a growing dependence on foreign aid for the provision of basic services over the past few decades.

However, such dependence is unsustainable given the likely soaring costs of domestic adaptation to climate change in donor countries.




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Yet Kiribati is a special case. Its Exclusive Economic Zone (where it claims exclusive rights for economic activities such as fishing or drilling) covers a huge area of almost 3.5 million square kilometres, giving it a bargaining chip with more affluent yet less well-endowed nations.

Raising the islands

Today, raised causeways connect many atoll islands rising from the same reef for people and vehicles to cross.

Causeways are relatively cheap to construct but also inhibit water movements between atoll lagoons and the surrounding ocean, focusing wave attack on particular parts of islands.

Tarawa, an atoll and the capital of the Republic of Kiribati. People have lived on atolls for millennia and survived disasters.
Shutterstock

Maamau’s plan is to replace these causeways with bridges, to improve lagoon-ocean water exchange and perhaps help restore island coasts to their natural state. It’s an expensive and engineeringly-challenging solution the Chinese are likely to relish given their construction of lengthy bridges at home.

In addition, Maamau’s government will deploy dredgers to suck up vast quantities of sand from lagoon floors and dump it along exposed island coasts, not just for protection but also to build up more land for planting crops.




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This is a short-term low-cost solution, but one likely to prove sustainable for only a few decades at most, given the expected increases in prolonged island inundation in this region.

It would be a tragedy if Pacific Island countries, their people and their cultures, became lost a century or more from now.

But as the pandemic has reminded us, we in developed countries are much like the people of the atolls: we’re living on the edge and want to believe life is indefinitely sustainable where we are. The truth is, we have to adjust to survive.The Conversation

Patrick D. Nunn, Professor of Geography, School of Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast and Roselyn Kumar, Adjunct Research Fellow in Geography and Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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