Fiji is expected to be among the first countries to welcome back Australians as overseas travel resumes at the end of this year, with flag carrier Fiji Airways already pencilling in a December restart for flights to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Before COVID-19 locked down Australia’s borders, Fiji was a hugely popular tourist destination, offering everything from five-star resorts through to simpler pleasures such as the nation’s beautiful natural environment – and Australia accounted for more than half of Fiji’s international arrivals.
Understandably, Fiji had to hit ‘pause’ on its own tourism industry as well, but the country is now getting the wheels turning to welcome the world back to its shores.
It’s certain that a holiday in paradise will look different in the era of COVID, and Fiji has had much time to plan.
As international travel takes on a new shape, mandatory vaccinations, pre-flight testing, additional rapid testing on arrival and electronic travel declarations are all on Fiji’s agenda.
Executive Traveller spoke with Brent Hill, Chief Executive Officer of Tourism Fiji, to find out more about the country’s plans, and what travellers should prepare for when borders reopen.
Prepare for take-off: getting Fiji ready
Fiji practically went an entire year without a single local case of COVID-19, but the virus made its way into the country in recent months – spurring a strong uptake in vaccinations across the archipelago.
In turn, the recent vaccine rush and broader vaccine uptake are poised to get the country’s tourism industry back on its feet.
“We understood that people weren't going to come here if Fiji wasn't heavily vaccinated,” says Hill.
“It's really important, because we’ve seen countries like Tahiti that opened up without a hugely vaccinated population, and had some issues.”
Fiji currently expects the vast majority of its adult population to be fully vaccinated by November – aligning perfectly with plans to get Australians travelling overseas again from mid-December.
Andre Viljoen, CEO of Fiji Airways, adds that “as of today, Fiji has a higher vaccination rate than Australia … and puts us on track to be the most COVID-Safe holiday destination in the world.”
“Ultimately, when Aussies are looking for COVID-safe travel, we want Fiji to be their ‘vacci-nation’ of choice.”
To open the border, or brew a bubble?
One of the biggest decisions for Fiji was whether to reopen the country only as part of ‘travel bubble’ deals, or to swing the gates open, and encourage travel from further afar.
Bubbles had been considered, but “the bubble concept relies a little bit more on the eradication strategy, and unfortunately I'm not seeing that go so well … with Australia and New Zealand probably the last two countries who were really trying to have a crack,” Hill says.
Instead, Fiji plans to designate countries as ‘green’ if they’ve met certain vaccination targets – with that goal being 60% of a country’s population fully vaccinated against COVID-19 – although a country’s case numbers would also be taken into account.
“It'll be a green country to green country arrangement,” Hill confirms, with travellers also required to be fully vaccinated.
“We're obviously doing everything we can now to make sure we're in that same category (to be considered ‘green’ or ‘low-risk’ by other countries) so that Fiji can have reciprocal arrangements with places like the US and Europe, the UK, and eventually Australia and New Zealand.”
This reflects that travellers aren’t only entering Fiji on their journey, but that they’ll also need to return home afterwards: and by having borders open in both directions, tourists won’t be disincentivised by mandatory quarantine after their Fijian getaway.
Getting to Fiji, once travel bounces back
When international borders start coming down, there’ll be a few more steps for travellers to follow before jetting to Fiji, beyond being fully vaccinated and arriving from a ‘green’ country.
“At the very least, you’d have to get a PCR test before you board,” Hill flags.
With travel tests typically priced around $150 in Australia, that’s a $600 impost on a family of four, before paying for any flights, hotels or activities.
“I think those days of quite carefree travel are probably still a little way off,” Hill reflects, “but Fiji is very conscious of trying to make it as simple as possible.”
The country is actively reviewing how it might adopt global standards like the IATA Travel Pass, through which, travellers’ vaccination details and test results can be stored and securely verified, to minimise any hassle on travel day.
“That's the kind of global standard that we're looking at, so we’re looking to try and line up with that as much as we can.”
Although Fiji normally grants visa-free entry to arrivals from many countries, including Australia, the country is likely to implement a pre-travel declaration to ensure its vaccination and testing requirements have been met.
Rapid on-arrival testing
As an additional safeguard, Fiji plans to incorporate rapid COVID-19 testing for international arrivals.
Unlike the PCR tests many Australians are familiar with – which can take 1-3 days to receive a result – rapid tests return a result in just 15-30 minutes, allowing people to be on their way.
“The plan will be: a vaccinated traveller who tests negative can get on a plane, come to Fiji, and then test negative at the airport doing a rapid test.”
“Then, essentially you're free to travel within Fiji.”
Hill suggests that many of Fiji’s tourism operators are expecting 100% of their staff to be fully vaccinated, and will promote this to guests.
“As a tourist, if you wanted to come in and ensure your utmost safety, you’d just make sure that your transport was on somebody that had a hundred percent vaccinated sticker.”
For peace of mind, you could also “stay at a resort that (has that), or go on a snorkelling tour or a zip line or whatever, in places that are fully vaccinated and certified.”
There would certainly be a few hurdles with getting to Fiji – and passing through the airport – but the goal is for the rest of the journey to be as ‘normal’ as possible.
Planning for a worst-case scenario
There are better souvenirs to bring home from your holiday than COVID-19, yet it’s a scenario that travellers to any country should be prepared for.
“These days, you can actually get travel insurance for you as an individual, if you test positive,” Hill reminds, with a number of Australian insurance providers covering travellers under this scenario, as well as costs of self-isolation if required after being a close contact of a positive case.
Hill is optimistic, however, that COVID-19 restrictions will ease over time.
“I think the days of being a close contact and then having to isolate will hopefully be behind us, and it will (instead) be about your individual test and your individual test results.”
“We've still got plans in place to try and curtail COVID and make sure that it's suppressed, but the biggest way of doing that really is the vaccine. That’s why Fiji has gone as hard as it has.”
Another ‘horror scenario’ for travellers these past 18 months has been snap border closures – and that’s something Fiji also hopes to avoid, given the vaccination requirements that’ll be in place.
“There are lots of discussions taking place with the (Fijian) government, and they understand very clearly that if we closed the border again, that's kind of catastrophic from an insurance perspective, whereas (most) travel insurance would cover you if you, as an individual, test positive.”
“So, touch wood, but I don't think you would get those snap closures.”
Fiji’s enduring appeal to Australians
Prior to COVID-19, Australian travellers accounted for more than half of Fiji’s international arrivals.
Being so close to Australia puts it within reach of being a ‘long weekend’ destination: and for those living on Australia’s east coast, Fiji remains nearer – and faster to reach – than places like Perth.
Still, despite that proximity and ease of a quick visit, “one of the things I’d be saying to people is, come out here for a week or more: it's amazing how just all of your concerns and worries sort of wash off.”
“By the second day, you'd be like, oh my gosh, are you kidding me? I'm in paradise, and the weather is incredible.”
While acknowledging that Australia provides a range of great destinations to visit within its own jurisdictions, Hill – previously an Adelaide resident – firmly believes there’s nothing like Fiji.
“I think that Australians are going a bit stir-crazy: they really want to get out and experience places like Fiji again.”
“There's nothing like coming out here. It's the people, it's the culture … so I think that's the thing for me. That's what'll be exciting, about seeing Australians come back to Fiji and discovering it again.”
Getting to Fiji, once borders reopen
The country’s national carrier, Fiji Airways, stands ready to connect Australia with Fiji once more.
“Come the 17th of December, Fiji Airways will be ready to welcome Aussies back to our home: reuniting families and enjoying vacations,” the airline’s Chief Executive shares, reflecting that Australia’s current ‘travel ban’ is in force until that date.
“Should the opportunity arise for an early travel bubble between Australia and Fiji based on vaccination rates, rest assured, we’re ready to fly you there.”
Aside from Fiji Airways, Qantas also offered regular flights from Australia prior to COVID-19 – as did Virgin Australia.
While Virgin Australia opted not to resume flights to New Zealand this year where the opportunity arose, Hill is confident of Virgin’s return to Nadi.
“We think airlines will be keen to fly here, because it's a border that (will be) open, it's a place that people want to go to.”
Flying planes to Fiji “is certainly better than leaving the planes sitting out in a hangar somewhere in Alice Springs drying out. We’ll work with anybody that wants to come in,” Hill underscores.
Travelling beyond the Nadi airport hub
Many visitors to Fiji fly into Nadi and stay on Denarau Island – where a collection of brand-name resorts are located – and that’s certainly a big part of Fijian tourism.
But there’s more to Fiji that’s ready to explore, and Hill encourages everybody to get out and discover the country.
“It's been said to me a number of times since I've got here, that the true Fiji is the islands. And so I think, if you come to Fiji and don't get out to the islands, you're really missing a beat, because that’s the real beauty of Fiji.”
Hill particularly recommends the Yasawa Islands, Savusavu and Taveuni.
“Some of these amazing locations are quite remote, but how often can you say you've stayed on a private island or got a private beach?”
Those preferring the resorts of Denarau Island don’t have to miss out on those wider opportunities, either.
“Not to denigrate Denarau – I live there now, and it's incredible – but one of the things you must do when you come to Fiji is get on a cruise that leaves Denarau, and goes out to some of the pontoons and islands, and just spend some time out there,” Hill suggests.
“That's the real Fiji out there.”