Coronavirus: The harrowing impact on Fiji of a year without tourists

When Fiji closed its borders to the world, overnight it lost a third of its economy and locals are struggling to stay afloat in a country which has lost its primary source of income for over a year. 

Mohammed Iraq's been selling Souvenirs in Suva, Fiji, for 45 years -  but how do you sell souvenirs when there are no tourists? 

His answer? You don't. 

"These are very difficult to sell to the locals," he told Newshub Nation.

There's no one here but the shop owners but he keeps on paying for the bus into town, keeps on paying rent for the stall. The family is getting by on money given by his sister.

"My sister is helping out for me from overseas, they send me food."

At the beginning of 2020, life here was different - tourism was booming.

In February, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was on her last international visit in Fiji. Before she returned home it was the dawn of the new normal, when with New Zealand's first confirmed case of coronavirus. 

Weeks later, Fiji closed its borders. The airports would empty, hotels and taxis would follow.

At the time flight attendant Alma Philitoga was still adjusting to life after the death of her husband in January 2020. 

"It hasn't been easy. It hasn't been easy," she said.

Her employer Fiji Airways would cling on for a few weeks, but in May it laid off 700 people - causing Alma to lose her job of 20 years.

"How did it feel? Well, so many emotions, anger, frustration. And accepting it took me quite a while... It wasn't easy, but I've learned to take each day as it comes. [I guess it really depends on. How you look at it," she said. 

"Whether it's from a negative or positive side, but in the beginning, it was all negative and, you know, that's I mean, that's understandable. And how you deal with either stand up or you just stay in that- that tunnel, that hole, that pit." 

Her colleague Kesaia Delaibau had also spent 20 years flying. Both her and husband lost their jobs in the economic downturn.

"Every day is a tough moment for us. We can't say that life has been easy. It's really been tough for us, but we thank God."

These are not unusual stories. In 2020, government revenue in Fiji plummeted 38.5 percent, the economy contracted 19 percent.

Job vacancies dropped 78 percent (in the year to January 2021). The World Bank described it as "the most severe contraction in Fiji's history".

There was massive internal migration as people moved to their home villages where they didn't have to pay rent and could grow food.

While gardening helps put food on the table, it doesn't create the cash to get a business going. 

"Some of us are lacking in capital. It's pretty hard for us to do such businesses because of the cost of things nowadays. It's really gone up," says Kesaia.

Support comes from three main sources: NGOs, government food parcels and grants and, crucially, family networks. These three sources are supplemented by micro-enterprises. 

After her husband's death, Alma's been supported by her daughters, and has tried selling gift bags and home baking. Her latest enterprise learned off the internet.

"I thought I'd try something different. And I came up with cream cheese thanks to YouTube. So I decided to just make my own cream cheese at home. And I just had the support of friends and family that have been buying, supporting," she said.

Former hotel worker Joape Anare is trying his hand at fishing to make ends meet.

"There's land that we can utilise; the sea to sustain our livelihood, we can not always depend on what the government can provide for us."

At the moment, Joape can only look at the sea. Because while we were filming, Fiji got the news no one wanted to hear - community outbreak of COVID-19. Lockdowns add another layer of challenge for people already struggling. 

Remittances - money gifted by overseas relatives - reached record highs in 2020, displacing tourism as Fiji's biggest source of foreign income. 

That's money coming from some of New Zealand's lowest-paid workers - there's a Pacific pay gap in New Zealand of 19.5 percent.

Academic Api Movono has been studying the effect of COVID-19 on Pacific Islands. He's finding people are thinking twice about returning to tourism.

"Shift work is very stressful and people who are really thinking about leaving tourism for good or thinking along These lines are weighing up the options of whether it's actually good to spend 12 hours working for the big hotels or in tourism," he said.

"When we return to work in tourism, they want to do so on their own terms, and it means that they get a couple of hours to work at the resort, but also a couple of hours to tend to their gardens."

He says the government should reflect on its over-reliance on tourism. 

"The government is now at a very critical juncture in the history of tourism in Fiji because it has the ability to actually pivot, reframe, rethink and and reset tourism in Fiji to ensure that it benefits local people."

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