Coronavirus: Fiji welcomes first tourists after 20 months

Five months ago, Fiji faced catastrophe as Delta ripped through the capital Suva and surrounding districts, killing almost 700 people.

But today, it's a vastly different picture. After 20 months of being shut off to the world, the first tourists touched down in a flight from Sydney

Tourism makes up 40 percent of the country's GDP, making the arrival of tourists critical.

"I think everyone has just that massive mixture of relief and happiness, you know, just happiness to see people again," says Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill.

Just months ago, the situation was grim. Hospitals were full, so pregnant women gave birth on a medical ship in the harbour and extra chillers were used to cope with the growing number of dead. 

Daily case numbers accelerated in late May. By mid-June there were 88 cases, climbing to more than 300 at the start of July. In mid-July, cases exploded, hitting a peak of 1405 on July 16. From there, numbers dropped as vaccination rates increased. On Monday, zero new cases were recorded and no one's in ICU. 

"And that's an amazing thing. We stand today here in Fiji with no person in ICU from COVID," Hill says.

"It is one of the true success stories from around the world and if anyone ever doubted the efficacy of vaccines they only need to look at our graphs."

Fiji adopted an aggressive 'no jab, no job' policy for civil servants and the private sector - and 96 percent of adults have had their first dose.

Dr Collin Fonotau Tukuitonga, associate Pacific dean at the University of Auckland, says politics had a lot to do with compliance.

"It's not an open and free society that some might say it is. The military still has a fairly strong hand on what happens and people pretty much comply."

In Fiji, hotel staff must be double vaccinated and undergo weekly tests. Tourists get a rapid antigen test on arrival and can only visit certified locations. 

"We're just asking people to stay away from areas that might be a little bit more risky. For example some of the village visits and some of the central town areas," Hill says.

But that doesn't mean things like snorkelling, golf and hitting restaurants are a no-go. 

However, New Zealanders have to wait. It'll be February before Kiwis can take in those postcard moments and isolate themselves at home on return.

"Kiwis have got such a connection here with Fiji - we just can't wait to welcome you guys back," Hill says.

It's just hoped the threat of Omicron doesn't jeopardise that 'Bula' welcome that's familiar to so many.