How NZ-owned businesses in Fiji dealt with COVID-19 and starting again

Tourists are flocking back to the island nation - and that is good news for many. Photo credit: Supplied

With the international borders open, New Zealanders have been seizing the opportunity to take in the sights of our Pacific neighbours once more.

That's good news for businesses in Fiji after a challenging couple of years due to COVID-19, with tourists now heading to the archipelago in their droves - similar to pre-pandemic numbers.

However, not everyone is aware that some of Fiji's most well-known businesses are owned and operated by New Zealanders.

These business owners have shared some of the challenges they have faced over the past two years, as well as how they're adapting to the demands of running a business overseas.

Seventh Heaven
Photo credit: Supplied

Eddy Rotteveel of Seventh Heaven

Seventh Heaven is a new floating restaurant and bar in the Mamanuca Islands, owned by Eddy Rotteveel.

He had been travelling to Fiji alongside his business partner John Cornwell and their respective families for years before coming up with the idea.

"In 2016, on a joint family holiday in Fiji, John and I sat under a palm tree on a beach while looking out over the glorious tropical waters and said to one another 'wouldn't it be great to have a bar and restaurant out on those waters?'

"With that, we opened another Fiji Gold beer and kept talking about it for the next few hours," Rotteveel said.

"By the end of that very same day, we had written our business plan on a beer coaster and we were ready to go.

"The following morning we started actioning our plan. A few hours later, we hired a staff member and bought a car – marking the beginning of our Seventh Heaven journey."

Unfortunately the pandemic put paid to their plans.

"While on one of the last flights out of Fiji prior to borders closing in 2020, I remember thinking, 'we will be back in a month or so'. Who would have thought?" he said.

"For two years during the pandemic, all we could do was log into our cameras and watch Seventh Heaven in our storage yard, where it was moored at the time."

After touching down in Fiji for the first time in two years, Rotteveel found it "surreal".

"There were no tourists and hardly any people on the streets. The place felt abandoned, which essentially it was.

"We immediately went back to work and reconnected with our staff, whom we kept employed during the pandemic. For the next two months, we all worked seven days a week to complete Seventh Heaven." 

The restaurant and bar is also taking its environmental footprint seriously, with the world's first solar installation on the water helping to generate 15kW of electricity.

A large portion of Seventh Heaven is also made from recyclable materials and are in the process of 14,000 new corals around the mooring site. 

Island Style Peanut Butter
Photo credit: Supplied

Gary Pickering of Island Style Peanut Butter

Gary Pickering was making Island Style Peanut Butter in Tauranga as a bit of a "side hustle", supplying some supermarkets and cafes with the product in Aotearoa.

When COVID-19 hit, he was made redundant from his job in the airline business and facing a "now-or-never moment", he and his family packed their lives into a shipping container and headed to the place where he was born.

"Fiji is such an amazing place to run a business," Pickering said.

"People are genuinely interested in what you do and it's not uncommon for people just to pop into our little factory for a chat."

When they arrived in Fiji in March 2021, they had no idea a lockdown with curfews, travel restrictions and layoffs was imminent.

"Starting a business in that environment was really tough," he said.

"Meeting all the regulatory requirements for food production was slower than normal due to the reduced working hours in the government departments.

"Since then, however, we have managed to grow our business to supply all the supermarkets we needed to and some amazing resorts and hotels around Fiji." 

Pickering said they had to accept that while the conditions weren't ideal, Fiji is an enduringly popular holiday destination and would bounce back.

"Our problems were just the same as anyone else running a business here, with the likes of shipping delays, a lot of people were under an enormous financial strain, so spending was cut back," he said.

"Since the tourism market has bounced back, it's been like night and day. There is so much positivity amongst local businesses. People are really busy and enjoying having our visitors here enjoying paradise."

Photo credit: Supplied

Sarah Jeffery of Subsurface Fiji

Sarah Jeffery met the previous owner of Subsurface via "fate" and felt it was the perfect opportunity for her and her family to spend more time on the water.

"We have always liked to challenge the 'normal' lifestyle and to live a life less ordinary," Jeffery said.

"Back in 2005, when our daughter was a baby, we packed up and went to Europe to travel in a campervan. Halfway there we found a boat in Greece that we subsequently bought and spent two summers sailing around the Greek and Croatian islands."

When they were in Fiji for the 2019 Musket Cove Regatta, they decided they'd like to "cruise more permanently" and ended up buying the business.

"We took over the business on March 1, 2020 and closed the doors on about the 17th. At the time it felt like we were doomed," Jeffery said.

"It took both a financial and mental toll on us. I struggled to understand why one of the many people I know hadn't said something to us, but I think that is just the nature of how quickly the pandemic progressed and how tunnel-visioned we were at the time in getting everything done in time to take over."

Jeffery said the Fiji government and Fiji Tourism did a phenomenal job at reopening the country, never doubting there would be a return to normality.

"During the pandemic, we were completely closed. Re-opening required a lot of effort, both to ensure that we met the government requirements but also to physically get the business operational again," she said.

"The boats and equipment had all been sitting unattended for nearly two years and needed to be fully serviced.

"Being on a remote island provides a whole new set of challenges, particularly when the ferry service was operating at a reduced capacity."

However, the news since reopening has been positive. Interest has been high, Jeffery said, and she believes people are making up for lost time and making the most of their experiences.

"The latest stats from Tourism Fiji show that July had the most Australian tourists ever and those from NZ were 94 percent of historical numbers.

"All in all, it means that Fiji is busy, and business is doing well."