Expert calls for re-opening of tourism market before it's too late

The Pacific should be more vocal about reopening the tourism market with Australia and New Zealand before the industry and airlines are too far gone to recover.

That's the opinion of Stephen Lyon, the President of the Pacific Island Private Sector Organisation (P.I.P.S.O.).

With much of the region now without tourists for nearly two months, hotels, tourism operators and airlines are at risk of losing the ability to pull through the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19.

Speaking from his home in the Cook Islands, Mr. Lyon said if New Zealand and Australia want to keep being major players in the region they will work with the Pacific to help prepare them to take on the necessary amount of risk in order to open their borders to tourists again.

“As long as there is a framework for managing [COVID-19] there is no reason why we cannot get back to business and start growing again,” he said. “If they don’t do it, someone else is going to do it and they will lose ground which would be a shame.”

He said much of the Pacific’s resorts and attractions will be facing reality within a few months and making the hard choice to shut up shop. And once that happens, and employees and management find employment in other industries, there may be no coming back.

“A mothballed property is very difficult to open back up. You can see the writing on the wall that it’s a massive opportunity for China to have a wave of investment in the Pacific and that is very concerning for people who want to see the Pacific maintain its identity.”

This month, the Pacific Tourism Organisation (S.P.T.O.) revealed the region will see losses of NZ$3.1 billion if there are no tourists or visiting friends and relatives for a year.

In its report S.P.T.O. specifically refers to Samoa, Tonga, Niue, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.

Samoa alone will be missing out on annual visitor arrivals numbering nearly 200,000 bringing more than $4 billion into the country.

“The countries that don’t have [COVID-19] should be assisted in the capability to manage a small number of COVID cases should it arrive, otherwise those countries are never going to open and the economy will continue to collapse,” Mr. Lyon said.

“They need to have the capacity to manage COVID cases should they arrive so they have the internal confidence to take on a small amount of risk.”

Australia and New Zealand are currently in talks about eventually reopening borders to each other’s citizens without imposing two week quarantine measures. 

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, who last week announced New Zealand and American Samoa would be permitted to fly to Samoa to repatriate citizens and residents, told T.V.N.Z. he is still nervous to restart commercial flights until everyone can be tested for COVID-19 before departure.

“That would give us a great assurance,” he said. 

So far four per cent of New Zealand’s population has been tested for COVID-19, totalling 203,045 tests since 22 January.

Currently not everyone in New Zealand can be tested for COVID-19, with specific strategies in place for at risk groups like health workers, police, rest-home workers and residents and in some rural communities.

It is not clear whether travellers will be able to take tests if they don’t fit the particular criteria in New Zealand.  

But under the state of emergency orders Samoa is insisting only people who have tested negative for the virus and been in quarantine for 14 days will be permitted to board any flight to Samoa, and they will undergo 14 days of quarantine when they land. 

But Tuilaepa is still worried people will arrive without being tested.

“We only have 240 test kits, we are thinking very carefully, within the next week if we change our mind there will be no flight.”

But Mr. Lyon said countries like Samoa need to be helped to deal with a case potentially arriving in Samoa.

Otherwise not only will tourism suffer but the airline industry that connects the region and supports the health, education and private sectors too will suffer.

“What we need is the Government regulatory framework to allow us to open up to tourism as safely as possible,” he said.

“There will be a small amount of risk but we have to accept that risk and manage it through proper compliance monitoring and contact tracing so that risk is significantly minimised.”

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