Tell the people to come to Fiji

April 28, 2009

Politics is important to the politicians but not to the people.

The trouble is all in Suva, not here in Nadi.

Tell the people to come. to Fiji.

These were the messages from the Fijians we met during our long weekend visit.

We were in the process of booking the trip when the latest consitutional outrages happened. We monitored the news, wondering if it was wise to go,  but people who had been in Fiji during previous outbreaks of political unrest told us they hadn’t known anything was happening until they got home, so we went.

Had it not been for what we’d read and heard before we left home last Wednesday we might not have known that anything was wrong. There was no noticable increase in security at the airport, no-one asked why I was carrying a laptop or queried who I wrote for and we saw nothing at all to suggest political instability.

The only sign that anything was amiss wasn’t in what we saw during our three and a half day stay, it was what we didn’t see – lots of tourists.

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April isn’t peak tourist time, it’s the end of the rainy season so the weather may be unsettled in Fiji and it’s not yet cold enough in New Zealand and Australia to tempt people looking for a sunshine fix. But the locals we spoke to – taxi drivers, waiters, hotel manager, shop assistants, business owners, told us it was quieter than normal.

That was evidence that the people who said that politics isn’t important were wrong. They might not notice the sacking of the judges, the suspension of the constitution, the reinstatement of Frank Bainimarama, the censorship of the media and other affronts to democracy because it’s not impacting on their day to day life.

But it is affecting their economy and has been for some time. Their currency has been devalued – it cost us only 80 cents to buy a Fijian dollar – and that’s impacting on prices.  Lunch which cost me $9.60 on Friday was $10.40 on Saturday. “It’s the devaluation,” the woman serving me said when I mentioned the difference. That might have just been an excuse to charge tourists more, but several people said prices for locals were going up too because anything imported was costing more.

The devaluation is recent, the tourist downturn has been going on for longer. Three people told us of adult children who were at home because the jobs weren’t there any more. A hotel manager told of  3000 bednights cancelled with a single phone call.

That anecdotes were backed up by the small number of holiday makers we saw. Eight hotels line the beach of Denarau Island. We walked from one end to the other, and saw hardly anyone – a family of four and a couple of couples round one pool, another family playing on the beach, a few couples wandering as we were but no sign of the numbers we remembered from out last visit six years ago.

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Denarau Island is a toruist resort, not the real Fiji, but it’s where a lot of real Fijians work and if the visitors don’t come their jobs will go.

The sun is still shining, the beaches are still beautiful, the people are still warm and welcoming but the politics they don’t think are important are strangling the economy.

Governments can impose sanctions in the hope they will force Commodore Bainimarama to hold elections and restore democracy.

Individuals might wonder if they should stay away because they don’t want to support an undemocratic regime but it’s not the politicians it’s the people who will be hurt most by that.

They know that and that’s why they told us to tell the people to come to Fiji.


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