Na Momo Na Tui Nadi, Ratu Vuniyani Navuniuci;
Na Gone Turaga Na Tui Macuata, Ratu Wili Katonivere
Honourable Cabinet Ministers;
Co-Chairs of the Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards Trustees, Olivia Mavoa and Bill Whiting;
Board of Trustees, Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards;
Country Head Fiji for ANZ Bank, Saud Minam;
Permanent Secretaries;
Members of the Fiji Tourism Industry;
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen.

Bula vinaka and good afternoon.

As we all know, this afternoon is long overdue. Last March, the stage had already been set for the 23rd Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards.

Tickets had been sold. Entries had been assessed. Finalists had been judged. Even the names on the trophies had been engraved.

I remember there was a good deal of hesitation around the night, and whether it should be held at all. The world was reeling from the early stages of a global pandemic – one that we already knew would pose unprecedented challenges for the Tourism Industry.

It certainly didn’t seem like a night worth celebrating. And with that initial hesitation growing by the day, our Organisers felt the mood, and cancelled the event in solidarity of the struggles faced by our nation’s tourism operators.

Just a week later – one year ago to the very day – we got the news: Fiji had recorded our first case of COVID-19.

We’d prepared for the day for weeks. Every morning, we would meet with Fiji’s top doctors and experts to lay the groundwork for when it finally came.

We had worked hand-in-hand with the World Health Organisation. We’d set up a robust contact tracing network. We’d prepared rapid-response plans, including what would later prove to be life-saving lockdowns. We’d closed our borders to China and other high-risk nations.

But nothing –no amount of preparation – could prepare us for the feeling of unease we all felt the moment COVID actually arrived. After watching nearly every other nation on Earth fall victim to the virus, Fiji shouldn’t have been shocked. But we had every right to be scared.

When I took to the podium to share details of our first case – and our plans to contain its spread – I could feel the cloud of fear that fell over all of Fiji.

It was more than fear of the virus itself. It was fear of the unknown that gripped the nation. After watching COVID wreak havoc around the world, we didn’t know what would happen next.

How can we protect ourselves, and our loved ones? Would our jobs still exist with closed borders? And if you’re Lynda Tabuya: Do we have enough toilet paper?

In all seriousness, every Fijian found ourselves in that moment, asking the same question: What would happen next?

It’s one that – I’m sure – kept every person in this room awake at night. Not just that night, but in many of the days, weeks, and months that would soon follow.

Because whether you’re running a hotel, working in a Fijian garment factory, or selling produce in the new Namaka market, this economic crisis can seem unending.

But we can take some comfort knowing that none of us are in this struggle alone, and that this isn’t the first time we’ve faced an outsized opponent.
We are the same people who proved ourselves stronger than Category 5 storms. The same people who pulled ourselves out of the global financial crisis and propelled ourselves into Fiji’s longest ever economic expansion.

So while we may be down, we’re not out. We are a strong people, and we are a resilient people – we’ve proven it before, and we’ll prove it again.

To remind us of this resilience – this undying Fijian fortitude – I wanted to take a few moments to share some inspiring stories that have emerged from this crisis.

The first is of Mitimiti Dreunimisimisi, a former resort manager at The Fiji Orchid, who lost her job in the pandemic. She described last year as “the darkest days of her life”, and found herself struggling with depression – a battle that, especially in the era of COVID-19, too many can relate to.

She moved to Suva to take care of her mental health and find new opportunity. There, she took her future into her own hands, and started a professional cleaning business, “Maid In Suva”. Mitimiti now employs three full-time and three part-time employees – all of whom are former tourism workers.

Next is Funmike Lilo, who was once a proud food and beverage outlet manager at the five-star Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay. As international tourism came to a halt, her job was made redundant, and she found herself looking for work. Ms. Lilo decided to pick herself up by the bootstraps, and –– after picking up some new skills and doing a bit of smart research – Fiji’s newest all-natural skincare brand, SugarBee Fiji, was born. You can now find her, and her handmade products, at the ROC Market.

Finally is Miriama Ryland, a 26-year-old mother who was just three years into her bright tourism career when, during her maternity leave, the pandemic struck. Unfortunately, once her leave was up, there was no job for her to return to.

But like Mitimiti and Funmike, Miriama looked inward, and knew that her skills and intellect – paired with her intimate knowledge within the Tourism Industry – could be put to use elsewhere. She applied for a new start at the Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport, where I’m told she’s a rising star.

Ladies and Gentlemen, these are just three stories of resilience – but there are many more all throughout the country. But I hope that even in uncertain times, these three powerful women can serve as an inspiration to us all.

Because we, as a Government, know that our people are smart, they are determined, and they are dedicated. So knowing that our most important element – our human capital – stands in waiting, we are continuing to find ways to ensure our tourism is ready to be kick-started as quickly and safely as possible.

To everyone in this room, and to every one of the 100,000-plus Fijians who have seen their livelihoods lost or severely impacted due to the pandemic, let me say this:

“Your Government has your back”.

Your Government has already directly paid out over 118 Million Dollars in unemployment benefits. That support has gone mostly to Fijians in the tourism sector, even those who have managed to secure work on the weekends. It will continue. As will our effort to tap into new opportunities, and create new paths forward –– just like Mitimiti, Funmike, and Miriama. From our Blue Lanes for yachts to “Vacation in Paradise” VIP Lanes, to our ongoing support of the “Love Our Locals” campaign, we have showed the world that we are willing and able to innovate and adapt to support our vital Tourism Industry.  But we all know we need something bigger, much bigger, to restore Fijian tourism as a driving force for our economy.

We are pushing our regional neighbours like Australia and New Zealand to open their doors, and their hearts, to a travel bubble with Fiji, especially now that they’ve started vaccinating their citizens. With over 330 days since our last community case of COVID-19 in Fiji, there’s simply no excuse that they cannot find a safe way to do so. We have made it known, we will continue to make it known, that Fiji belongs in a quarantine-free regional travel arrangement for the Pacific. That remains our best course towards getting your businesses – and the Fijians they employ – back to doing what they do best.

We have dramatically dropped taxes and we have a subsidy scheme in place for when the borders do re-open so that we can get people on plane seats and in hotel rooms as soon as can be done. As visitor arrivals go up and your revenues return, we plan on doing more than keeping your tax obligations low. In the next budget, we’ll be looking at other innovative ways we can give the businesses that drive this Industry the kick-start they so badly need.

In Fiji and around the world, I think we can all find relief knowing that help is on the way. Seeing our frontline workers get vaccinated earlier this month made that clear. We will continue to make safe and effective vaccines available for our people.

I am registered to be vaccinated, and I will be as soon as our frontliners are all protected. As more of our people join the world in defeating this terrible virus, I ask all of you to remind yourself of one thing: People all around the world have spent the past year dreaming of the day when travel resumes. Hundreds of thousands – if not millions – have dreamt of coming to Fiji. Of escaping to our COVID-contained paradise. And when they dream, they’re dreaming of you. I know that you can’t wait to greet them.

Because, my friends, when the dust finally settles, tourists will get back on the planes, families will fill the rooms of our hotels, and this vital engine of our economy will get back up and running. COVID can’t take away Fiji’s pristine natural beauty, and it can’t kill the Fijian hospitality –– that Bula spirit – for which we’re known the world over.

I’d like to end by paying tribute to my dear friend and a tourism heavyweight – Dixon Seeto – who played such an outsized leadership role in shaping this Industry. For years, Dixon reminded me – and anyone else who was within earshot – that the Tourism Industry was the single most important driver of the Fijian economy.

While this is the first Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards without him, that message he carried should still resonate with us all today, but with a different tone: One of resolve, and of determination, to make it through these tough times together. Because while we’re down, we certainly aren’t out – and just as this Industry has fueled our growth, with your leadership, it can fuel our comeback.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you, congratulations to our winners, and have a great night.

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