Pacific islands plead to join Australia-New Zealand travel bubble

Tony Whitton recently swapped managing one of Fiji’s largest luxury resorts to handing out food parcels to 550 of his staff who were furloughed because of Covid-19.

Now he has joined hundreds of tourism operators in an appeal for Pacific island nations to be included in an Australia and New Zealand “travel bubble” that could rescue their businesses and some of the most tourist-dependent economies in the world.

“This virus is literally a dagger right through our hearts,” said Mr Whitton, who owns Rosie Group, a family business established in 1974.

“We have had no new cases in Fiji for a month and we are moving towards eradication. I view this travel bubble as our only hope during hopeless times.”

New Zealand and Australia have both suppressed the spread of Covid-19 and are progressively reopening their economies and hope to open a “Trans-Tasman travel bubble” by September.

Pacific nations are lobbying to join the proposed zone. Most governments in the region closed their borders in March to halt the spread of the virus, which health experts warned could decimate communities that have limited access to healthcare and suffer from high rates of diabetes and other ailments.

The closure kept the virus out of a dozen Pacific nations. But it came at a massive economic cost to a region reliant on tourism, which accounts for a third of jobs in Fiji, Palau and Vanuatu, and at least 40 per cent of gross domestic product. The IMF forecasts the island economies will shrink by 5.8 per cent, 3.3 per cent and 11.9 per cent respectively in 2020.

“A travel bubble that includes Fiji alongside Australia and New Zealand would do far more good than any aid or assistance,” said Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Fiji’s economy minister, who has warned government revenues could halve in 2020-21 due to the pandemic.

Fiji is trialling a contact-tracing mobile app to boost its case for inclusion.

The loss of Australian and New Zealand travellers, who make up almost two-thirds of tourists in the region, is crippling Fiji’s economy. Up to 340 hotel and resorts are closed and at least 86,000 people are out of work, according to the Fiji Hotels and Tourism Association.

“Tourism has the proven ability to bounce back and drive the recovery of other sectors, we need to kick-start the tourism industry as early as is safely possible,” says Fantasha Lockington, FHTA chief executive.

How Pacific Islands have been hit by coronavirus

Travel bans are not just hitting tourism. They are disrupting seasonal work schemes that enable tens of thousands of Pacific islanders to travel to Australia and New Zealand to undertake farm jobs and send money back to their families. The World Bank has forecast a 13 per cent decline in remittances in the Pacific this year.

Pacific airlines will require state bailouts after spending A$2.5bn ($1.7bn) on new planes over the past three years, according to a report by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank. Last week, Fiji Airways laid off half its workforce and requested a A$227m government loan.

The Asian Development Bank also warned that reduced air and sea links would increase food security concerns for small island nations with limited agricultural production.

“Because there is less trade demand in the world there will be less ships going with food to these countries and other important imports,” said Emma Veve, deputy director-general of the ADB’s Pacific department. “Some countries are already stockpiling food.”

New Zealand and Australia have indicated Pacific nations will probably only be considered for inclusion in a travel bubble after it has been established, in part to protect vulnerable populations.

“The last thing we want to do is imperil those populations,” said Winston Peters, New Zealand’s foreign minister.

Some health experts say it might be safer for New Zealand, which is on course to eradicate the virus completely, to create a travel bubble with Pacific nations that are virus free rather than Australia, which is still reporting a handful of cases.

“It would be more logical to start the bubble with [Pacific nations completely free of the virus] once New Zealand has eliminated it,” said Nick Wilson, professor of public health at the University of Otago.

He said some virus-free Australian states, including the Northern Territory and Western Australia, could also join such a bubble as long as they kept their borders closed to states where the virus was still present.

Such an outcome would provide a lifeline for Pacific tourism operators and communities that rely on them for income, say advocates.

“We could all stay in our rooms out of fear forever, in which case we’d probably die of starvation. Or we could venture out, take a calculated risk and manage those risks,” said Mr Whitton.