My gracious Fijian hosts had been at great pains to explain to me how their country, now a low-risk COVID nation, had done everything it could to avoid any problems during my planned stay this week, which I sadly had to scrap at the last minute.
But my decision to not board the first tourist-filled Fiji Airways jet from Australia in almost two years early on Wednesday due to the emerging new COVID variant, was a disappointment for me as well as for my Fijian hosts. Fiji, after all, has almost miraculously transformed itself from being the highest per capita nation for positive COVID cases to a country with among the lowest rates.
It’s an achievement that followed a heroic national vaccination campaign to inoculate its adult, tourist-facing population, in order to ready Fiji to receive its first overseas visitors, principally from Australia, its biggest market.
However my last-minute decision to not go ahead with my 10-day tropical island dream trip, one shared no doubt by others booked on the flight, rested almost exclusively with the authorities of Australia, and not the Fijians.
Australian leaders of all political ilks – believe me, this is not a partisan matter – have proved simply too wildly unpredictable in their COVID decision-making and edicts to allow me to commit to such a trip under the circumstances.
Thanks to them and the latest COVID variant, the so-called “Bula Bubble”, at least for this Australian, nearly burst at the final hurdle, like so many other travel bridges around the world. Nonetheless, a resolute Fiji is proceeding with its tourism reopening this week with passengers on yesterday’s flight deciding to accept the risks and fly out as planned.
As I told my would-be hosts, who could safely predict, despite the reassurances, that the requisite 72 hours home isolation required by one state government would not mutate into a mandatory week or more or, worse, morph into a fortnight in the much vilified – in part, unfairly so – resurrected hotel quarantine system?
Sure enough, Tasmanian has already banned overseas arrivals due to Omicron, meaning, I presume, that any sun and warmth-seeking Tasmanians will not be able to re-enter their state.
Monitoring official Australian COVID policy is a round-the-clock, 24/7, don’t-leave-your-computer-screen-for-a -second, proposition. As we’ve witnessed, Australian authorities have displayed levels of ruthlessness in their handling of the pandemic that has shocked the world, possibly including the Fijians themselves, as much as its own citizens.
Even now Queensland citizens and travellers languish at the NSW border, unable to return to their home states as international students and returning expats have been suddenly stalled in their tracks.
Despite the public reassurances of no pre-Christmas surprises, who is to say that the border would not be suddenly and summarily closed to Australians travelling overseas as a result of the widespread panic surrounding Omicron?
What’s more, our leaders have shown little or no hesitation in politicising the virus. Is anyone courageous enough, for example, to bet on the date when Western Australia reaches its ambitious vaccination target rate and is ready to rejoin the world?
Until this state of affairs changes, or we defeat COVID, travel overseas for Australians, even when permitted, will carry a degree of both practical and medical risk, and cast a long and dark cloud over the tourism industry’s ability to even partly recover.
Even after COVID is gone, if that moment ever eventuates, will we ever be able to rely on our governments when we get into strife abroad?
So, sorry to let you down, dear Fiji. I don’t do it lightly. I’ll know if I made the right decision in about 10 days.
The impediment was not so much the understandable caution of Australia’s politicians – who is prepared to “do a Gladys” and underestimate this latest variant? – but more the not knowing how they will act in the days to come.
Yet again, the risk for the fully-vaccinated traveller becomes appears to be less about becoming a victim of the virus than of unco-ordinated, unpredictable decision-making. If only the plight of the tourism sector ignited the passions of our pollies like the resources sector does.
I, along with my colleagues, some of whom still went to Fiji, were ready to alert the world that Fiji, shrewdly pre-empting other traditional tourism markets such as New Zealand and Bali, was welcoming tourists again and not a moment too soon for an economy which in 2020 had a per capita income of just $US4797.
Omicron represents a setback for a nation that for almost two years has been denied 40 per cent of its GDP which tourism traditionally delivered.
I’d love to make another attempt to visit Fiji, if it will have me, when the latest crisis is resolved, hopefully in the new year. And that’s not because I need a holiday, but more because of what I may be able to do, even in a modest way, to aid its recovery via much needed publicity and awareness.
But it remains hard, if not impossible, to trust our officials when it comes to COVID, even in consideration of our relative success in managing the pandemic.
Anthony Dennis is editor of Traveller which appears in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
See also: Twenty things that will shock first-time visitors to Fiji
See also: Australians are too scared to travel and not because of COVID-19