FIJI’S UPHEAVAL TAKES TOLL ON TOURISM

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FIJI’S UPHEAVAL TAKES TOLL ON TOURISM

By Paul Alexander

YANUCA ISLAND, Fiji (July 31, 2000 – Honolulu Star-Bulletin)---The local women wade from the beach across the narrow strait to the mainland, breaking into harmony as they drag their nets of shells and crabs, some swimming with slow, easy strokes when the water, shimmering gold and crimson from the sunset, reaches chest high.

No tourists witness this perfect moment. The chaise lounges by the pricey private bungalows known as ‘bure’ sit empty, as do entire wings of the 436-room Shangri-La’s Fijian Resort during what should be the prime weeks of high season.

Fiji, a South Pacific archipelago described as "paradise" in brochure after brochure, is suffering – not from the typhoons that are the usual hazard, but from a prolonged political crisis that has set the tourism industry back by years.

Want a great deal? This is the place. But Australia, New Zealand and the United States have advised their citizens to stay away out of concerns that a recent wave of civil disturbances could begin anew at any time. Hotels report occupancy rates in single-figure percentages.

"We have 109 acres, and when we’re 80 percent full, it can still look empty," said Wolf-Dieter Flecker, general manager of the Fijian Resort. "You can imagine what it’s like in the single digits."

Some resorts closed right after the May 19 coup led by rebel leader George Speight. Others struggled along, selling the fact that two coups in 1987 did not touch the resorts because of an unwritten hands-off policy toward tourists. It looked like just another internal political affair again this time.

But the crisis dragged on, with Speight and his men holding the Prime Minister and other legislators hostage in Parliament for nearly two months.

Largely peaceful civil disturbances broke out in early July; orchestrated by Speight and his backers to bolster their stated cause of guaranteeing the rights of indigenous Fijians take precedence over those of ethnic Indians.

The takeover of the hydroelectric power dam has left the main island of Vanua Levu dependent on expensive diesel turbines. Protesters took over a military barracks and began occupying police stations.

Then, everything took a strong turn for the worst on July 12.

It was "Children’s Week" at Turtle Island, one of the tiniest resorts, where "bure" go for up to $1,000 a night. Its perfect beaches had drawn film crews here to film both versions of the movie "Blue Lagoon." American Richard Evanson bought the island in 1972 and turned it into a five-star destination. About 40 Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and Britons were staying there, including a dozen kids, when the armed men from a nearby island came ashore and told them to stay inside, claiming the island belonged to them.

The tourists were allowed to leave the next day. Evanson was kept until he negotiated a deal to pay for distress caused to the locals, even though they admitted Evanson had bought the land properly. But the damage was done, and three other resorts were taken over the next day.

Thousands of Americans normally arrive every week for honeymoons or other vacations, primarily on the northern island of Viti Levu or the islets off its coasts. Viti Levu has seen its share of the recent unrest, with two New Zealand pilots taken hostage Thursday.

Though no tourists were involved, word of the wave of occupations got worldwide exposure.

The Tourism Action Group, largely funded by the hotels, plans to launch a multimillion-dollar tourism campaign once the crisis is finally settled. But the general consensus is that the fallout will be worse and longer than two years than from the 1987 coups.

More than 1,000 people already have lost their tourism jobs; many others are scraping by on reduced shifts. International sanctions have begun and are likely to keep hitting Fiji unless it makes moves to restore democracy.

The Fijian Resort normally would have added 150-180 seasonal workers to its 441 permanent staff. None were hired this year, and the regular staffers were cut back in late July to 24-hour weeks.

Just about the only guests are regular visitors to the family-oriented resort.

The Japanese, who normally make up 14 percent of the resort’s occupants, stopped coming the day of the coup, Flecker said. A few Australians and a handful of New Zealanders and Europeans are the sole residents.

"Once we get out of the news, it will help," Flecker said.

The long crisis has been a boom for one hotel, the Centra. Its location just on the edge of downtown Suva, the capital, drew the dozens of foreign journalists who flocked to Fiji on near-empty flights as tourists fled on full ones.

For additional reports from The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

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