SUVA, Fiji Islands (August 22, 2000 - The Fiji Times/PINA Nius Online)---A major campaign is being launched overseas to rejuvenate Fiji's tourism industry.

Airfares and accommodation rates are being slashed by 30 percent to boost tourist arrivals, which dropped by almost 75 percent after the May 19 take over of Parliament.

The Tourism Action Group, a committee formed to spearhead the recovery of the tourism industry, is launching the campaign in Australia and New Zealand this week.

Marketing programs have also started in the United States and a tourism industry delegation is expected to visit Japan later this month to restore confidence among travel agents there.

Group chairman Damend Gounder said Australia and New Zealand were short-haul markets, which would turn around faster compared to other source markets. He said major media advertising campaigns would be launched to attract tourists.

The tourism industry has received F$ 4 million from the interim government to revive the industry while stakeholders have pitched in F$1.2 million. (NOTE: F$ 2.1345 = US$ 1.00)

Mr. Gounder said discounts in airfares, accommodation rates and other services offered by the industry would run into the millions of dollars.

"Apart from contributing towards the recovery campaign in cash, tourism operators also have contributed by slashing rates,'' he said.

Mr. Gounder said daily visitor arrivals since May 19 had dropped to below 400 compared to 1,500 arrivals daily before the coup.

During the peak season encompassing August and September, the industry had expected visitor arrivals to reach 1,800 per day. "Our main effort will be to recover as many arrivals as possible,'' said Mr. Gounder.

"The time taken to restore normality after the coup and the downgrading of negative advisories took a lot of time and has brought us very near to our traditional off-peak season.''

He said increased visitor arrivals would help in the reinstatement of employees who were either laid off or had to work reduced hours during the crisis.

According to the Ministry of Labour, almost 7,000 people lost their jobs after the coup. The hotel sector recorded 2,300 job losses. Hotel occupancy dropped to around 20 percent after the coup.

One of Fiji's five-star resorts, the Sheraton Royal, has been closed for the last two months.

Another tourism success story, the Shotover Jet Company, has suspended its operations until visitor arrivals pick up.

Mr. Gounder said tourist numbers should pick up once marketing initiatives are launched. He said the industry was confident of luring Australians who wanted to get out of the country during the Olympic Games, which starts next month in Sydney.

In other developments:

Sanctions slapped on Fiji by Australia and New Zealand after the May 19 coup could backfire by further eroding the position of ethnic Indians, Great Council of Chiefs chairman Sitiveni Rabuka said in Australia.

Mr. Rabuka told a conference in Canberra that sanctions could have a disproportionate impact on ethnic Indians. "The smart sanctions are targeted against the fire brigade, not the arsonists," he said.

"Those who will be more affected (by sanctions) will be Indian (as) their social support network is not as wide as Fijians.

"They (Fijians) can just go back to their villages and live the primitive life of a villager and grow things and catch things."

Mr. Rabuka, who led back-to-back coups in Fiji in 1987, said the George Speight-led coup in May was caused by a poor understanding among indigenous Fijians of the 1997 Constitution.

He said Speight's supporters believed the Constitution supported affirmative action for ethnic Indians rather than indigenous Fijians.

The coup leaders exploited fears among indigenous Fijians that their way of life was being usurped by the descendants of indentured Indian laborers.

"The people were being impressed by these orators of the kava bowl," Mr. Rabuka said.

He called on Australia to review its sanctions, which affected government and military links between the two countries, before it was too late.

"We are neighbors. We have to work together," Mr. Rabuka said.

"Australia can't afford to turn its back on Fiji and Fiji can't turn its back on Australia."

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he would "make no apology" for the imposition of sanctions.

"We want the interim government to move back to constitutional and democratic rule, not years and years down the track but as soon as possible," he said.

* Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee pledged support for the restoration of democracy in Fiji during talks with the Fiji's deposed ethnic-Indian premier Mahendra Chaudhry.

"India stands for a multi-racial, constitutional and democratic order in Fiji,'' Vajpayee said after a 40-minute meeting with Mr. Chaudhry.

"We will continue our efforts and intensify international action in this direction.

"We condemn the criminal act of taking an elected prime minister of a democracy hostage. Subsequent developments are a continued cause of concern.

"The first and foremost thing is that there should be international pressure" for a restoration of democracy in Fiji, he said, adding that New Delhi would take up the issue at the UN and with other Commonwealth countries.

Mr. Chaudhry was ousted in a coup on May 19, and held hostage along with other parliamentarians for 56 days.

Mr. Chaudhry, who made an emotional visit to his ancestral home in the northern state of Haryana after arriving in India, thanked Mr. Vajpayee for backing him during his days in captivity.

Mr. Chaudhry later told a news conference that there was a plan for the restoration of democracy in Fiji.

"We have chalked out a plan which will ensure the swift return to democracy in Fiji according to the 1997 (multiracial) Constitution. I have discussed it with Prime Minister Vajpayee," he said without elaborating.

Mr. Chaudhry said the Indian prime minister was "quite supportive'' of his demands and added bilateral consultations with India will continue.

Ethnic Indians, the descendants of workers imported by Britain to work in sugar plantations in the 19th century, account for over 40 percent of the Fiji population.

Chaudhry's grandparents went to work in Fiji as indentured laborers in 1912. His father returned to India for a brief spell before finally settling back in Fiji in 1937.

* Australia and New Zealand were seen as patronizing, hectoring and naive by their South Pacific neighbors, a leading academic in the region said.

The keynote speaker at a regional defense forum in Canberra, Ron Crocombe, accused Canberra and Wellington of hypocrisy in pushing sanctions against Fiji in the wake of the May 19 coup.

He said that while both countries were critical of Fiji's handling of the coup crisis, neither publicly attacked Samoa or Tonga, where less democratic constitutions were in place.

"Australia's form of democracy conveniently ensures that Aboriginal and other ethnic minorities have no effective representation in Parliament, a fact which many Pacific people consider to be a manifestation of racial discrimination,'' Crocombe said.

"Naive and patronizing lectures, postures and threats from political leaders are losing Australia and New Zealand support throughout the region, though thankfully there seems to have been more understanding in recent weeks.''

* Power supply could return to normal in main centers such as Suva today.

This was the word from the Fiji Electricity Authority chief executive Nizamud Dean as his staff worked on repairing and restarting the Monasavu hydropower project in the interior of the main island, Viti Levu.

For additional reports from the Fiji Times, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Fiji Times.

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