Opening a ‘business bubble’ between Fiji and New Zealand would be a positive initial step to help relieve hardships in the Pacific, according to a business leader.

Manager of trade and investment for the Fiji Trade Commission, Peter Rudd, said opening up trade channels would have a positive impact on the struggling Fijian economy hard hit by the loss of international tourism.

“A business bubble could definitely be workable with the right processes in place.”

Many large Kiwi companies operated in the island nation including Fulton Hogan and Fletcher Construction, some of this in tourism developments and infrastructure projects like bridge works.

“Business travel represents 15 percent of traffic, a lot of it is repeat visits and it’s a two-way street between New Zealand and Fiji.”

The Fiji Trade Commission to New Zealand is part of the Fijian Ministry of Commerce, Trade, Tourism and Transport and deals with trade and investment across all sectors in Fiji. The island nation is the hub of the Pacific region for a range of industries.

“During the pandemic we supported investments in sectors including agriculture, ICT, education, construction and infrastructure, Audio Visual such as Film & TV and manufacturing. As borders are closed and Covid has been eliminated in Fiji, many investors are eager to return to Fiji and continue their operations.”

Fiji is New Zealand’s largest Pacific Island trading partner, with a growing number of Kiwis travelling there, he said.

Fiji has not had any new cases of Covid-19 for two months, after quickly shutting down those that did appear back in March. There have been no deaths and a total of 18 cases recorded.

“They managed to act quickly when they first identified a case, shutting down the area where the case was identified and actively stopping the spread and community transmission.”

The people had endured some “hard curfews and enforcement” but were now Covid-19-free.

Business there had the added difficulty of not having the same capabilities as New Zealand to quickly switch to working from home to keep things going.

“We need staff on the ground over there.”

Rudd said it was critical to keep Covid-19 out as an outbreak could be devastating, but he believed opening up a ‘business bubble’ could be achievable.

Manager of trade and investment for the Fiji Trade Commission, Peter Rudd. Photo: Supplied

In terms of managing any bubble arrangements, he believed NZ should look to the Pacific first, as Australia was still presenting with new Covid-19 cases.

“When you have various states and authorities to deal with, some with internal borders closed and others not, how do you manage that? I think this is an opportunity to look at not just Fiji but other Pacific nations like the Cooks too.”

Being open for tourism travel would of course be of much greater benefit, with 24,000 Kiwis normally visiting each month between June and September, but he felt business-only traffic was now possibly a more realistic first step.

“We are Fiji’s second-largest tourism market after Australia. While it’s unlikely that the number of tourists would reach pre-Covid levels soon after reopening, 10 percent – 15 percent of New Zealand visitors go to Fiji for business or employment reasons and most likely will be the first returning visitors once the borders reopen.”

He said it was disappointing to see new Covid-19 cases appearing now in New Zealand.

Business consultant Marcus Langford-Lee believed a business bubble would ease the increasingly serious economic situation in Fiji, but only opening up to tourism would provide real relief.

“Fiji is doing it tough at the moment because they’ve lost all their tourism. They are very worried. People are saying that by September things are really going to start to bite for a lot of businesses. A business bubble would be great, it would help, but would it really help the tourism?”

Currently stuck in New Zealand, he was keen to get back to Fiji and resume work in advising on systems, structures and processes on various developments. Housing and island resorts made up the bulk of the multi-million dollar projects the consultancy dealt with.

Langford-Lee said he believed it made sense to try and keep people in New Zealand, especially over the school holidays to spend on domestic travel. However, he didn’t believe restrictions on travel should be retained solely to influence where Kiwis spent their holiday dollars.

“It feels like being controlled, people should have a free will. If the country’s got no Covid there [Fiji] … they can’t put restrictions on for the sake of putting restrictions on.”

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australia and New Zealand’s Prime Ministers had committed to introducing a trans-Tasman Covid-safe travel zone as soon as it was safe to do so.

The ministry would not be drawn on whether this commitment involved that zone opening first, before any other, but reiterated that investigations were ongoing in the Pacific.

“Alongside this, officials continue to investigate and build engagement with the Realm and Pacific nations about a safe travel zone. New Zealand has close connections with the Pacific, particularly the Realm countries as they are New Zealand citizens. We will be very mindful of this as we explore options for our border. The potential for a travel zone has been discussed at a high level with some Pacific partners. We are very aware that safe travel zones could be a way to soften the economic and social impacts of Covid-19 in the Pacific through reconnecting on tourism, work, education and family connections. However, it remains imperative that we avoid the spread of Covid-19 within the region.”

The Fijian Sun newspaper this week reported calls for the nation to be considered in any regional travel arrangements.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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