Australian tourists are picking lesser-known Pacific islands for their tropical winter breaks to avoid the political instability in military-led Fiji, leaders claim.
The leaders of two Pacific nations, Samoa and the Cook Islands, say their tourist numbers are on the rise because many Australians and New Zealanders no longer want to visit Fiji.
They say that the refusal of Frank Bainimarama’s regime to take the country to elections since staging a December 2006 coup has been an “active turn-off” for visitors.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele says the global economic crisis has hit his country hard, cutting employment rates and remittance earnings – but tourism appears to be booming.
He believes Fiji’s situation has brought “enormous” tourism benefits in both the Australian and New Zealand markets.
“We have noticed a huge improvement in people choosing to come here instead of going to Fiji, with everything going on there,” Tuilaepa said.
“Who can blame them.
“Quite obviously we are a much better option.”
Jim Marurai, prime minister of the Cook Islands, said he too had been facing tough economic times but tourism was holding strong.
“Tourism is the backbone of our economy and to date the numbers have been stable,” he said.
In fact, visitor numbers for June were up two per cent on last year, a trend for which Fiji was likely responsible, Mr Marurai said.
“It’s very possible that Fiji contributed to the continuity of the stability of tourism numbers,” he said.
Fiji Tourism failed to return calls on the issue but its head, Josefa Tuamoto, said last week that the tourism industry was in strife.
However, he blamed swine flu, rising fuel costs and bad press after extensive flooding at the beginning of the year for the downturn.
New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key, said during a trip through the Pacific last week he was “not surprised” to see tourists voting with their feet.
Fiji was suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum in May after setting a belated September 2014 election date and Commodore Frank Bainimarama refusing to relinquish power while the country slid into a recession.
Investment and employment rates are in decline, the dominant sugar cane industry has faltered and heavy public and media censorship remains in place under orders from the regime.