The travel brochures might depict a tropical paradise but the climate for tourism in Fiji’s famous Denarau Island appears to be turning chilly.
The latest figures show Australians and New Zealanders are staying away from the resort hot spot in droves.
Visitor arrivals to Fiji are down 30 per cent compared to this time last year and occupancy rates sit below 50 per cent, a drop from the healthy 70 per cent average seen in previous years.
Visitors to five-star resorts like those on Denarau are most deterred, despite massive discounts of up to 80 per cent offered on stays at classy hotels and flight deals designed to counter the slide.
On top of this, three major developments on the island have hit trouble in recent months, including receivership of a Hilton resort extension that was funded by dozens of Australian and New Zealand investors.
The problem is multi-faceted. Terrible January floods deterred thousands from visiting over summer and the global economic downturn has undeniably put a dampener on Pacific tourism.
The country’s political leadership by a military regime has also taken a toll.
Self-appointed Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has refused to heed Australia and New Zealand’s advice and return the country to democracy before his chosen election date of 2014.
The result has been suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, the cutting of aid funding from the European Union and, just this week, ousting from the Commonwealth.
Dr Steven Ratuva, a Fiji academic at the University of Auckland, says politics plays a big part in Fiji’s tourism slump.
“The regime might not like to think so but the coup and the unsettling relationship between Australia and New Zealand and the Fijian government is undoubtedly putting people off visiting,” Dr Ratuva says.
“It’s not that it’s unstable there. It’s actually quite fine at the moment.
“But people don’t like the rift and have a lurking fear things could boil up.”
He says tourism is an extremely sensitive industry, and even though the suspensions do not alter security in Fiji, it affects the “imagination” of tourists.
“They imagine something has changed and that’s enough to stop them going,” the specialist says.
The paradox is that a 2007 survey showed Fiji was one of the top 10 marketable names in the world, with several European businesses using the word to benefit from “romantic” connotations.
“And yet you have Fiji itself struggling to use the benefits of that very sellable name to generate economic benefits,” Dr Ratuva says.
Putting extra heat on Fiji is fierce competition from nearby Samoa, Cook Islands and Vanuatu, which have all ramped up their marketing campaigns to capitalise.
Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi gleefully told journalists it was working. “Of course, because Samoa is better,” said the leader, an open critic of Fiji’s regime.
Fiji’s tourism is also facing a threat from a new quarter this week, with the International Federation of Journalists calling for travellers to rethink any plans to holiday there.
“Tourists who go there blithely unaware of the reality of the quite severe repressions being inflicted on the people of Fiji are supporting a dictatorship with their tourist dollars,” the group’s Sydney-based spokeswoman, Deborah Muir, told Radio Australia.
But Frank Yourn, executive director of the Australia-Fiji Business Council, says that advice is misguided.
“It’s not a matter of propping up the dictatorship; it’s really a matter of trying to ensure the economic survival of people who are really suffering quite badly,” he says.
Dr Ratuva himself dissuades tourists from voting with their feet.
“Think of George Bush for instance, and John Howard, too.
“I didn’t like Howard’s political stance but I still went to Australia. “That’s just life.”