SUVA/AUCKLAND 1 (NEWSHUB) — After putting the lid on Covid for almost a year, Fiji has been dealing with containing its biggest outbreak since the pandemic first hit its shores last year.

Just as talks for the “bula bubble” touted by Fiji’s Tourism Minister Faiyaz Koya were starting to look more promising, the virus returned in the community following breaches at a managed isolation in Nadi. 

While cases were spreading, New Zealand Fiji Business Council president Chandar Sen met with New Zealand’s Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor following his announcement that New Zealand would open a new trade commission in Fiji later this year.

Sen said at first he was enthused by O’Connor’s mention of Fiji being the “next cab off the ranks” for a two way travel bubble after the Cook Islands and Niue. 

O’Connor’s office referred Newsroom to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins for a response. 

Hipkins said the island nations with New Zealand citizens were a priority. “New Zealand is currently focused on commencing two-way quarantine-free travel with Niue and the Cook Islands when it is safe to do so.

“A number of countries have expressed interest in travel bubble opportunities with New Zealand. While we look forward to having these conversations when the time is right, we need to move forward carefully,” Hipkins said.

“Health of New Zealanders and our Pacific neighbours will continue to be the priority in making decisions on any future travel initiatives with other countries.

But as Fiji was coping with a spike in cases, Harish Lodhia, Fiji’s honorary consul in Auckland said talks of a bubble had been put on the back burner.

“It’s a matter of beggars can’t be choosers. Until the outbreak is contained, we’re not in a position to negotiate,” Lodhia said.

The Fijian tourism sector had been calling for a travel bubble due to the significant impact Covid has had on the island’s largest money generator.

Sen said Covid had “decimated” Fiji’s tourism industry. “Tourism is Fiji’s biggest export, lagging behind were sugar, Fiji water and remittances. But those last three put together didn’t come close to matching tourism.”

According to Investment Fiji in 2018, about 870,000 visitors spent FJD$2b (NZ$1.36billion) in Fiji across 1200 businesses.

Data from Stats NZ showed 191,000 people living in New Zealand visited Fiji in 2019. 

Fiji was also New Zealand’s largest trade partner in the Pacific. New Zealand has also committed to donating doses of AstraZeneca to vaccinate 250,000 people.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, annual two-way trade between New Zealand and Fiji was worth over $1.1 billion (US$793 million). The plan was to double trade by 2025.

“Our focus is to have trade up and running but you can’t trade if an economy isn’t back on its feet.”

But Lodhia said sentiment and morale in Fiji’s business community was low. 

“Everyone is so disappointed, people are quite hurt. Families haven’t been able to see each other, attend funerals, it’s quite bad.”

Despite the outbreak, Sen still had his sight set on a bubble this year. “All effort is going towards clearing the community transmission, there is no chance of talking about a travel bubble now. But I’m still hopeful,” Sen said.

“The bubble will happen, it has to happen. The speed with which it happens will be determined by how quickly Fiji controls this outbreak. That will give Australia and Fiji greater certainty.

“If Fiji bungles up the Covid transmission within the community, confidence will go down because New Zealand’s approach has been health led. That will be a big set back.”

Fiji’s Tourism Minister Faiya Koya has been approached for comment….. PACNEWS

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