With Fiji recording growth rates exceeding 4% for three consecutive years coupled with its highest-ever numbers of tourism arrivals and revenues, Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism Faiyaz Siddiq Koya has good reasons to be optimistic. He tells United World that the new government is inspiring Fijians all across the nation to believe in a future full of promise.
This is very much a new Fiji with a new constitution, an elected government, and a Prime Minister who has instigated the process of changing the national symbols such as the flag. As a man whose family played a very prominent role in the history of this country, how would you define the modern Fiji and the identity that it wants to project to the world?
The modern Fiji is very dynamic. Fiji serves as the hub of the Pacific in terms of transportation, logistics, and communications, and we have a very strong manufacturing base. These are essential for Fiji to achieve its vision. Initially the Bainimarama government and now the FijiFirst government has embarked on a series of ambitious long-term reforms focused on sustainable growth. The current government is the only government in Fijian history that has taken the initiative to invest in the growth of grassroots Fijians. We believe in providing targeted support to empower Fijians and this has led to various policies, programs and strategies targeted towards micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.
Growth has exceeded 4% for the last three years, something which has not happened since the early years of independence. How important has tourism been to this growth?
Tourism is phenomenal. Right at the outset I can tell you we are bringing over FJ$1.5 billion into the country this year. This industry is the largest revenue earner in Fiji, and it is worth a whole lot more to us than just the money, because it employs quite a substantial number of our workforce. It’s an ongoing mission for us to grow the industry as much as we can, and we have great people; that’s what our asset is and we’ve built on that.
As you say, the ongoing aim is to increase the revenues and also increase the number of arrivals. Last year was a record year, and this year you’re on target to attract more than your target of 714,000 visitors. What are the reasons behind this continuous growth?
One of the main reasons why Fiji is such a wonderful destination is the people. We’ve got unique attractions. We spoke earlier about our slogan at Tourism Fiji being, ‘Where happiness finds you.’ We’ve been voted the happiest country in the world. We are one of the greatest soft coral capitals of the world, so we are a great diving destination, and we’ve got wonderful hotels. But I think our greatest selling point is the fact that we are genuinely home to the happiest people in the world.
The USA is your third biggest source market for tourism, and California is especially important because of Fiji Airways’ flights there. How do you intent to grow this market further in 2016 and beyond?
Australia and New Zealand have always been the rock of our tourism industry, followed by the United States. Fiji Airways has done a wonderful job. It flies every day of the week into Los Angeles, and Tourism Fiji has increased its emphasis on PR activities in the US market, to maintain the brand awareness through various mediums including social media and trade shows.
The US is the number one dive market for Fiji. We’ve got great potential in the MICE market. We are now a great sporting destination, and I know Americans, especially people from California, love playing golf. We have great weather. We hosted the PGA international in October, which was won by an American golfer Matt Kuchar. We have also hosted the World Surfing Pro League and the American pro surfer Kelly Slater has been here many times. We are very appealing to a wide variety of Americans.
We are expecting the new tourism development plan (2015-2020) to be published in the first quarter of next year. What will be the key components of this?
Tourism is private sector driven, therefore it is important that they are also working in line with the overall vision. So we needed to get all the input that we could from the stakeholders, and the main feedback we have received is that government needs to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to develop tourism more.
You can have a great inventory, but if you don’t have the infrastructure in place, the inventory is pointless. Currently we stand at about 10,000 hotel rooms, which are still not going to be enough with the way we’re growing.
The main focus of the plan is marketing, investments, capacity building and infrastructure development. The Tourism Plan will build on, and complement, all other key national plans.
We have recently seen interest in the tourism industry from American investors. The US-Fiji Business Council was keen to point out the American involvement in the Marriott at Momi Bay project. Do you see scope for American investors to help Fiji achieve the targets of the 2015-2020 Development Plan?
Fiji is open for business. We are friends to all and enemies to none. I think that gives you the exact answer. The Marriott group gives us access to their worldwide members. That hotel should be up and running in the next 12 to 18 months. American investors are most definitely welcome. We don’t discriminate.
Tourism – particularly long-haul tourism – is an industry that is seen as having a heavy environmental impact. How is Fiji utilizing the Green Growth Framework and other measures to ensure that the Fijian tourism industry is sustainable and responsible?
It is about raising awareness and through the 2016 budget an environmental levy has been introduced. The levy will go towards supporting environmental programs and the Fijian government’s commitment to all Fijians having the right to a clean environment. Additionally, all tourism development projects need to comply with the sustainability requirements within the Green Growth Framework. I have also instructed Tourism Fiji to develop awareness materials so that visitors from long haul markets, or any market for that matter, are aware of the Fijian government’s plans with regards to the environment.
Some people who come here don’t realize that you’re not allowed to stand on the reef. It’s a simple thing, but it may be done inadvertently. It just needs education and we can provide this in conjunction with Fiji Airways and Tourism Fiji.
Moving onto the trade and industry aspect of your portfolio, the Fijian Made, Buy Fijian campaign is something that’s been around for several years. What has been the impact of this on SMEs and micro businesses here in Fiji, and also on previously marginalized groups such as women in rural areas?
It’s actually been phenomenal. SMEs contribute about US$800 million to Fiji, and the Fijian Made – Buy Fijian campaign has been an important tool for them. Just recently, we had the Women’s Expo. That day I distributed 43 licenses to Fijian artisans to become part of the growing Fijian Made – Buy Fijian family. These women are the backbone of Fiji, and it’s important for us to encourage their work.
This is also directly related to the tourism industry. Artisans produce products that are well liked within the tourism industry. It’s a very important sector for us. We’re increasingly growing it and the Fijian Made – Buy Fijian campaign has been very successful locally. We’ve taken it to the next level. Fiji already has a great brand name overseas.
There’s also a push from the Ministry now to get our Fijian Organic brand developed. We’re a small country competing on the world stage. In order to succeed, our focus will probably be on the niche products.
When the Trade Policy Framework was launched this year, the Prime Minister said this will make Fijian-made goods a byword for quality and consistency the world over. At the moment the USA is your primary export market. Which Fijian-made products have the most potential to penetrate further into the American market?
We are already exporting agro-based products to the American market, but there is tremendous potential to export a new stream of agro-products. We have a great synergy with the Ministry of Agriculture and we are working towards realizing our potential in this area.
We’re also looking at adding value to the sector. If we could send sealed vacuum packs of pineapples or papaya it would remove some of the biosecurity issues.
We have already seen examples of American companies adding value here, with perhaps the best example being the PAFCO and Bumble Bee partnership in fisheries. We already spoke about tourism investments from America, but where else do you see the scope for American investment in your industrial sectors?
As I said, we’ve created a hub in the Pacific. When you’re in the Pacific, you have access to 36 million people including Australia and New Zealand. This offers a big opportunity to American investors who want to sell products in this region.
One of the biggest advantages we have also is that we have a young, educated population which gives us great potential in the ICT/BPO industries. We now have Australian companies coming back here to invest in the textile, clothing, footwear (TCF) sector.
There is scope for Americans to invest in various different sectors, such as, tourism, manufacturing, alternative or renewable energy, and large-scale or commercial agriculture.
Could you elaborate more on what is being done to improve the investment climate here by your Ministry and Investment Fiji?
The government, apart from providing long-term, consistent and stable policies and incentives for investments, has also introduced the Single Window Clearance System this year. This system allows for investors to register with the Tier 1 investment approval agencies, that is, Investment Fiji, Registrar of Companies, Fiji Revenue and Customs Authority and Reserve Bank of Fiji, from anywhere in the world. It is an online registration and payment system. Furthermore, there is work being undertaken to bring the rest of the investment approval agencies on board.
The long, drawn out discussions on the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership were finally concluded in October 2015 and the deal is now awaiting ratification by member states. US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Tong has described the TPP as: “A useful referencing point for other nations like Fiji to consider policy changes which will help their economy also integrate into the region.” What do you envision will be the effects of the TPP on Pacific states like Fiji who are not included in the deal?
We haven’t actually seen the final TPP and Fiji is not a party to it, as you know. The final legal text has just been released; we will need to carry out an impact assessment. You mentioned about it being good for the Pacific, and we welcome the opportunity to integrate as we are integral part of the Pacific. However, we don’t want to get swallowed up or lose our competitive edge through such mega agreements, like the TPP.
What would be your message to our American readers about Fiji about the potential for trade and investment?
Our growth figures speak for themselves. We have had continuous growth for a couple of years, and it’s going to get better and better. We’re a strong, stable, robust and safe nation to invest in. The best example I can provide for Americans is that, if you look at our tourism portfolio, we have every single large hotel chain here. You have Marriott about to arrive, you’ve got the Intercontinental, you’ve got the Hilton, you have got the Sheraton, you’ve got the Westin, you’ve got the Pullman opening shortly. That’s a great tick for anybody thinking, “Okay, why should I invest in Fiji?” These are huge multimillion-dollar companies, if they said “Okay, Fiji is a safe place to invest,” why not? That’s the best example I can give you.
ANZ Bank is another great example. They are huge. They moved their regional headquarters here. We’ve created the climate for this to happen, with all the incentives that are in place, and it’s just a great tick for us. ANZ is known worldwide, so for anybody wanting to invest, these are the best markers for them.
I think you have given us a great oversight of the tourism industry and the opportunities for investment and trade here. On a more personal note, you are the son of one of Fiji’s most respected politicians, and you have a background in private law practice. Why did you decide to enter politics?
We have a wonderful Prime Minister who’s got a fantastic vision, and he basically created one Fiji for all. Everybody is a Fijian. I think he’s just a tremendous human being and he’s going to do a whole lot of good for Fiji. You can see the evidence already, and he’s truly an inspiration.
I also have political history with my father, and I think a lot of things that my father actually espoused in his political days are being done by our FijiFirst government. For me, it’s great. This equal platform for everybody, one person, one vote. It was being espoused by the NFP that my father was a member of in the 1970s. Democracy, that’s where you start. You must have an equal vote.
Our Prime Minister and our Attorney General are two people in our country who have moved this place to where we should have been a long time ago. They truly are an inspiration, and they inspired me. And it’s not just me. If you go around the country, they inspire a lot of young people. Nobody wants to know about the dirty politics of the past, they want to move this country forward. We are a nation of only 800,000 people. It’s a great source of inspiration.
Your father was a hero of independence and, as you said, he stood for many of the same values we are hearing about today, in relation to equality. Can I ask you what you think your father would think of this current government?
He would love it. He was part of the independence movement that pushed for a Fiji that was united and free. I think he’d be extremely happy today. Personally, I’m very proud of the fact that I’m doing this on behalf of my family and me. The same principles that he stood for are exactly what I’m doing now, albeit in a different political party. It’s the principles that matter, and I’m very proud to do it, and I think he’d be proud of me.