The Fijian tourism industry is going through a boom period, with record numbers of tourists arriving in 2014 and 2015. Tourism Fiji Executive Chairman Truman Bradley outlines why his country is without doubt the ‘happiest place on Earth’ at present and a worthy dream destination.
Fiji is going through an unprecedented period of economic growth, which has exceeded 4% for the past three years. What role has the tourism industry played in this?
I think the government recognized early on that the tourism sector had the highest growth potential and needed development. As a result, they increased the budget after assuming power later in 2009 to $20 million and that was the instigation for our development and growth. All of a sudden, all parties had to come together as an industry. An industry is not just separate players; it’s a group working together to achieve a common goal. From that point on it became a holistic industry.
Last year tourism in Fiji was a $1.4 billion industry, and this year it will be $1.6 billion. It employs 28% of the working population. So it’s now one of the largest revenue creators and one of the largest employers in the country. From the government’s perspective, it’s an industry that they would want to keep developing. The government must believe in what we are doing because they’ve just given us more money for 2016: now we have a $30 million budget. But Tourism Fiji is just the marketing arm; we represent and we work closely with the industry, so we do the marketing but we don’t do it in isolation; we do it in a holistic manner for the country.
In 2015 you are on target for another record year in terms of revenues and arrivals. What is the target for next year and beyond?
Our target is 1 million visitors and/or a $2 billion industry by 2020. We are exceeding our target for this year as we have reached 719,000 now, which is over the 714,000 we were aiming for, but December is the quietest part of the year.
Opening new routes is the key to our 2020 targets. We have to actually grow the pie. New Zealand has grown by nearly 19% this year. The reason for that is new routes. We’ve gone into Wellington with more frequency. We have also increased the frequency to Australia, but the pie hasn’t changed much.
Hong Kong is going to increase to five flights per week, with a new plane coming, so already that grows the pie. That’s the secret to achieving our goal, not cannibalizing the existing market.
With a Singapore route opening up next year, that’s going to create a lot of opportunities as Singapore is one of the largest hubs in the world. It helps to open up markets in Europe, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, so we’re looking at a whole new pie of potential customers.
Aside from connectivity, how is Fiji working towards diversifying its tourism product to attract more visitors?
Fiji has such great potential for niche markets, such as sports tourism. The government is not just supporting this through Tourism Fiji; they’ve already announced in the budget that they will support the hosting of a Super 15 game between the Crusaders and the Highlanders. We are a mad rugby nation. There’s a Fijian playing in pretty much every rugby team in the world. We see rugby as something closely linked to our identity and we think we can market this.
Having said that, the Fiji International golf tournament is huge. I was recently in Singapore when the Fiji International was being played and you could see footage of it on TVs in every restaurant and hotel. That’s priceless. You can’t buy that sort of exposure.
Weddings are a huge niche market here and always have been, but next year we’ll grow that by having a Wedding Consumer Show which will answer a lot of questions that potential clients may have about the logistics of getting married in Fiji. We will participate in or organize a number of trade shows next year that will showcase Fiji as a multi-specialist destination.
In addition, we are looking at developing our local tourism regions such as Tourism Kadavu and the Sun Coast. We’ve got Destination Denarau, and the Mamanuca chain. Now we’ll start marketing Destination Suva as well. These things enable us to work with groups of people that have a common interest, a common goal. We can’t listen to everyone, but if people are willing to work in an association for a common goal, we can work closely with them and try to enable their goals for their specific location.
How are the gains from the tourism industry being felt amongst the Fijian population in general?
It’s a hard question. When you start getting large-scale tourism growth, you get the larger operators. As soon as you get these larger operators, you get a lot of leakage. The larger operators accept bookings online, receive payment overseas, and the money doesn’t come back into Fiji. The government is aware of this. It’s a considerable issue that, I think, all tourism destinations worldwide have to contend with, not just Fiji.
So we look at it and we try see where the benefits are. The concessionaries like the water sports, the game fishing, and other activities that happen around those major operators are where we see a lot of benefits because that money is held within the country.
So you’ll see Tourism Fiji marketing whitewater rafting, parachuting, and day tours, etc. All of these things are what capture the hearts and minds of the tourist and that’s where Fiji can positively differentiate itself. Yes you can do these activities elsewhere but you can’t do those activities elsewhere with Fijians who are yahooing and smiling more than you, because they are loving it just as much as you are. That’s where the “where happiness finds you” catchphrase comes from, because it’s not just a slogan, it’s a way of life here in Fiji.
Fiji has been ranked as the happiest place on Earth. How important are the Fijian people to the nation’s appeal as a tourism destination?
It’s all about the people. We have regional directors from the countries of origin because they understand their markets better than we might. But at the end of the day, the Fijian people are why people come here. You can go to North Queensland and find better beaches. We know that; it’s not that we are trying to say our beaches are better. But we have a different mindset, and our people have a different way of interacting. You can’t go to North Queensland and leave your children to run free like you can here. Over here, they would not want to play on the iPad; they would be running around, jumping up and down and reconnecting with nature and life. That’s priceless.
The world has become a lot smaller and more dangerous and Fiji, with its geographical location in the middle of nowhere, has the benefit of allowing you to disconnect and remain connected all at the same time. It’s really worthwhile.
What do you think Americans are expecting from Fiji as a tourism destination?
The Americans we are targeting at the moment are in the top income bracket. Its 10 hours away. Fiji is aspirational; it’s one of those dream destinations. You don’t see a lot of Americans in Denarau and the Mamanuca islands. They head further afield because they’re the ones we call the early adopters who return home and say: “I went to Fiji”. It’s a big thing because it’s not the regular Fiji they visit; it’s the ‘Friendly North’ or outer islands that capture the essence of Fiji.
But as we grow and we start to have more opportunities on the mainland, you’ll see a more diverse tourist coming from the USA, which will further increase the pie as we develop the industry.
Which niche segments have the most potential for growth in the US?
At the end of the day diving is huge for Fiji. Weddings, honeymoons and diving are the top reasons why people come to Fiji. As the world grows, a wedding now involves family coming from all around the world, and Fiji is pretty central. You can be in America or in Canada, with family in Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong, and believe it or not, Fiji is pretty much central and no one needs a visa to come here. So all of a sudden you can arrive here and everyone can have a great time and off you go again. It actually works well here from a geographic and financial point of view for many people.
Niche segments generally will become a major focus going into 2016 as Fiji has so much to offer.
If you look at the West Coast of the USA, the Caribbean is just as far away as Fiji. Do you see potential for growth in the family market in America?
Definitely! If you look at Cousteau’s Resort up in Vanua Levu, it’s been voted the best family resort in the world a couple of times. The son of Jacques Cousteau started it. It’s a stunning resort and very popular with Americans. It has an incredible children’s club. I believe that growth is definitely possible within that market.
What impact is the strong dollar having on arrivals from the US?
When it’s a strong US dollar, it makes it easy for us, because it makes everything cheaper from their perspective. America seems to be growing again, and as they start to see their economy improve, we start to see a whole lot more American tourists coming this way.
How do you differentiate yourself from Hawaii in the US market?
Hawaii is America and Americans look at it as a weekend destination. Fiji is an aspiration. It’s usually the wife who decides. Women are responsible for around 80% of aspirational bookings. A lot of our triggers for our marketing are targeted towards women, encouraging them to do some research about flights to Fiji, and from there they start to think about resorts.
Now, that ties me to my goal of digital marketing, where we’ve got to give tourists the information they want. If it’s North America and we know that the American demographic is looking for a four-star resort on an outer island, and we also know their email address or identity, we know they’d want some information about diving, so we send it to them. We tie this together, making sure that they see that Cousteau is one of the greatest diving family resorts, or Beqa is one of the best shark diving destinations. We’re smart about what information we are supplying and we’re driving that North American market to where they want to be.
Tourism Fiji has been allocated its highest ever budget for 2016: $30 million. What are your priorities for 2016 in terms of marketing?
We know that what we’re doing works because we are seeing growth year after year. We have our slogan – “Where happiness finds you” – and I don’t believe the country has taken ownership of that yet, so I need to make that happen: World Happiness Day will be a big thing for us. We need to take ownership internationally and locally of our slogan.
You’ve got to remember: I’m not marketing hotels or locations. I’m marketing a destination: a country and its people. So I need to make sure the marketing strategy is relevant to each market, but also consistent with the brand.
From there we will look at how we will utilize the money to really start to digitize and move towards smart branding. It’s not about just having magazine articles, it’s more about information and that dream cycle we’re talking about. If we are operating in an aspirational market like North America, then the way you get from aspiration to reality is through information, and you need triggers as you go through that process for them to use that credit card and buy the tickets. For that to happen it’s got to be little triggers all along the way to reinforce “why Fiji”.
Hosting events like the World Standup Paddle Board Championships can act as triggers. They’re the little triggers that people pick up and say: “that’s going to happen in Fiji!”, “I didn’t know Fiji had that?”, and then all of a sudden it makes it a lot easier to take a decision. If it’s a family and they realize that it’s the happiest place in the world, where children are treated with such respect and love, they are suddenly persuaded.
It’s all just a reinforcement of what is already here in Fiji.
Is the whole of the USA your market or is it basically just the West Coast?
The US is so huge. We cannot have a scattergun approach. We’re going to be single-minded and focused on achieving our goals. We need to be like a sniper, choosing our market, working with it, developing it, and encouraging it as it grows. We did the same in Hong Kong: it started with two flights per week and it could be five by the end of next year.
Talking of North America, the opportunity for growth just in the West Coast is huge: you go from San Francisco down to San Diego, and the amount of people in that area alone equates to 3% of outbound passengers in the entire US; it’s huge.
You’ve got to look at the reality for us in Australia. We account for only 4% of outbound traffic out of Australia and they are our biggest market. If I can’t make that 8%, when they are a short haul destination, then there’s something wrong.
For America, I need to look at the stats. If I find that there’s an area in San Diego where more people are coming from to Fiji, I would target that area, because I have triggers already on the ground. So we’re going to be very focused. I would rather decrease the number of arrivals and increase my yield than go up to a million tourists with the same yield.
You are a successful businessman and entrepreneur. What were your motivations for accepting this position at Tourism Fiji?
This is my home. My mother is Fijian, so I’ve been coming back to Fiji all my life. I’ve been traveling the world but this is my home and will always be my home. I am bringing my children up here. We are all proud Fijians under this Prime Minister. And if you are proud to be Fijian, you can’t sit on the sidelines and complain; you have to get in the game and make a difference.
Do you have a final message for our American readers in 2016: why should they come to Fiji?
Fiji is the place where happiness finds you, it’s really that simple. You need to come down and feel a part of it. The story of Fiji is just beginning, that’s something that a lot of people need to realize. This is a story of people embracing change. That change is replicated across our country, across all ethnic groups. You’ll see that we are all happy with the way things are going, so we want this to continue as we all embrace the change and encourage the world to embrace the happiest place on Earth.