As Fiji enjoys another record year for tourism, Andrew Turnbull, Chairman and founder of one of Fiji’s flagship resorts, Tokoriki Island Resort, outlines the opportunities for further growth in the sector.
How important a role has the tourism industry played in Fiji’s positive growth of more than 4% for three consecutive years?
Without tourism, Fiji would honestly not be a viable proposition. We used to be reliant on commodities such as sugar, clothing, and textiles, and overnight we lost it all to China. We need tourism; it will continue to grow, but our main focus has to be on ensuring that there are enough seats on airlines coming into the country to match the amount of beds available in the country.
One thing you may or may not know is that not all Fijian resorts can offer white sandy and blue water beaches – most resorts are on the mainland and they do not have all that. What we have to do is to try to do is create a ‘wow’ factor everywhere. For example, I met a tourist in a bar, who had been to Fiji three times and was quite disappointed. I happened to have a spare room at the resort that night and invited him as my guest. We pulled up in a boat to the island and he nearly cried. He said: “This is what I dreamt Fiji to be like, but this is the first time I have seen it”.
We have to be very careful about the mix we have between families and couples in the resorts. In Fiji, family tourism is usually what is promoted, which is a good thing because it is a short and sweet distance to Australia and you can easily fly in with the kids. But there still is a strong market for couples only. Another niche growing in Fiji are the higher quality family resorts. There are quite a lot of people with a high income and kids that want to go somewhere they can bring the kids and have them looked after, but where they too can relax and enjoy their holiday, and they do not mind spending money on it. There are many family resorts that are “kid aware”, but far less that are “parent aware” too. That is where I see potential for development. There is no future for Fiji without our tourism.
Would you welcome further competition in the sector in order to improve the overall quality of Fiji’s tourism product?
Absolutely. It is like when McDonalds opens up a store on the corner and the next minute you have both Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King opening up as well. The more quality products we have here or the more product full stop, the more people we can drag into Fiji. In the old days before the 747-400 series, every airline stopped in Fiji because the planes could not fly between Los Angeles and Sydney non-stop. Now the only real airline that flies in and out regularly is Fiji Airways, which flies straight to New Zealand and Australia. Our challenge is to have enough aeroplane seats to keep pace with the hotel beds. If we have got one, but not the other, then nothing will change. It is also important that we have a close relationship with the government, because the government is also the major shareholder of Fiji Airways.
The Tourism Development Plan 2015-2020 is expected to be published in early 2016 and is intended to add value to the Fijian tourism industry. What would you like to see in the plan as a resort owner?
I would like to see further incentives for investment. Until now, any capital you invested, you would receive a 50% tax benefit. The government is looking at reducing that now. There has been some hesitation with people investing money in Fiji previously, because we had fairly regular coups that destabilized the environment for investment.
Has the publicity around the 2006 coup damaged the Fiji brand?
No, the most recent coup was about ten years ago, and the industry is continuing to grow. The worst publicity was actually in regards to travel insurance. This is something that an amazingly high number of tourists take out, but it does not cover coming here during a coup, which means that all of a sudden people will not travel at these times if they cannot take out travel insurance. That is the worst effect.
However, now we have an elected government. The previous coup occurred for two main reasons: the “Qoliqoli”, which is ownership of the water, and if that had been allowed to happen, it would have destroyed Fiji. The second reason was the plan to forgive sins of previous criminals, which obviously would not have worked either; so Frank Bainimarama came to power. He has since been duly elected and generally speaking, he is held in high respect by all of the industry.
Do you believe the gains from tourism are being adequately felt within the wider population?
Through the employment it brings, yes. However the problem in Fiji is that there are no retirement benefits; there is no old age pension, all there is, is FNPF, which is the National Provident Fund. Obviously, the sector gives major revenues to the government, which allows developments in infrastructure for roads and education, and without tourism this could not be made possible. Fiji is still a third-world country in many ways.
However, the fact that it is a third-world country is also the beauty of it. If one visits the villages, you could be anywhere in the world, but the main difference is the smile. Fijians are always happy; there is an expression called “kere kere” which means “do me a favor” and no one minds asking it – it is one of the most commonly used expressions here. It all comes down to helping each other and we all do: if a member of my staff loses a tooth, I pay for it to be replaced; if someone has a baby, we help; when somebody dies, we help, because at the end of the day we are one big family and this is how Fiji stands out and how it will continue to grow.
The U.S. is the third most important tourism market for Fiji and it is growing every year, buoyed by good connectivity from LA. What factors do you think are fuelling the growth in interest from the U.S. market and what do you think your typical American tourist is expecting from a Fiji vacation?
I would not be able to answer what is fuelling the growth. I have done so many tourism trips to the U.S. and so few people understand Fiji – where it is and what it is about. The Internet is one thing that definitely contributes to the growth out of the U.S., and people come here to look for something different. On our resort, we have a high number of honeymooners from America.
Fiji does not have a very big budget to market in the U.S. For instance, if one compares Fiji to Tahiti, that country has the backing of the French government, which means they have a virtually unlimited budget in comparison. With the dollars we get, we cannot even scratch the surface in America. Even if we pumped all the money into a couple of areas in Los Angeles alone, it still wouldn’t really give us any great presence. What we have to do is to keep going and working with what we have.
You bought Tokoriki Resort in 1995 and I understand that the first three years were very hard financially, but now you are celebrating your 20th anniversary as one of Fiji’s leading resorts. How were you able to turn around Tokoriki’s fortunes and make it the success that it is today?
One has to spend money to make money, so that is what I did. My wife and I have been coming to Fiji for a long time – around 45 years. We love Fiji and the Fijian lifestyle. We have returnees that have been to our resort 43 times! They come back purely because of the staff.
We made the staff our family in the early days. When we built a house for ourselves on the island, in the beginning, we could hear the staff referring to it as “the boss’s palace”. At first, I wanted to say, “It is none of anyone’s business what I choose to spend my money on,” but then I changed my mind. Instead, I stopped building my “palace” and built new staff quarters, which were limited to two people per room with ensuite bathrooms. By the time we finished this project, it was a delight that the “palace” was being built for the boss. It showed to everyone that we care about our staff and their wellbeing.
Sure, we spent a lot of money and we continue to do so, because if one wants to stay one step ahead of any competition, one has to do something that the competitors do not. We were the first to have all private, beach front, freestanding bures with king-sized beds and air conditioning . In some resorts, you can find up to four rooms in one building, with four different families staying there. What we do is cater for privacy, serenity and affordable luxury. We have been very selective in our target market and we have loved it from the start. To me, anything can happen if you have the passion for something. One of the distributors I had when I used to sell candy used to tell me, “I never ever looked at the product you came to sell me. I looked at you and your animation.” I have had a passion for the resort and have been doing the marketing sales trips for over 20 years, traveling to America, Europe and Australia – not the marketing team. I did this year after year and people remembered me for it. It has since paid off. Building Tokoriki was my dream and my wife has made it into this beautiful property that it is today. She obviously has very good taste as she chose me as her husband!
Your hotel was ranked on TripAdvisor as the No 1 Luxury and No 1 Romantic hotel in Fiji in 2015. What makes Tokoriki Island such a romantic getaway?
It is the way we have presented it. We have chosen to keep it small and personalized enough, that people on a honeymoon can actually be on their own if they want and seek some serenity in private, or they can join in with other guests.
My wife and I have built the most beautiful chapel on the island for weddings, or some people want to get married on the beach, underneath a palm tree with no shoes on. When I bought Tokoriki, it was a one-star family resort which was appallingly bad. It had a lot of potential, and because I’m well traveled through my previous candy business, I know what I like and what works. That has been the foundation of Tokoriki’s success: we built a resort by creating the things we like.
For instance, the spa is magnificent down to the very last detail because we designed it around what we would enjoy. My wife, being a perfectionist, has created things like water trickling down the wall, with just the right amount of water flow so that when you are lying and having a massage you can hear it. This is just an example of the attention to detail which makes it outstanding.
Unless you are a large multinational company, the best way to make a resort work in Fiji, or anywhere else for that matter, is to have owner involvement. The passion leads to the success. Many people have told me that Tokoriki has become an iconic property and hearing such a thing makes me very proud, because it shows I have achieved something. If we had not been so involved in the resort for all these years, Tokoriki would probably still be a one-star resort.
This year you announced plans for a $5 million renovation of your resort. How will this change it and what is the timeframe for completion?
First of all, we are upgrading the main complex, including the kitchen, which is crucial. Even things that look ok to the eye, such as tiles, are being replaced as they have been there for 25 years when the resort was first built. We are also doing some upgrades to the bures, and building a jetty and a new bar which is very exciting.
I am doing something I said I would never do, and that is close down the resort during construction. However, we will only close it down for three weeks. We have around 120 contractors coming out, so the construction will be finished by mid-February when we reopen.
Can you expand on your ideas for building a sister resort?
We have found the opportunity to open a four-and-a-half-star family resort, which we believe would work perfectly with Tokoriki as we get a lot of honeymooners/wedding couples who aren’t able to return to Tokoriki after they start their family. It also gives my daughter an opportunity to prove that she can do something on her own, instead of just inheriting from me. I realize I cast a big shadow and it is not easy for a kid to come in and take my place because I am noisy and out there. By next year, it should be signed and we should be ready to start construction. The aim is to fill the vacancy in the tourism sector for a young family resort. We aim to make sure that the parents have a holiday as well as their kids. We will provide all services needed for parents to safely “leave” their kids, such as nannies and activities. We will have kids pools and adult pools; kids/family restaurants and adults restaurants, which gives the option to isolate both, but still be very nice for the whole family as well. In terms of proximity, I will not tell you exactly where the new resort is located, but I can tell you it is not on the same island.
You are also building a school in Yanuya. Why do you feel the need to give back to Fijian society?
For the first six or seven years, all we did was pump money into the resort, but for the last 12 or 13 years, we have been making money, so we thought it would only be fair and reasonable that we put some back into the country. We are now building a school which has about 200 students from the local and neighboring villages. We will continue to make this our primary charitable activity, because it can make a difference by allowing the next generation to be educated.
We have put in solar power for the school so that computers and phones can be used for education purposes. Recently, in conjunction with a very generous guest, solar power was also put into every home in the village to allow the children to be able to read at night and do their homework. We have built teachers’ quarters, a kindergarten, a library and most recently a tech room. We chose to concentrate on one thing rather than giving out a little here and there, because that is how we can make the most difference and this means a lot to us and to the country. We have taken money out from the resort for this, but the Fijians helped us create Tokoriki, so the least we can do is to give back.
You are a well-known businessman from Sydney who came to Fiji and never left again. What made you fall in love with Fiji all those years ago?
After all these years, I know Fiji a lot better now than I did back then, and I would say I like it more now. It has become my lifestyle. Part of me is Fijian and I will leave a legacy here. We have spent so much time and effort in building the resort, and we have to leave something behind for the Fijians to show that we did not just come here and exploit a village and leave, but in fact built something that has helped Fiji to prosper. When I arrived here 20 years ago, I was the new kid on the block – now I am the old man. People expect things from me because I am the old man and I need to set an example, as well as try to get other people to reinvest into the country.
I was not young 20 years ago, but I did not have any spare money. It is not until you get older that you have a bit of spare money that you can afford to pump back into the country. I am trying to educate the young kids in the village and most of them know me. My daughter is creating a club for the next generation of owners, which is only for owners – and not managers because we believe owners have a different feeling. Managers come and go, and yes whilst they are very important, they do not have the same emotions about a property as an owner does.
We have been here for 20 years and we know what works and what does not. We are the history of the resort and I love it when the kids and my grandkids are here, which shows the next generation is coming in and will continue to do so after I am gone.
One last thing: in Fiji most of the land is leased off the villages, and we lease our land from the village on the neighboring island for 99 years. They get a sliding scale percentage of our turnover. We have increased turnover 7 or 8 fold so they are raking in 7 or 8 times what they were getting 20 years ago which is a lot of money. We do not have to ask for permission to build, but you have to submit plans to the government. This also has to be done if you want to get investment allowances recognized by the government. It aims to protect the locals, which is good.