Virus-hit Fiji to reopen borders for tourists

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 20, 2019 shows tourist enjoying a beach at a resort at Natadola Bay in Fiji. – Fiji plans to reopen for international tourists by November, aiming to rebuild a pandemic-devastated economy while battling a Delta-variant coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by AILEEN TORRES-BENNETT / AFP)

“Our goal is to free our country and our economy from the rut of the pandemic,” Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said in a statement last week.

Once 80 percent of Fiji’s eligible population is vaccinated, it will offer quarantine-free travel to visitors from a “green list” of locations.

Of Fiji’s eligible population, 66 percent is now fully vaccinated and Bainimarama predicts the country’s target will be met by November 1.

Fiji’s green list includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, Korea, Singapore, and parts of the United States.

Visitors would need to be fully vaccinated and test negative for Covid-19 prior to departure.

Once in Fiji, they would stay in designated zones where all contacts, from hospitality staff to tour operators, would be fully vaccinated.

Reviving tourism, which government figures estimate accounts for 40 percent of Fiji’s economy, is seen as crucial to containing rising poverty in the nation of under one million people.

But the main opposition, the Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA), has criticized the plans.

“We have got to have our priorities right health first over the economy,” SODELPA leader Bill Gavoka told Radio New Zealand. “I don’t believe Fiji is ready.”

Former Health Minister Neil Sharma said high vaccination rates would not stop the virus from spreading.

“If you look at vaccination, all it does is prevent an individual from ending up in the hospital and/or the mortuary,” he told AFP.

“You can still acquire and transmit the virus so it’s not a guarantee,” he added.

‘Very difficult choice’

Fiji was free of community transmission for a year before a Delta outbreak emerged in April.

That outbreak’s case numbers peaked in mid-June with more than 1,200 new infections daily.

Only 79 cases were recorded on Sunday.

The bulk of Fiji’s tourists come from Australia and New Zealand, where foreign travel is strongly discouraged, and travelers from both countries face a two-week quarantine at their own expense upon returning home.

Despite the obstacles, governance watchdog Dialogue Fiji said borders needed to reopen to kickstart an economy that shrank 20 percent last year.

“It’s a very difficult choice for the Fijian government, as opening the border will make us vulnerable to other, potentially deadlier variants,” executive director Nilesh Lal told AFP.

“On the other hand, a protracted economic decline could see Fiji suffer a recession with wide-ranging impacts.”

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