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Pacific Island Tourism is on the Surge Again, But its Character is Changing

23 Oct 2023
By Dr Denis Tolkach
SAVUSAVU, Fiji (June 18, 2015) Fijian men prepare to dance  during a ceremony. Source: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service /

Pacific Islands have been likened to paradise by early European travellers. The climate, the nature, and the hospitality of local people make Pacific Islands seemingly perfect tourist destinations. Yet, the development and the impact of tourism among the Pacific Islands is very complex. 

Pacific Island states are diverse. They have different geographies, culture, history, political environments, and economies. Most of them are remote from the rest of the world. Only Papua New Guinea and to a lesser extent Fiji possess extractive and manufacturing sectors. Agricultural exports are challenging due to lack of economy of scales and accessibility to markets, which push prices up. In such an environment, Pacific Island states need to be creative to attract foreign currency and support local employment. Some such initiatives are highly controversial, for example the Nauru Australian Immigration Detention Centre. Evidently, island state economies to varying degrees are dependent on other countries, often former colonial metropoles. 

Pacific Islands turn to tourism not necessarily because it brings the best socio-economic outcomes, but because they lack viable economic options. Tourism is not a panacea for Pacific Islands. Tonga’s tourism economy is small (12.1 percent of total GDP in 2019) and has been recently ranked 91st in UN Human Development Index, while Fiji with its long history of tourism and its higher contribution to GDP (31.4 percent in 2019) is ranked 99th. Tourism still presents some degree of autonomy compared to other common influences on Pacific Islands economies, namely foreign aid or remittances from overseas diaspora.  

Although dependency through tourism persists, Pacific Island states have been increasingly able to control how tourism is developed. First, tourists need to get to the islands, which creates dependency on aviation and cruise ship companies. For example, the Cook Islands government used to underwrite flights from Los Angeles to Rarotonga prior to COVID-19 to maintain connectivity. In the post-COVID-19 environment, the government has returned to underwriting flights, this time to Hawaii. While many domestic airlines have struggled to get off the ground, with many facing bankruptcies, Fiji Airways and Air Niugini have grown to become important players in aviation. Nadi and Port Moresby airports now act as hubs as well. However, there are no local cruise lines and the benefits of accepting huge cruise ships on small islands are dubious. There are significant costs to port infrastructure, damage to natural environment, and inconvenience of overcrowding. There are very limited benefits cruise tourists bring directly to local communities as they only take day tours and buy a souvenir without spending on accommodation and food. A 2014 study identified that every cruise passenger brought US$125 of spending to Vanuatu. Yet, Vanuatu International Visitor Survey 2014-15 suggests that on average a tourist (not a cruise passenger) brings US$1,514 to the Vanuatu economy over the course of 8.9 night’s stay. 

It was overseas capital and international brands that have helped grow the accommodation sector in Fiji. Resort management staff has historically been dominated by expats, while local communities often felt alienated from the land. In other Pacific Island states accommodation development may have been more local, but this nevertheless created land tenure issues. To ensure fairer lease contracts, iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB) in Fiji has been acting as a mediator between land owners and resort developers, with inclusion of first priority employment, scholarships, environmental protection initiatives, and community assistance included in lease agreements. TLTB is currently under review due to calls to empower landowners to undertake development activities autonomously, a sign landowners are much better aware now of their options and rights. There is no lack of entrepreneurship in the Pacific, with different styles of locally-owned accommodation coming up around the Pacific Islands. For example, beach fales are promoted by  Samoa Tourism Authority. Meanwhile, Fijian Tanoa Hotel Group is an example of a regional hotel chain. Tourism and hospitality training and education opportunities have also ensured development of local professionals that are ready to manage businesses. Arguably, the next milestone is for more local talents to become General Managers. 

Tourist attractions and activities are also increasingly diversifying from sun, sea, and sand offering more cultural, nature-based, and soft adventure experiences. Cultural tourist experiences in the Pacific are a double-edged sword. There is a threat of the McDonaldisation of culture: manifestations of culture may lose their inherent value and authenticity to become commoditised products adapted to tourist preferences. For example, the Samoan Fire Knife Dance (Siva Afi) is now performed in hotels across the Pacific. However, there is also a risk of losing traditional knowledge and skills if young people don’t see them as valuable and useful. Tourism helps provide such value and motivates young people to acquire traditional knowledge. It is important to note that Pacific Islanders are keen to participate in these global processes, and understand that cultures naturally change. They just want to have control over the pace and direction of these changes. 

The complexity with which tourism impacts on economy, society, and the natural environment has prompted the South Pacific Tourism Organisation to promote implementation of sustainable tourism policies among its members. Sustainable tourism in the Pacific Islands should make use of traditional knowledge and custodianship over the islands. Cook Islands Tourism Corporation took such an approach when developing Mana Tiaki (Guardianship) principles for tourism businesses.  

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed tourism in the Pacific Islands and demonstrated vulnerabilities of island economies. Travel restrictions in the Pacific were very rigid until 2022. With international travel at a standstill the domestic market was not large enough to sustain businesses, and many people lost their jobs. Foreign aid increased at the same time as foreign direct investment decreased. Meanwhile, the change in volume of personal remittances varied between countries. Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Tonga saw an increase in remittances, while for Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu remittances went down. Some communities saw a return to a barter system. However, there was a silver lining for those that lost their tourism jobs, left resort towns, and went back to ancestral lands. They strengthened their family and community ties, reinforced their connection with the land and the traditional knowledge, and fulfilled their community responsibilities. Moving forward, a better balance between tourism work and community responsibilities would be beneficial. 

As borders reopened and flight routes began to be re-established, international demand for travel to Pacific Islands returned. Similar to other parts of the world, this resulted in tourism labour shortages. Not everyone who left tourism was willing to return. Some started their own businesses or entered other industries. Others preferred to stay in their ancestral communities. Some may also be able to support themselves more with remittances. In addition, to address their own labour shortages, Australia and New Zealand have expanded their seasonal work programs to attract more Pacific islanders, thus contributing to leakage of skilled and unskilled labour from Pacific Islands. The Australian Aid logo on the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme’s website, thus, is ironic. 

Tourism can both damage and benefit Pacific Islands. There are many examples of positive changes in the islands, but many challenges remain. Island communities are not monoliths, and views on how tourism should develop vary greatly. But it is evident that over-reliance on tourism, foreign aid, and remittances is dangerous, and there is a need to continue diversification of Pacific Island economies in a way that ensures sustainability and resilience of island societies. And Pacific Islanders themselves should control and drive these developments. 

Dr Tolkach is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism and Hospitality Management in the College of Business, Law & Governance at James Cook University, Cairns. His research interests are predominantly within areas of sustainable tourism: ethics of tourism, community-based tourism, nature-based tourism, cultural tourism, regenerative tourism. He is an associate editor of Tourism Geographies journal, and co-host of Travel Professors YouTube channel.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.