Fiji Reflections

April 25, 2013

My second trip to Fiji, a South Pacific island nation about four hours flying time from Sydney.  It’s a beautiful place, with the largest population (about 870,000, although curiously the “Lonely Planet” guide never mentions this) of any of the South Pacific nations.  I first visited in 1989 and remembered from that trip:

(1) The food – good Indian food, because of the large number of Indian Fijians (“Indo-Fijians”, who comprise about 38% of the population), who were originally brought there by the British colonial powers to work in the sugar cane industry.

(2) The friendliness of the residents – “Bula” (pronounced “boolah”), being the operative word that you are greeted with by Fijians.  It literally means “life” and is the common greeting for “hello” – like the Hawaiian “aloha”.  You could even compare it to the Australian “g’day”, although I feel that “Bula” probably has a more spiritual connection (I hope that I am not simply romanticising Fijian life and culture when I write this).  At the end of each day we compared:  how many “Bulas” did you have today?  My average was six.

(3) The beauty of the place (photos below).  Islands. Reefs.  Clear water.

(4) The weather. Tropical. Warm. Can get steamy and wet in the summer months.  Lots of sun.

(5) Ease of access for us western English-speaking tourists.  Everyone speaks English, and all of the signs are in English (the official languages are Fijian, English and “Fiji Hindi” – whatever that is).

Fiji mountains

Second trip a month ago.  All five factors still operate.  Over the course of five days I had a number of Fijians come up to me and say – very genuinely – “Thank you for visiting our country.”  They really meant it.  Imagine going to France and someone there coming up to you and thanking you for visiting France.  Or here in Australia – surely we probably never thank our many hundreds of thousands of overseas visitors  Not that we don’t appreciate them, we simply don’t want to “bother” them or really consider how valuable their tourist dollars are.  We mostly ignore them.  Unless you are the tourist industry – but how many people in that industry genuinely thanks our visitors?  Precious few or any, I would guess.  In fact, Fiji is the only country in the world (and I have visited 22, at last count) where I have been thanked for visiting.

But there’s a downside:  Fiji is poor, as any trip outside the tourist areas immediately makes apparent.  And the last ten years have not been kind to the country:  the Global Financial Crisis, the collapse of the sugar industry and continuing ethnic (Indian-Fijian) political strife have all damaged the country’s economy.

It’s still beautiful, lovely and friendly, but I felt like it was just hanging on, irrespective of those amazing Gold Coast-style houses and time-share units being built on Denarau Island, not far from Nadi’s international airport.  Just pop over to Nadi to see the enormous difference in wealth.

There’s also a really big cost differential:  my Indian lunch in Nadi cost about $2.40 (Australian/US); it would have been at least ten times that amount at the Denarau hotel we stayed at.

Relaxing on Tivua Island1

View from Tivua Island

Chapel on Denarau Island