Notes from the field: Fiji

December 16, 2014

By Emma Hughes

I have now completed 4 months of fieldwork in Fiji. I spent 2 months on the Coral Coast and 2 months in Nadi, the town adjacent to one of Fiji’s major tourism destinations, Denarau Island.  The majority of the international hotel chains are located along this stretch of coastline from Nadi through to the Coral Coast. In both areas my focus was on the villages and communities neighbouring the hotels. What has been their experience of ‘development’ carried out by the international corporates?  In 1973 John Samy wrote that Fijian workers received only the ‘crumbs from the table’ in multinational resorts and I wondered if this had changed.

village & signOne of the village elders reflected that tourism has brought with it both the good and the bad. Whilst employment has meant that villagers no longer need to rely on sugar cane for income and many have been able to build better, cyclone-resistant houses, the damage to the environment is all too evident.  Villagers recall an era when the fish and coral was plentiful whereas now it is difficult to bring home enough fish to feed their families.  Access to the tourist areas is also highly regulated which means that traditional fishing grounds can become inaccessible.  It also became clear that whilst benefits accrue to a few, the disadvantages are widely shared. Whilst one village may receive preferential employment opportunities and lease money that can be used to construct houses, the neighbouring villages struggle to make a living.  In the words of one villager, ‘They say we should be thankful to the hotel for providing employment for the people, but we sweat for our money – we work hard!  Not every household has a member who works here, no.  But what the hotel did affects every household’.

And what of the intentional development projects initiated by the hotels? Many projects are in place to support education and health, for example books and computers donated to schools and assistance to the local hospitals in the form of renovations and donated equipment, but according to one of the union leaders, their biggest social responsibility should be towards their own staff: ‘workers in the hotel industry are some of the lowest paid workers….they try to plaster it with social responsibility to villages giving computers here, kindergarten school here, but the very people that they owe social responsibility are forgotten: their workers.’

From a hotel management perspective, individual hotels are not always allocated a budget for social responsibility projects from HQ which means that decisions about which requests to respond to can be based more on keeping the peace than fulfilling a development objective.  During my stay I met many very committed individuals who were determined to make a difference to their local communities and the future of Fiji; however the turnover of General Managers is high and without a structure in place to guide community engagement the challenge is immense.  As one GM put it, ‘No one knows what to do.  What part should the government play? What part should corporations play? What part should individuals play?  What can they do and how can they do it?  There needs to be a way to find benefits for everyone.’

Can tourism corporates fully engage with communities, government and non-governmental organisations and undertake initiatives that can have long-term sustainable outcomes for broad sections of the community? Or will the continued expansion of tourism in Fiji and issue of further 99 year leases favour the industry, with social responsibility focused on creating ‘feel-good’ experiences for tourists and saving money on the laundry bill?  The danger, warned a former official from the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, is that ‘without effective collaboration, in 10 years you will come back and see the same issues as today, but worse’.







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