UN and Pacific Tourism Organisation host roundtable on sustainable tourism and COVID-19 recovery

The United Nations [UN] in partnership with the Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO)] Monday hosted a roundtable dedicated to the theme of ‘Restarting Sustainable Tourism in the Pacific’.  

The initiative brought together governments, international development partners and key stakeholders in the tourism industry, from Fiji, Vanuatu and Palau, to share experiences as well as identify solutions towards greening the tourism sector in the COVID-19 recovery.  

Tourism is a key driver to the Pacific region’s economic growth and a major source of employment and government revenue. Global travel restrictions and lockdowns as part of COVID-19 measures, have devastated the tourism industry in the Pacific. Whilst Pacific Island Governments have rolled out economic stimulus packages, current numbers show a significant downturn in severely tourism-dependent economies.  

In August this year, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres called on relevant stakeholders to take opportunity of the current situation; “Rebuilding the tourism sector in a safe, equitable and climate friendly manner…ensuring tourism regains its position as a provider of decent jobs, stable incomes, and the protection of our cultural and natural heritage.”

In light of this, the Restarting Sustainable Tourism in the Pacific roundtable was envisioned to be a forum to exchange information and strengthen partnerships between the UN system, key industry leaders, development partners and other tourism sector stakeholders to galvanise efforts in restarting safe and sustainable tourism. Representatives included the UN Development Programme, UN World Tourism Organisation, International Labour Organisation, SPTO, the World Bank Group, Asian Development Bank, Fiji Airways as well as tourism offices, academics and private sector representatives from Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.   

In his keynote address, Fiji’s Attorney-General and Minister for Economy, Civil Service and Communications [Acting Minister for Tourism], encouraged stakeholders to think outside the box and look at long-term goals. “I think people need to look at long-term goals. People need to understand what the end objective is really – it’s sustainability. We are interdependent on each other.”

Discussions centered around mitigating the socioeconomic impacts on livelihoods – particularly on women’s employment and economic security; advancing innovation and the digitalization of the tourism ecosystem; fostering sustainable and green economic growth especially at the regional level; boosting competitiveness and building resilience.  

UN Resident Coordinator, Sanaka Samarasinha also explained the criticality of a successful COVID vaccination programme in re-opening border entry points. “I am happy to report that the UN is part of the COVAX facility and working hard to bring the vaccines to the Pacific as soon as they are available. We hope in the coming few months. But the initiative that looks at providing the vaccines initially to 20% of the population in each country isn’t sufficient to create the confidence that will be needed for tourism to rebound. We must continue to advocate for a much greater coverage of the Pacific Small Island Developing States population.”

“Considering the relatively small numbers [of vaccines] that are needed to get to 70% or 80% coverage in the Pacific, as well as the cost savings of transporting them in one shipment as opposed to several,  are compelling arguments that must be heard in the corridors of power from all of us,” said Mr. Samarasinha.

Monday’s roundtable featured two panels and a plenary discussion focused on seeking agreement on priority areas to restart safe and sustainable tourism in the Pacific; as well as identifying potential collaboration and partnerships to coordinate future efforts to transform tourism, including in policy development and resource mobilisation.  

Lara Bourke, Director of Nukubati Island Resort in Fiji said, “Building back better is not the easy route – but we must be bold enough to reset the course of tourism to ensure that it aligns to the needs and priorities of our host communities, and is not driven by the current status quo. We may never get such an opportunity again, so we urge you to work with and through the private sector, to develop lasting partnerships and ensure that the tourism sector’s impact on development is not relegated to an afterthought, but is a meaningful part of our national development planning processes.”

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