Jim Eagles: Battling for business

Fiji, the Cook Islands and Tonga have been the big winners - and New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Tahiti the big losers - in the battle for the hearts and wallets of travellers over the past five years.

But the battle is far from over and New Zealanders should continue to benefit from all the low-cost airfares, easier access, new resorts and special packages being used as ammunition.

Statistics New Zealand figures show that the Islands and their image of sunny skies, clear blue waters, golden sands and friendly people, remain a dream-holiday destination for those of us shivering in the winter wind and rain.

In the past five years they have been the fastest-growing holiday destination for New Zealanders, with the number of people heading into the Pacific rising 62 per cent.

That compares with increases of 40 per cent to Australia - still by far the biggest destination with 919,334 New Zealand tourists - 45 per cent to Asia, 24 per cent to Europe and 22 per cent to North America.

But within that overall boom are huge variations in tourism growth for different island groups. The Pacific's French islands, for instance, have lost appeal, and the number of Kiwis heading for New Caledonia has fallen 22 per cent since 2000.

The former French-British condominium of Vanuatu has increased its tourist take by only 1 per cent. The number of New Zealanders holidaying in French Polynesia has risen only 12 per cent.

By contrast, the number going to the Cook Islands has risen a whopping 132 per cent. Fiji has maintained its position as the most popular island destination with 103,834 visitors last year, a 74 per cent increase.

Tonga had the third-fastest rate of growth at 39 per cent, followed by Samoa at 37 per cent and Norfolk Island with 36 per cent.

The huge changes in air fares have a lot to do with it. Taking Flight Centre's fares as a guide, the cheapest flights are to Tonga, presumably a factor in the kingdom's growing popularity.

A return trip from Auckland costs $457 (including only $39 in taxes and surcharges).

The second-cheapest island to fly to is Norfolk at $527 (it would be the cheapest but for the $169 in taxes and surcharges).

And, one of the less-popular travel destinations, Vanuatu, is the third-cheapest place to fly to, at $589.

Despite the sharp differences in their apparent appeal to Kiwis, Fiji ($649), New Caledonia ($628) and Samoa ($637) are much of a muchness when it comes to fares.

Another surprise is the discovery that a return trip to the Cook Islands costs $708, making it one of the more expensive destinations. French Polynesia tops the bill at $997 a trip.

The picture is much the same if you look at package holidays, including fares, accommodation and taxes.

Using Flight Centre packages as a guide, Tonga is again the cheapest destination, followed by Norfolk Island, Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, New Caledonia and Rarotonga. Tahiti is by far the most expensive.

So why are we flocking to Rarotonga and Fiji instead of Noumea, Norfolk Island and Port Vila? Raumati Wikaire, South Pacific product manager for Flight Centre, thinks air fares are definitely one factor.

"Fares to Tahiti and New Caledonia haven't dropped as much as the others and that has had an effect."

Another factor is that the French islands are perceived as expensive destinations. "I don't agree with that view," she says. "You can live cheaply there if you want to. It's also a matter of what you get for your money. Eating at a restaurant in Tahiti may be expensive but what you're getting is gourmet food. Compared with Auckland prices, you get good value for money."

House of Travel's South Pacific product manager Lynda Cairns says New Caledonia and Tahiti are fighting back.

"For instance, Air Tahiti Nui has lowered prices, and a lot of resorts are offering cheaper packages - including free meals - in the off-season. All that is helping a lot. Moorea is particularly good value with the deals that are on offer.

"New Caledonia is putting more effort into New Zealand too. It's a very different destination, with the emphasis on culture and food rather than the beaches, and some good-value packages are available now."

But Cairns thinks easier access to international destinations has been nearly as important as cheaper fares.

"Pacific Blue's direct service from Christchurch to Rarotonga has had a huge impact. It has been tremendously popular with South Islanders who don't want to fly up to Auckland to catch their international flight," she says.

" Freedom's flights to Fiji from Hamilton, Christchurch and Palmerston North have picked up a lot of business that previously would have gone to the Gold Coast. And in many cases those people have stayed at four-star resorts, which indicates that it is convenience rather than price which has been the attraction."

Marketing is the other big factor which has led to some destinations booming while others struggle.

Wikaire says those destinations that have spent the most on marketing themselves and developing their properties have gained the most.

Fiji, the biggest promoter, has also seen huge investment in new hotels and resorts, including several owned by large international chains.

"I believe Fiji will have a major new hotel open every year for the next 10 years and that is obviously going to make a huge difference."

Similarly, Cairns says, Samoa is attracting some big resorts - such as the new Aggie Grey's - "which is making a big difference to the sort of people who are going there."

Other places are struggling to get noticed. Vanuatu is one of them.

"It's a great destination, especially if you're looking for something a bit adventurous, but they're struggling a little with all the options available elsewhere."

Those choices are broadening all the time. Wikaire says the market recognises people want South Pacific holidays that involve more than just "going to a resort and relaxing beside the pool.

"We have seen considerable growth in tourists who want something different."

One category Flight Centre calls "the flashpacker" - travellers who want to learn more about the place they are visiting.

"They like to stay in the villages, in places run by the locals, where they can mix with local people, share their food, and experience what the country is like."

And as competition in the South Pacific tourist market continues to hot up, the deals can only get better.

Cairns believes the number of New Zealanders heading to the Islands will continue to grow.

"With more low-cost flights, greater access to international destinations from regional airports, new properties opening all the time, a wider range of choices and competition continuing to keep prices down, it's just going to get better," Wikaire says.

"It is really opening up all the Pacific Islands - and they are all so different - to New Zealand holidaymakers. And that's great."

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