Fiji: More welcome than ever

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Post-cyclone, Fiji needs tourists to keep coming, writes Rebecca Barry Hill.
The spirit of the Fijian people remains unbroken despite the nation being ravaged by Cyclone Winston last month. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The spirit of the Fijian people remains unbroken despite the nation being ravaged by Cyclone Winston last month. Photo / Brett Phibbs

If you've ever set foot in another country, you've probably experienced some form of traveller's guilt.

In Cambodia, it was the little kids who ran after our tuk-tuk, desperate for our bottles of water (which we gave them but still felt bad). In Thailand, it was the toxic fumes coming off piles of plastic bottles burning on a makeshift fire. In Rome, an old man begging by the train station, his skinny dog on a blanket beside him.

About a week before my husband and I were due to leave for Fiji for a week-long do-nothing holiday, the country was hit by Cyclone Winston. As the news filtered through about the devastation wrought on the island nation - the lives lost, homes destroyed - the idea of lying on a tropical beach with nothing to worry about other than what cocktail to drink started to feel not only irrelevant but heartless. What kind of selfish people could take a holiday while the country was in a state of disaster?

Images flashed through my mind of the two of us forgoing our week of relaxation to help with the clean-up, or flagging the trip altogether.

But as the week progressed, the decision seemed to make itself. We'd booked two nights at Radisson Blu in Denarau and four at Malolo Island Resort, and both resorts, having suffered mostly superficial damage, emailed to assure us they'd be open in time for our arrival. Family and friends encouraged us to take the trip.

Meanwhile, donating to the Red Cross Fiji Appeal appeared the most practical way to help those in the hardest hit outer islands, particularly in the east and north.

By the time our flight took off, the cyclone had tracked further enough westward not to pose a threat. The plane was larger than usual, so Air New Zealand could take additional supplies. We'd packed a little heavier too. Friends who own an educational games company were kind enough to donate a big box of items to pass on to the local children. A token, but at least we wouldn't be turning up empty-handed.

Flying into Nadi we peered out the plane windows expecting the worst, but aside from the occasional toppled or bent branches, the landscape appeared unscathed. Approaching Denarau we saw a few uprooted trees and battered palms but nothing compared with news footage taken on the other side of Fiji, where little was left in the wake of the 325km/h winds that had torn through the country a few days earlier.

Instead, there was a sense of life continuing as normal when we arrived at the resort. Families played in the pool or on sun loungers, people ordered drinks and smiled. The staff smiled. We lay on a day bed with a beer and watched the golden sun sink on the horizon. I don't know what I was expecting but again, guilt kicked in - here we were enjoying ourselves.

On arrival at Malolo Island Resort the next day, it was much the same, although the ferry ride was shorter than expected as some of the islands en route had not yet reopened for tourists.

A resort around the corner from ours had yet to open too.

"We'd love you to come back and see it when it's looking its best," said the staff at Malolo. We thought the gorgeous white-sand beach and sparkling turquoise water looked pristine.

Meanwhile, the sun continued to shine, and we basked in the glorious, dry weather that often follows a storm, repeatedly assured by the staff that they were glad we'd come.

The Fijians' resilience in the face of adversity is to be admired - their joyful spirit is contagious.

Having a large part of the island to ourselves was a bittersweet benefit of the timing, and the staff were eager for it to get back to full capacity. The Radisson was 60 per cent full, whereas Malolo was at just 35 per cent. For the resorts, this low capacity was a blow on top of a blow.

On the way to the airport, our taxi driver told us his sister lived in a remote island three hours away, and her village had been wiped out, so she'd been forced to move with her children to stay with family on the mainland. They would continue to need supplies and help, as they had little. He then thanked us for coming to Fiji - "I want to keep my job," he said - and praised the New Zealand government for giving aid and financial assistance.

As he said goodbye, he told me to keep smiling. "Life is short eh?" he said.

You have to try to be happy because you don't know what's around the corner."

HOW TO DONATE


Red Cross
Tear Fund
World Vision
Unicef
Oxfam

- NZ Herald

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