By Christine Rovoi, RNZ
New Zealand has opted to take a "cautious approach" to Fiji's future travel initiatives as the Pacific island nation prepares to reopen its borders amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade says New Zealand will be guided by public health considerations.
Fiji is preparing to reopen its borders on November 1 and only fully vaccinated travellers will be allowed in, the Government said.
The only exceptions would be "a few emergencies".
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama wants commercial and international flights to resume in about eight weeks' time.
Fiji has more than 10,000 active cases in isolation, with more than 500 deaths reported since April.
The Government is also adamant at least 60 per cent of the target population would be fully vaccinated against the deadly Delta virus by the end of October.
But not everyone is convinced.
Fiji's main opposition Social Democratic Liberal Party (Sodelpa) said the Government should "tread very carefully".
Sodelpa leader Bill Gavoka, a former tourism executive, said the Government should be focused on addressing the virus rather than rushing to open the borders.
He said the party supports the vaccination campaign and encourages as many Fijians as possible to immunise against Covid-19.
"What this Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that we have got to have our priorities right. Health first over the economy, which will fall into line.
"I will not be encouraging Government to be hasty about this. I don't believe Fiji is ready.
"We should tread very carefully on that and I'll make that known to the Government."
Fiji plan lacks clarity: former Health Minister
The Health Ministry said that as of September 7, 52.9 per cent of the target population was fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
A former Fiji Health Minister, Dr Neil Sharma, said there is not enough clarity on the Government's initiative.
Sharma served as Health Minister between 2009 and 2014 under the current FijiFirst Government.
He said Fiji's health system is overwhelmed and the Government needs to come up with a better strategy to reopen the borders.
"They are not verbalising well all that is required. Just saying that they are going to open the borders is kind of difficult to understand.
"Even if you open the border, who is going to come here? It's going to be hard because the system is very fragile and it's an evolving picture."
The important thing is Fiji takes one step at a time, Sharma said.
Safety first for NZ
New Zealand and Australia have shut their borders due to Covid outbreaks in both countries.
The New Zealand Government said it's working with other countries on managing risks at the borders amid the pandemic.
In a statement, it said New Zealand is committed to supporting the Pacific to manage the significant economic and social shocks caused by Covid-19.
"We are aware that restoring travel connectivity within the region will boost economic activity and long-term recovery.
"We are currently working with Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu on one-way quarantine-free travel and those discussions are ongoing."
The NZ Government said Aotearoa New Zealand recognised that safe international connectivity is fundamental to the economic, cultural and social well-being of all Kiwis.
"Our goal is to progressively reopen our borders to the world where it is safe to do so and where we can maintain our elimination strategy.
"Our current quarantine-free travel arrangements are one part of our strategy to safely and carefully reopen borders."
A former chair of the Pacific tourism board, David Vaeafe, acknowledged there are many challenges ahead.
"The impact of Covid-19 has been huge on the tourism sector in the Pacific. Prior to Covid last year, there were 1200 ships a year visiting the region, bringing thousands of tourists. Now that market is gone.
"The thing about tourism is it's the only industry that filters down to the grassroots level. You have everything from hotel workers to tour operators to the cultural sites so the impact is great on the islands, their economies and the villagers themselves.
Vaeafe is the project manager at Pacific Co-operation Foundation and he said ensuring the population is safe from Covid-19 was key to reopening borders.
"We have to look at New Zealand's history in this case. In the early 1900s when they let the influenza ship into Samoa and it wiped out 20 per cent of the population.
"We're seeing how rampant Covid is in the Pacific and you just have to look at what's happening in Fiji and French Polynesia.
"It's important to vaccinate local communities to protect them but also to protect the border."
Vaeafe was also at the helm of the American Samoa Visitors Bureau, and he urged the Governments to put in place rules and regulations for any businesses that are coming into the islands.
"They need to show proof of vaccination. But also to have a regular regime of testing and beefing up of the health systems to be able to cope with an outbreak.
"There also needs to be support from the donor countries to strengthen the islands' capabilities and their facilities."
Tourism sector welcomes Fiji's plan
There are many who support the Fiji Government's plan to reopen.
Ahura Resorts operates the popular Likuliku Lagoon and Malolo Island resorts in Fiji's west. Both tourist hotspots have been closed since March last year.
Its director of sales and marketing, Samantha Muspratt, said it had 300 staff, who had been stood down on leave without pay.
"We have assisted our people over this time with a quarterly food voucher programme. We were involved last year with some of our other Mamanuca tourism colleagues in a GoFundMe fundraiser which happened just before Christmas.
"We've just done a major fundraiser over the last month with raffle prizes and donation options for our staff which was directed to our past guests, who were generous. We raised over AU$S120,000 [$124,213] which will be distributed for our staff."
Muspratt said with the Government's plan to reopen in November, the focus is now on getting the resorts on Likuliku and Malolo ready.
"Given that we have been closed for a long period, we do need a good couple of months of leave time to reset the resorts and recruit the staff back, refresher train them and train completely on all the new Covid protocols that we've been accredited with through the CareFiji which is an initiative of the Fijian Government and Tourism Fiji. So there is a fair bit to do."
Muspratt said they would target the United States market until New Zealand and Australia lift their border restrictions.
"We're likely to be welcoming only guests from the United States and maybe a couple of other long-haul markets. At this stage, there's no travel bubble with either New Zealand or Australia which is the major market for Fiji.
"We're looking at opening one of our resorts, Likuliku - our luxury adult and family resort - which is our major market for US and North American visitors.
"And of course when Australia comes into the mix and New Zealand then most definitely, we'll open Malolo."
Tourism Fiji chief executive Brent Hill's excited.
He says Fiji's vaccine roll-out and its broader inoculation uptake are poised to get the country's tourism industry back on its feet.
Hill said he understood that people would not come to Fiji if the country wasn't heavily vaccinated.
"It's really important, because we've seen countries like Tahiti that opened up without a hugely vaccinated population, and had some issues."
Hill expects the majority of Fiji's adult population to be fully vaccinated by November - this would align perfectly with plans to get the Australians travelling overseas again from mid-December.
Andre Viljoen, the chief executive of Fiji Airways, says Fiji has a higher vaccination rate than Australia and "puts us on track to be the most Covid-safe holiday destination in the world".
Ultimately, whether it's the Aussies or the Kiwis looking for Covid-safe travel, they will first want assurance that the destination they choose is safe, it's Covid-free and that it's going to be their "vacci-nation" of choice.