Billionaires vacation in South Pacific islands as region struggles over pandemic curbs

Fiji, where the tourism sector accounts for some 30 per cent of the economy, has targeted wealthy tourists. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - When the head of Twitter, Mr Jack Dorsey, recently made his fateful decision to ban Mr Donald Trump from the social media platform, he did so from an island in French Polynesia, thousands of kilometres from Washington or Silicon Valley.

Mr Dorsey, who was reportedly holidaying on an island, is not the only billionaire to have headed to the remote South Pacific during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The South Pacific region includes some of the only countries to have recorded zero cases of Covid-19 and most island nations have been wary of allowing visitors. The islands are highly vulnerable to disease outbreaks due to their relatively weak health systems as well as the difficulties in providing medical support to remote, inaccessible islands that can have limited communication and transport infrastructure.

But the loss of tourists has taken a heavy economic toll, which has prompted some nations to try to find safe ways to allow visitors to return.

Fiji, where the tourism sector accounts for some 30 per cent of the economy, has targeted wealthy tourists, including through its "Blue Lanes" scheme which allows yachts and pleasure craft to enter the country. Those aboard must have a Covid-19 test and can enter the country if they have been at sea without contact with others for 14 days. Otherwise, they can quarantine for 14 days on their boat or at a local hotel.

So far, at least 95 boats have entered the country as part of the programme. These visitors reportedly include Google co-founder Larry Page who, according to The Australian Financial Review, has a A$45 million (S$46 million) superyacht based in Fiji. Some visitors have also been allowed to enter on private jets as long as they quarantine.

In December, Fiji introduced a new programme called "Luxury Vacation in Paradise" to allow arrivals to quarantine in a secluded, luxury resort. The government said the scheme was part of efforts by Fiji and other countries to shift "focus away from mass tourism to more niche, high-spending travellers".

"The overarching approach of 'Luxury Vacation in Paradise' is to allow tourists to safely enter and holiday in Fiji - with the quarantine period being part of the Fijian holiday experience," the government said in a statement.

Fiji has about 935,000 residents but has had just 55 cases of Covid-19. The island nation has had no community transmission in more than 280 days.

Several Pacific island countries are among the world's few to have recorded no Covid-19 cases. These include Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Palau. But these countries have largely barred international visitors, though some are considering accepting travellers soon.

In contrast, French Polynesia has been more open to tourists, allowing travellers as long as they have a negative Covid-19 test before they arrive and then complete a test within four days of arriving. The country, which is an overseas French territory, opened its borders last July after effectively overcoming its initial outbreak.

As of last Thursday, French Polynesia, which has about 300,000 residents, had recorded 17,808 cases and 128 deaths. It has a nightly curfew on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea.

A recent World Bank report warned that tourism-dependent countries in the Pacific are facing heavy economic contractions. Most have introduced 14 or 28 day quarantines for visitors, the report said, but "tourism is likely to be non-existent, as most holiday tourists will be unable to afford a 14/28-day self-quarantine".

"In tourism-dependent Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu, international tourism has effectively ceased and this trend is likely to continue with Covid-19 controls in place," it said.

Despite Fiji's attempt to attract wealthy visitors, it faces a serious downturn. The World Bank report cited figures from the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association, which said the outbreak has led to the closure of 279 hotels and resorts and left 25,000 workers without employment.

The islands are now seeking new ways to rescue their tourism sectors. Some are looking to create "travel bubbles" with Australia and New Zealand which would allow quarantine-free travel.

Last Thursday, New Zealand created a bubble with the Cook Islands, though it is one-way only. New Zealanders must still undergo isolation if they visit Cook Islands.

Australia's Federal Minister for Health, Mr Greg Hunt, had said that he supported a bubble but would not commit to a timeframe. "The South Pacific is right at the front of the next phase of the international travel bubble," he said.

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