Joy as Fiji reopens borders to international tourists
Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcomed waving holidaymakers as Fiji opened its borders to international travelers Wednesday for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and devastated its tourism-reliant economy.
Fiji Airways flight FJ914 arrived a Nadi airport from Sydney at 11.40 a.m., ending 615 days of international isolation for the Pacific island nation.
As the plane taxied down the runway, two fire engines lined up and aimed their hoses in the air to honor it with a water salute. Inside the terminal, face coverings obscured the beaming smiles of tourism operators but cries of "bula" (hello) and indigenous songs of celebration reverberated around the building.
Fiji Airways chief executive Andre Viljoen said it was a "momentous" occasion after a tough 20 months for the tropical destination, where tourism accounts for about 40 percent of the economy.
"The international border reopening will reignite Fiji's economy," he told reporters.
Viljoen said strict health measures were in place to contain COVID-19 and the recent emergence of the Omicron variant had not deterred passengers. "Flights are coming in at full capacity," he said.
Fiji has tightened restrictions on arrivals from southern Africa but made no changes to rules surrounding "travel partner" countries, whose citizens can now experience a tropical getaway in the Pacific idyll.
They include Japan, New Zealand, the United States and France, as well as countries where Omicron has been detected such as Australia, Canada and Britain. Tourism Fiji chief executive Brent Hill said resorts on the two main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu were gearing up for an influx of foreign travelers.
"We've noted around 75,000 bookings for the next couple of months, which is outstanding," he said. "We know our job has just started and we look forward to seeing more tourists coming in 2022."
Foreign visitors need to be fully vaccinated and test negative for COVID-19 prior to departure, as well as providing a 14-day travel history to ensure they have not visited virus hotspots.
Once in Fiji, they must stay in designated zones where all contacts, from hospitality staff to tour operators, will be double jabbed.
Fiji managed to eliminate COVID-19 for 12 months before a devastating second wave of the Delta variant earlier this year caused almost 700 deaths in the nation of one million. In the past week, it has reported one death and a few dozen infections.