By Lee Mylne
As the beaches, coral reefs, palm trees and culture of the Pacific Islands lure more and more Australians to their shores, the island nations are gearing up to meet demand and provide travel agents with their own opportunities.
The Pacific Islands have long held a special place for Australians, with the likes of Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu all seeing continued increases in visitor numbers out of Australia.
The Solomon Islands is also gaining ground on its larger competitors, with the sleepy island now averaging stays of 15 days compared to around seven days for Fiji. With the healthy length of stay representing a more valuable proposition for agents, Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau (SIVB) chief executive Josefa Tuamoto says travel agents stand to make “a lot of money” out of commissions on sales to the Solomon Islands.
Fresh from a week long marketing campaign in Australia, SIVB has been proactively marketing the destination to the lucrative Australian market, but it is not the only organisation keen to convince Australians of the charms of the Pacific Islands.
Eighty tourism operators from the South Pacific Tourism Organisation’s 18 member nations took part in the recent South Pacific Tourism Exchange (SPTE), meeting with international buyers to spruik their product. The organisation – which includes representation from all the major players including Fiji, PNG, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and Vanuatu – has been pushing hard to reel in visitors and put the island nations centre stage for potential tourists. Featuring a strong presence at the Fijian Tourism Expo (FTE) in June and a concerted push at the inaugural SPTE last year in Auckland, SPTO chief executive Ilisoni Vuidreketi said the interest shown by the region’s private sector was “very positive”.
“Australia is the main tourism source market for the Pacific region and many of our Pacific Island countries are targeting the SPTE to help promote their destinations and its products and services,” Mr Vuidreketi said.
“The SPTE offers a great opportunity for our Pacific Island members to meet, network and do business with Australian and New Zealand buyers – who were attending the Australian Tourism Exchange – as these two countries are our strongest source markets,” he said.
According to the SPTO’s latest quarterly review, more than 154,000 Australians visited Pacific Island nations in the quarter to December 2014. Most Australians – more than 59% of those travelling to the South Pacific – travelled to Fiji, followed by PNG and Vanuatu.
Overall, countries that recorded positive growth in tourist numbers included Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, while American Samoa, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Solomon Islands recorded declines.
Australian tourists dominated visitation to the region with a share of 34% of all arrivals. Australia currently represents 51% of Fiji’s total tourist arrivals, and is second only to France for visitors to New Caledonia, with 31% of the market. Australia also dominates PNG’s tourism industry, with nearly 58% of visitors coming from Australia, although many are visiting for business or conferences. Holiday makers only account for 35.5% of PNG’s visitor numbers.
The Solomon Islands is working hard to redress its 19% fall in visitor numbers from Australia, earlier this year holding its largest ever promotional campaign in Australia and introducing the first direct flights between Sydney and Honiara.
Reasons for the decline are believed to be negative reporting of the effects of the floods that devastated Honiara in April 2014, and the general elections held in November.
Solomon Airlines and Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau (SIVB) representatives hailed the week-long travel industry road show in Queensland and New South Wales as “a major success”.
With travel agent workshops taking place in Brisbane, Wollongong and on the New South Wales Central Coast, the Solomon Islands message was also delivered to senior Australian travel industry representatives, airline management, and travel agents in Sydney.
SIVB’s Jo Tuamoto said the Solomon Islands government was ready to take the next step forward, with the launch of its national strategic plan to address tourism.
“For us as industry players, that tells us where we want to go,” Tuamoto said.
“Tourism has always been a ‘pillar’ for economic growth in the Solomon Islands but until now it has just been a ‘pillar on paper’. There has been no real resource placed behind it.
“But now things have changed and for the first time, the Solomon Islands government is serious about tourism and is putting resources into it.”
South Pacific product will also be on show at the Luxperience trade show in Sydney from September 6-9. Among operators available to meet travel agents this year are the new luxury resort The Island Grace, and the recently upgraded Vomo Island, both from Fiji.
Agents wishing to learn more about selling South Pacific product can also benefit from the South Pacific Specialist Program (SPSP), which is funded by the European Union through the Pacific Regional Training and Capacity Building Program.
This online accreditation program provides travel agents with the opportunity to develop and enhance their knowledge of tourism products and services in the South Pacific, and aims at helping agents increase their ability to sell the South Pacific “with confidence and passion”. There are currently 361 South Pacific Specialists worldwide.