Solomons 3The welcome mat is out for Australian travel agents wanting to visit the Solomon Islands.

Twenty agents explored the islands last year, gaining valuable confidence about selling its charms to their clients.

Solomon Islands Visitor Bureau (SIVB) chief executive Josefa ‘Jo’ Tuamoto said this “exercise in confidence-building” was a key part of the strategy to boost visitor numbers and the tourism industry generally.

“Tourism is a priority for the wellbeing of the country and a key component of the Solomon Islands government’s economic blueprint for the future,” he said.

“While 2013 proved a good year for us, the April 2014 floods and the lingering ASA (Air Services Agreement) dispute between Fiji Airways and Solomon Airlines had impact on our international visitation numbers last year.”

About 25,000 visitors arrive in the Solomons each year, with Australians accounting for between 10,000 and 13,000 – a number expected to grow with the introduction of new direct Solomon Airlines flights from Sydney.

Other top markets are New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the United States. The average length of stay for visitors is 15 days.

Tuamoto said the decline in visitor numbers was arrested in 2015 with spectacular results in April (15.5% increase), May (14.9% increase), June (9.3% increase) and September (28% increase).

He said while one of the key objectives already in place was to broaden the Solomon Islands’ appeal to attract a more diverse range of international visitors, there were also challenges to be met.

Divers, surfers, backpackers and World War II veterans and historical groups already flock here, but SIVB plans to position the Solomon Islands as a multi-faceted destination with wide appeal.

“While currently we may only be a small destination on the world tourism map, we know that delivering the right type of product and catering to the right kind of traveller will play a major part in our aspirations,” said Tuamoto.

And although more hotel rooms – at least 150 to 200 in Honiara, he says – are needed, there’s also a realisation that “small is beautiful”, with eco lodges and boutique resorts such as Titiru Eco Lodge on Rendova Island in the Western Province providing the blueprint for future expansion on the smaller islands.

“Introducing this type of responsible tourism product that conserves our pristine environment while helping to improve the welfare of the local people is very much the way forward,” he said, adding that eco-tourism was a recognised drawcard for an increasing number of environmentally-aware travellers.

However, the five major resorts in Honiara were usually at 70 to 80% occupancy, and more room stock and attracting an international hotel brand would be key to moving forward, he said.

The Solomon Islands’ tourism industry may still be in its infancy, but its “last frontier” tag is unlikely to last for long, with major development expected over the next 10 to 15 years. For many travellers, that’s a huge incentive to “get there before it changes”.

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