An island of hope

Q1. Concerning the background of Air Fiji. In 1997 the airline expanded and doubled its fleet, what were the main reasons and consequences in doing so?

The company was established in 1967 and now we are the largest air serving domestic operator in Fiji. Air Fiji was relatively small for a period of 20 years, mainly servicing the smaller outer islands. Some of our major services today are to provide the vital link between Fiji's two main islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and of course our services between Nadi and Suva. We have also been providing an essential service to smaller but equally important outer islands for many years. Our role besides transporting passengers and essential supplies is also to see if we can assist develop outer island niche tourism development projects by providing the necessary air links. Most of the islands are very exotic and untouched. There is not really much planned at this stage but the link is there and opportunities exist. Back to your question, we expanded and doubled the fleet in 1998 for various reasons. Air Fiji was considered the airline that largely looked after the locals whilst our competitor was the airline that served the tourists. I was brought on board in 1997 to try and increase the airlines tourist market share. There was a need to increase our fleet size to do this effectively. Five years later, we have largely achieved what we set out to do by concentrating our focus on the two islands of Vanua Levu, and the garden isle of Taveuni. The other reason for our fleet expansion was due to Air Fiji commencing International Services to the Island Nations of Tonga and Tuvalu in 1999. These services have proved to be successful and are aptly named Pacific Link. "Air Fiji Pacific Link" provides both domestic and South Pacific Regional Charters to as far away as Nauru and Kiribati.

Q2. What is the shareholding structure of Air Fiji at the moment?

Air Fiji is a private company with 50 shareholders. The major shareholders are the Government of Tuvalu and CATIC, a Chinese Aeronautical Manufacturer and Distribution corporation. The Government of Fiji is also a significant shareholder. There are future plans to float Air Fiji on our local stock market.

Q3. There is an increasing partnership approach between companies within the airline industry and between airlines and other industry-related companies. How do you measure the importance of good partnerships for the future growth of Air Fiji and how do you plan to increase your partnership network?

Air Fiji assists the Fiji Visitors Bureau and the Fiji Hotel Association by providing numerous discounts or free services to wholesalers, travel agents, photographers and people who are able to boost the tourism image of Fiji. We have had a good working relationship with Qantas, Air pacific and Air New Zealand and are also the general sales agents for Air India, Air Vanuatu and Polynesian Airlines in Fiji. Due to the nature of our business we have a close working relationship with not only tourism oriented businesses and airlines but with a diverse range of corporations and companies. Due to the relatively small size of our economy, and airline, the economical opportunities that may exist for large national and multinational carriers do not have the same baring for Air Fiji, although there may be future opportunity in Regional cooperation.

Q4. How does the merger between Qantas and Air New Zealand affects Air Fiji?

Firstly it does not really affect Air Fiji. Qantas is proven and well established airline, whilst Air New Zealand was considered, at one time, to be amongst the best. Air New Zealand made some very unfortunate expansionary blunders, which almost cost the country its airline. With continued escalating costs, the "partnership" appears to maske sense, only time will tell.

Q5. In the last Tourism summit in Savu-Savu, the aim was to go towards the billion dollar industry. What is your opinion about this?

It is not an easy task. However, It will be achievable if new hotel and resort projects come on line (as projected) within the next two to three years, and additionally, appropriate student and management training is implemented as soon as possible. There will need to be an effort that will entail everyone in Fiji, so as a genuine Fiji experience is felt when you go everywhere, from shops to buses, markets, excursions, etc. not only the large International Resorts. We need to go back to basics and try hard to live up our old FVD adage "Fiji, the way the world should be". In today's troubled world, the sense of romance and exoticness which is synonymous with the South Pacific, can be a very strong attraction to those potential visitors that are just fed up with the daily media dose of world troubles. Fiji is very well poised to attract visitors to meet our target given the fact.
Q6. After the coup of May 2000 there was a dramatic decline in tourism arrivals. Is Air Fiji financially recovered from that time? What can you tell us about your latest financial results and expectations for 2003?

Our results for both 2001 and 2002 have been very encouraging with acceptable profit levels achieved in both years. Certainly, I would like to think that we can do a little better than last year for 2003. I am very optimistic about 2003. It is going to be a good year all around for us given the noticeable increase of tourism from our primary markets of Australia and New Zealand and the upcoming South Pacific Games in July.

Q7. After the event of May 2000 the Fiji Tourism Industry has tried to attract visitors back to Fiji. What has been Air Fiji's role in this effort?

Air Fiji has contributed to the various "damage control" tourism committees that were formed to combat the negative media reporting associated with the event of May 2000. We contributed financially and through professional input. We also worked very closely with the Fiji Visitors Bureau, the Fiji Hotel Association and with wholesalers by providing discounted or free domestic air travel to journalists and travel agents so that they could witness for themselves the remarkable quick recovery. In fact, some island resorts off Nadi continued to record very good occupancy during and immediately after the event of May 2000. If you look at the many troubled spots in the world, you find that Fiji is a very resilient country, meaning that after a significant negative event, the people of Fiji by our nature, are able to get on with life and business very quickly. The year 2003 is a prime example of this. We are projecting a record number of visitor arrivals, two years after a major setback, and it will certainly be achievable.

Q8. What are the main challenges Fiji has to face in the near future?

If Fiji's tourism industry is to achieve its aim of being a billion-dollar industry in the short medium term, then it is crucial to have new Resorts and Hotels "breaking ground" as soon as possible. Once there is one major project on its way, I think this will act as the catalyst and the confidence will then spread and you will see other projects getting off the ground. With Air Pacific expansionary plans it is vitally important that Government does everything within its power attract investors to develop the Resorts and Hotels. The Government is addressing required infrastructure to support the development of Resorts and Hotels, i.e. electricity, water, roads, etc. the overriding challenge facing Fiji is to attract investors by offering them very competitive incentives that will make Fiji exceptionally attractive to them.

Q9. What is the regional expansion strategy for Air Fiji?

Air Fiji is also a regional operator through our "Pacific Link". We provide a service to Tuvalu twice a week and to Tonga three times a week. The South Apcific offers limited expansion due to most island nations having their own national carriers. This coupled with a small population base does offer limitless opportunities. However, we are carefully monitoring developments and if we feel that there is an opportunity we will certainly explore the potential. One area we do see as having some potential is that of regional charters.

Q10. Could you tell us more about your personal background and future challenges?

I did my career at Beachcomber Island Resort in Fiji in 1975. I began as a Management Trainee and worked my way through various management positions in Islands In The Sun, which managed Beachcomber and Treasure Island Resorts. I worked in the Hotel and Resort industry in Fiji for around 20 years. In 1997 I started with Air Fiji as Marketing Manager to try and lift Air Fiji's tourism market share. Four months after I joined I was offered the position of Chief Executive and still hold the position. I see myself in Fiji for a long time yet. I have always believed that tourism has the greatest potential for Fiji provided it is developed sensibly and with care.

Winne cannot be held responsible for unedited transcription.

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