"You are home! I've got you - you are home!"
Like a housemother gathering her lost brood, Dawn Simpson wraps us in a warm, protective hug as our raincoat-clad selves step off the boat onto Dolphin Island, at the end of a very wet day of Fiji's rainy summer.
After a three-hour drive through a downpour from Nadi to Raki Raki - Fiji's largest island and home to most of its 800,000 population - we couldn't have asked for a better welcome from the housekeeper of the tiny island's exclusive lodge. There are only four private 'bures' or villas here and within minutes, we are bundled off to dry ourselves before heading for lunch in the main lodge's beautifully appointed dining room.
Run by the three-property Huka Retreats, this was a private family home before it became a private island 15 years ago. Ms Simpson has been the housekeeper from Day One, and her motherly warmth and Fijian home-cooking - think kokonda, a coconut cream-enriched ceviche, and smoky lovo, which is meat mixed with coconut milk, wrapped in taro leaves and slow-cooked in a coconut shell - are the very qualities that are driving travellers to discover more about this South Pacific archipelago.
Forces of Nature
Travellers come for the sunshine, but there is something hauntingly beautiful about the rain - especially a view of the dark clouds against the horizon of surrounding green islands, droplets falling softly on the thatched roof, from the comfort of a cosy sofa.
The sense of safety belies the fact that Fiji is constantly at the mercy of vicious storms wreaking havoc on both property and economy.
Dolphin Island, for one, was hit by Cyclone Winston exactly 13 months ago when it swept through the North-Eastern part of Fiji. "Once we knew it was coming our way, we kept all the furniture outside and closed up the lodges," recalls Ms Simpson with the calm of one discussing the menu for high tea. The resort had no guests at the time, and escaped relatively unscathed by the 250kmh winds which lopped off a few trees and damaged some of the bures' thatched roofs, but left the structures intact.
The morning after Cyclone Winston, Dolphin Island sent out a tweet that they had survived it well, with no staff hurt. From experience, Fiji has an effective communication system set up - with most if not all of the hotels tweeting how much damage, if any, they sustained as soon as they can. Tourism Fiji's website and travel agency sites also help get the word out.
Dolphin Island itself was lucky. Cyclone Winston alone cost the country F$2.85 billion (S$1.9 billion), equal to almost 30 per cent of its GDP. For a country that depends so much on tourism, it's a constant struggle to keep ahead of Mother Nature.
Still, cyclones are such that while it can level some areas, others are spared with little more than heavy rain. Winston barely left a mark on LikuLiku Lagoon Resort, west of Nadi, in the Mamanuca Islands - as we found out when we got there after Dolphin Island. The sun finally deigned to come out on the day we left the island, and what a difference it made to the outlook of the island and the drive back to Nadi.
A 45-minute ferry ride from Nadi, the Mamanuca Islands (Fijian for "where the sun sets") are famous for being the location of the Tom Hanks movie Castaway and the reality TV series Survivor, which saw its latest 33rd and 34th series shot on one of the islands last year.
LikuLiku has the distinction of being the first hotel in Fiji with over-water bures - built ten years ago. Over-water huts aren't as easy to build as you might imagine - one has to pay attention to the tides, winds and coral reefs, notes Ahura Resorts' group general manager Steve Anstey.
LikuLiku was itself a victim of Cyclone Evans in 2012 - when the resort had to close down for renovations for about four months. The 10 over-water bures survived that Category Four December cyclone because of their intensive engineering, says Mr Anstey, adding that the resort takes extra care for maintenance not just for the structure but also the living coral reef it's built over. Besides the over-water bures, there are some 35 beachfront bures, and it positions itself as an adult-only resort.
Protecting the region
Since tourism forms such a major part of the economy, the tourism sector must safeguard the ecological and environmental balance, believes Mr Anstey, who gets quite riled up when he sees upcoming hotel developments which don't respect the natural environment.
The resort does make an effort with its conservation and breeding of the endangered Fijian Crested Iguanas (there are five pairs in residence now, waiting to be released to the wild); and it has recently hired an environmental specialist to look into sustainable and conservation issues.
It certainly would be a shame if Fiji didn't safeguard its coral reefs, for instance. We caught a good glimpse of some corals on the morning we went island hopping around the collection of Mamanuca's islands. "Castaway" island which is actually Monuriki island, is a gem, of course, and the boat makes a stop for some snorkelling and to explore the island. Visitors get to see where Tom Hanks carved dates on a rock and had used coconuts to spell out "help".
The superlative colours of the water are the most stunning at the sandbank somewhere between the islands - a strip of sand which moves along with the tide, disappearing and then appearing again in another location a few meters off, in a matter of days.
The calm, almost wave-less seas, are mesmerising, and can be attributed to an outer barrier reef surrounding the area.
Mel Gibson is said to own an island here, and Australians, New Zealanders and Americans are most often seen on its multitude of beaches, but it's slowly getting more visitors from Asia. A direct flight from Singapore introduced last year by Fiji Airways, and a higher frequency of flights from Hong Kong - from three to five times a week - are in place to boost those numbers.
The airline's strong push is largely responsible for the country's tourism growth of five per cent in 2016, says Andre Viljoen, Fiji Airways Managing Director & CEO, when the company announced a F$84.5 mil (S$57.4mil) pre-tax profit for 2016.
Fiji's tourism industry started in the 1970s but it didn't start growing steadily until 2010, thanks to the instability caused by political coups of the 1980s. The last political coup was in 2006. Finally, though, the economic tide is changing along with the political stability. There's also a strong sense of nationalism now, with the country uniting behind its national rugby team which won the gold in the Rio Olympics last year.
Promotional fares have boosted visits - especially for those who've had postcard-perfect visions of the republic of 333 islands. "Fiji was on my bucket list of places to go to since I prefer beach getaways to holidays in cold weather," shares P.Y.Siew, who works for a beverage company.
Although a 10-hour flight from Singapore compared to two hours to the nearest beach resort in Thailand, intrepid traveller Melody Chong insists that Southeast Asian countries can't compare with Fiji's 300 islands - some no bigger than Fort Canning Park - that stud the Pacific Ocean. The PR specialist visited a local village and school near her resort, learning about their traditional meke (dance) and cooking food underground using hot rocks and banana leaves.
She first heard about Fiji from her Swedish exchange school friend way back in 1999, so when she found out about the newly launched direct flight, she booked it to spend her birthday with friends there this year.
"I love that it is still very untouched, surrounded by nature and farm animals. The people are friendly and easy to communicate with. I did all the activities the resorts provided like kayaking, snorkeling, hand-line fishing, rainforest trekking, cycling, and yoga," she gushes. "As a pescatarian, it was also foodie heaven with the fresh fish and seafood."
Marketing executive Janice Yong, who works in the food and beverage industry, concurs. "I have friends who had been there in the past, and raved about it even though they complained about the inconvenient layover in Australia or New Zealand. What I found was that the waters were clear with plenty of live coral and good fish sightings. It is far superior compared to Thai waters, where the reef is horrible. I hiked sand dunes with a nature guide and it was breathtaking and reminded me of the cliffs in England. I didn't find a restaurant with decent food but what I'd say is if you're looking for somewhere exotic and very relaxing, with warm waters - then Fiji is it!"
The way forward
The future for Fiji is not mass tourism, insists group general manager of Ahura Resorts Steve Anstey who's been in Fiji for 12 years, but to go boutique. "Not that I like to use the term, but Fiji should market its unique culture and ecology more because that's what sets us apart."
Hotels are supposed to have a "Fijian first" employment policy, and the emphasis is on Fiji's naturally green charms, but that could change if foreign developers come in on a big scale, especially from China.
For Fijian Ula Macomber, who works in digital marketing for Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa on Denarau Island, it's important to maintain the Fijian culture in the hospitality industry and the hotels, to avoid becoming a generic destination. "Keeping true to the DNA of cultural aesthetics is a challenge," she says.
Read also: Belinda Lee gets to know locals through food
But as Mr Anstey points out, it's really the natural warmth of the Fijians themselves who will make the difference in tourism. That is certainly what first time visitors like Ms Siew and Ms Yong have felt.
"The people are simply lovely. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming and I felt truly welcomed and looked after. Even if you were very shy, this place would take the shy out of you! Everyone just walks right up and starts chatting," shares Ms Yong.
Ms Siew recalls: "The friendliness of the locals blew me away. I was very emotional after leaving Fiji, and I realised that it was mostly because I missed the warmth of the Fijians so much. I've been to many places with picturesque sunsets and photo-worthy beaches, but I've never felt so connected to any country or people like I did when I visited Fiji."
This article was first published on Mar 25, 2017.
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