Fiji's High Commissioner to India Yogesh Punja says that "The country's central position in the Asia-Pacific region has been strengthened by recent developments in sea and air communications and transport."
In an interview, Punja speaks about the tourism potential that Fiji has for the growing numbers of Indian travellers who now choose newer and faraway destinations to explore, given that air connectivity options have risen tremendously in recent years. Excerpts:
Q: This is a historic year for Fiji given that the nation is celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule. The nation has come a long way. According to you what are the true gains made by Fiji in the last five decades?
A: Fiji, since its independence in 1970 is certainly one of the strongest states in the Pacific Islands, with efficiently administered government institutions and the beginnings of a diversified and sophisticated economy. The country's potential for economic growth and a rising standard of living is the highest in the Pacific region by a large margin. Its achievements have been driven by strategic location in the heart of the South Pacific and offering a cost-competitive location for investors intending to set up offshore operations for the manufacture of advanced technological products for regional and international markets. Fiji has today become an export-driven economy spurred by high technology, knowledge-based and capital-intensive industries to the Pacific.
The establishment of a modern and inclusive 2013 Fijian Constitution, along with an unprecedented programme of administrative reforms across Government; substantial and consistent public investment in infrastructure, public utilities, education, health and social inclusion; and a concerted effort to position Fiji as the hub of economic activity and regional engagement in the Pacific. Fiji has also emerged as a respected advocate on some of the greater challenges facing humanity, including climate change, sustainable development and the preservation of our oceans.
Fiji's global leadership on two important SDGs on climate change and oceans has been demonstrated through the co-hosting of the 2017 United Nations Ocean Conference and the Fijian Presidency of COP23. Fiji is a signatory to a number of climate change related international agreements and has integrated climate change into the National Development Plan to bolster climate and ocean action at the local and international level.
Q: India's relations with Fiji go back even further, commencing in 1879 with the migration of indentured workers. How would you assess Indo-Fijian ties at this point in time?
A: Fiji and India share deep and enduring ties of history and culture and both share a common global challenge of peace and cooperation in the interlinked ocean regions. India expands its cooperation in Defence and security, including assistance in defence training and capacity building, enabling environment for Fiji to expand its economic diplomacy through trade and investments, development assistance, cultural cooperation, closer collaboration in areas of information technology with the establishment of center for excellence in information and technology in Fiji, scholarship opportunities, cultural exchanges, Agricultural, health, medical, education and many more.
Q: You helm a diplomatic group for nations in the Asia-Pacific region. How are you leveraging the advantages this group presents vis-à-vis your engagements with India?
A: Fiji is an influential voice in the Pacific Region and the developing world. The country's central position in the Asia-Pacific region has been strengthened by recent developments in sea and air communications and transport. Today, Fiji plays a major role in regional affairs and is recognized as the focal point of the South Pacific.
This strategic location of Fiji in the past has allowed Fiji to host regional conference and meetings organised by the Government of India in Fiji at bilateral and multilateral level; such as Forum for India-Pacific Island Countries (FIPIC I) hosted in Fiji in year 2014, India-Pacific Islands Sustainable Development Conference (IPISDC) in 2017, Regional Hindi Conference held in 2020, Establishment of regional training institute "Mahatma Gandhi Centre of Excellence in IT" in Fiji National University and hosting of regional level trainings in Fiji and many more.
Not only bilateral and multilateral meetings have been hosted in Fiji but NGO engagements such as Barefoot College Fiji as a host country for the Pacific Region whereby Fiji will be the first and only institutional facility in the Pacific where mastery of renewable energy technology coupled with a holistic approach to building entrepreneurial skills for women, with little to no previous formal education has been established.
Q: The Forum for India-Pacific Island Countries was inaugurated at Suva in November 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He also hosted the forum's first summit. What are the major activities that have been undertaken by this forum?
A: FIPIC, a multinational Pacific grouping was launched during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Fiji in November 2014. A number of initiatives were announced at the inaugural FIPIC Summit. Recognizing climate change as a major issue of concern in the region, PM Modi announced a Special Adaptation Fund of US$1million to provide technical assistance and training for capacity building to the PICs. To enhance connectivity, a Pan Pacific Islands Project for E-network was announced. India also announced grant-in-aid of $200,000 annually for each fourteen Pacific Island Country.
The second summit of the FIPIC Forum was hosted by India at Jaipur, Rajasthan, August 2015. Building on the first summit, discussions took place on various issues of significance to the members such as climate change, clean energy, food security.
This forum has enabled PICs and India to engage bilaterally in areas such as climate change, trade, economy, telemedicine and tele-education, IT, grants for community development projects, human resource development and deputation of experts from India.
Q: Kindly throw some light on bilateral trade and commerce. There has been a setback globally during the pandemic, but how are things being brought back on track?
A: While the number of border contained COVID-19 cases remains low in Fiji and where international tourism is a cornerstone of the economy, the implications of the crisis are massive. The government has announced the road to recovery with various economic stimulus and incentives to re-engineer the economy and avoid job losses, establishment of Pacific Travel Bubble between Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island Nations in light of COVID-19 and special red carpet between individuals to ascertain the investment opportunities in tourism sector in Fiji.
As a road to COVID-19 recovery, Fiji has major tax reductions and reforms, giving consciences loans to business and enterprises to stimulate economic activities, stop economic fallout from going permanent and the government has filled the void of falling investment and consumption with a strategic and sustainable government stimulus. In doing so, government aims to build and, get Fiji working again, sometimes in new ways, and bring Fiji's economy back across a broad front. Fiji is now focusing on other sectors such as agriculture using modern techniques and technology. Emphasis is now placed into product diversification and explores new markets for Fijian made products internationally.
Q: In September 2019, India's Foreign Minister Dr S. Jaishankar engaged with Hon. Inia Seruiratu (who was holding the portfolio of Fiji's Foreign Minister at the time) in New York on the margins of the UNGA. PM Modi also interacted with leaders of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS). Kindly elaborate on these key meetings.
A: The meeting deliberated on wide range of issues concerning Pacific Island Countries, including sharing of development experiences for attainment of SDGs, enhancing cooperation in renewable energy, joining the newly launched Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, capacity building, implementation of projects under the India-UN Development Partnership Fund, LED Bulbs, Diplomatic Training and a roadmap for future India-PSIDS cooperation.
Q: Please talk us through Fiji's tourism potential with India. With more Indians able to travel to global destinations until recently, Fiji, with its unique geography and culture presents an opportunity for greater exploration. Your take on this please.
A: Fiji has great potentials in the tourism sector to offer to both locals and overseas visitors. When compared to countries like Australia, New Zealand and USA, tourists from India have been relatively low. However, the recent trend illustrates that there has been an increase in numbers from India. With the new Air Service Agreements, Indians are now able to comfortably travel to Fiji with multiple routes.
Q: What makes Fiji even more special for the Indian visitors is the language, food and cultural aspects which is common between our two countries.
Fiji has dedicated offices of Tourism Fiji and Fiji Airways based in Mumbai which are the destination marketing organizational arms of the Fijian Government agency responsible for marketing Fiji as the ideal destination for leisure travel globally.
Fiji had earlier appointed Ileana D'Cruz (film actress who predominantly appears in Telugu and Hindi films) as the brand ambassador for Fiji for the Indian market. Through her, Fiji has showcased its unique offerings to potential travelers from India and also to create awareness of its diversity, refreshing culture, white sandy beaches, water-based activities, warmth, hospitality and friendly people.
The current marketing strategy is to focus on the Business to Business (B2B) by amplifying the brand ambassador campaign on social media, which would be re-enforcing this message through strategic partnerships, trade integration, influencer engagement, media and brand communication. This would be related to its target audience through a combination of on-ground initiatives, editorial campaigns, events, content programmes and more, besides that the joint coops with the key stakeholders would continue with strategic partnerships with Kesari, Thomas Cook, Veenaworld & OTAs like MakeMyTrip & Yatra.
Q: The Hindi language is another important link between the two nations. It is an official language in Fiji. How are you promoting this Hindi connection in India?
A: Hindi language is the third widely spoken language in Fiji after English and the i-taukei language (indigenous). Fiji has published its Constitution in Hindi as well.
High Commission of the Republic of Fiji has established a Hindi newsletter titled "Fiji Sandesh" which is produced on a quarterly basis in Hindi. News of common interests (India and Fiji) are published in this newsletter and circulated widely in India to organizations and individuals.
The first-ever Regional Hindi Conference was held at Suva on January 25, 2020 in collaboration with Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts, Government of Fiji. The Conference was attended by Fijian, Indian as well as regional Hindi experts. The Conference also, for the first time in Fiji, attracted the largest ever gathering of Hindi teachers in Fiji. The next World Hindi Conference is also proposed to be held in Fiji in 2021.
Q: What are the major fields of ongoing cooperation between the two nations?
A: Cooperation are in the fields of Defense, Education/ Training, Energy, Trade, Socio- Economic Development, Air Service, Sports, Defense, Agriculture, Fisheries & Aquaculture, Health, Communication/Media, Information Technology, Natural Disaster, Environment, Law & Justice, Tourism, Culture/ Heritage/ Art, Youth Development and Renewable Energy.
Q: Please also talk us through the role of the Indian diaspora and the media in promoting links between Fiji and India.
A: Fiji has a rich Indian Diaspora who are actively part of political, economic, social and cultural settings of Fiji. The 2013 Constitution of Fiji sets a modern and inclusive Fijian Constitution that gives every Fijian equal right to be part of building a better Fiji.
In relation to media, it has played an instrumental role in promoting links between Fiji and India through their Hindi radio stations which provides up-to-date information, thus keeping each other connected. Even newspaper and local TV stations have special slots which actively promote India in Fiji and also many Indian films have been shot in Fiji.
As we have a MOU in the cooperation on broadcasting between Fiji and India, Prasar Bharti and Fijian Broadcasting Corporation continues to exchange programmes in the fields of culture, education, science, entertainment, sports etc.