In a damning, yet not entirely unsurprising, story in Islands Business this month, the lowering standards of some of Fiji's most well-known resorts is highlighted.
The story itself is relatively unusual for a local one, I think, since it openly tells some negative stories and asks some specific questions about what the heck is going on in an industry which should be relying entirely on IMPROVING their customer services in these challenging times.
The resorts on Denarau Island were referenced repeatedly in the article and as someone who has spent two or three weekends there as over the past few months, I felt a bit of their pain. Last month, I had the opportunity to stay at the newly refurbished Sheraton and upon arrival, was impressed with the overall design of the place. Big resorts like this aren't typically my thing at all and I generally prefer smaller, more personal places but in the interests of simplicity and just taking a few days off w/ the kids, I don't mind staying at places like the Sheraton Villas.
So as I arrived and stood in their expansive new lobby area to check in, I couldn't help but notice a gang of 20 or so Japanese in deep sleep on couches and chairs in the check-in area. As my check-in process wore on (20 minutes!) without explanation, I approached one of these grumpy visitors to ask him what was going on. He has arrived a bit earlier that morning and his group had been waiting for three hours to check-in to their rooms which were not yet ready. Japanese do not typically show frustration to a stranger but this guy was not happy in an embarrassed sort of way. He said the staff had offered his group a welcome drink after 30 minutes and then asked them to wait for a few moments. Fast forward three hours later, all the welcome drinks had long been consumed along with all their patience. I was incredulous.
This is definitely not a rare experience at the Sheraton as I feel that I see it almost every time I'm there. People always seem to be sleeping in the lobby around mid-morning. I'm perplexed why someone at the Sheraton doesn't plan a more welcoming process. The issue is not the fact that the rooms aren't ready. The issue is the way these visitors are being handled.
Consider one of the comments referenced in the Islands Business article:
With the exception of our sparkling room at the Sheraton, the inattentive staff and culture of "not my problem" was unbelievable evident to me during my weekend stay last month. As someone who lives in Fiji, I can't help but to notice these things either. I'm keenly interested in the tourism industry and believe the role it plays in Fiji as well as the role in plays in the future of Fiji is paramount. When tourism in an island paradise like Fiji fails, that is a very serious situation indeed.
These comments are not written by people who don't care. They're written by people who care greatly about the experience they had and were so disappointed that they took the time to relay their stories on Tripadvisor.com, an increasingly popular travel portal. Sadly, tripadvisor.com has tons of stories which read similar. All of them seem to have one particular issue in common; POOR SERVICE.
We should never underestimate the impact tripadvisor.com has on people looking for information about vacation destinations, either. Here's my Google screenshot for a query on "Fiji hotel reviews".
Tripadvisor.com is a popular website with growing content. Seeing an increase of negative reviews there is, like or not, a telling sign of something undesirable taking place.
The Islands Business article did go on to also reference a number of outer island resorts who are doing it right. Specifically, some of the boutique hotels in Taveuni received some nice praise which is great to see. [Incidentally, I always recommend people I know who are visiting Fiji to avoid Nadi and just head North to places just like Taveuni. I could lose myself on that island.] This is not to say that there aren't crappy places or sub-par service in Taveuni either. I'm sure there are. For people traveling a bit more out of the way, though, they'll often be a bit more flexible to not everything being perfect.
Perhaps this is all reflective of what Denarau has ultimately become; a bloated, assembly-line tourism-microcosm which reflects essentially nothing of it's culturally-rich motherland. On Denarau, Fijian society is reduced to over-chlorinated swimming pools and overpriced palm hats which fall apart in the departure lounge of Nadi Airport.
Perhaps this is just the old argument about tourists versus travelers. The difference here is that tourism is failing in the stories relayed by many visitors to Fiji. Not all, of course, but many and those numbers appear to be increasing.
I will stay on Denarau now only when I can be in control of my own service. This means staying in places like Sheraton Villas or Golf Terraces where we have our own kitchen facilities and don't depend upon resorts for food or service. We do still need to interact with staff though. I've seen a measurable downgrade in staff morale on Denarau during the past six to twelve months, too. It's palpable. It appears to be lethargy and uncaring when a guest asks for something.
I think all of this is more dangerous to the future of Fiji Tourism than anything else, including the oft-mentioned "political instability".
Tourism Fiji CEO, Jo Tuamoto, commented appropriately in the Islands Business piece when he stated that "the individual operator will face the consequence of not listening to the customer." This is a lesson that most businesses in Fiji struggles to comprehend whether they work in tourism or not. Listening to customers does not appear to be anywhere on most of their agendas. Tourism used to be one industry that, although slow at times, ran on the fuel of the Fijian soul. I'm saddened to see any trend which points to a depleted tank. Tourism Fiji has their hands full enough and you'd think that helping the small operators would be a priority since they're the ones with limited resources. When it's the big hotel chains damaging the repuation of the industry, perhaps there are other questions that need to be asked.
Perhaps Denarau should be a focal point for getting Fiji's tourism MOJO back. If the virus of 'service complacency' really is worming its way into the big resorts, it will eventually label Fiji as an undesirable tourist destination and that's not something this country can easily survive. Maybe I should print and sell these t-shirts?