International host
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 1, 2019 - 12:00am

NADI – Fiji has deployed 400 police officers to secure some 3,400 delegates and other people attending the 52nd annual meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) this week in this city.

Four hundred cops can be considered a major deployment for Fiji, whose entire population stood at 917,887 as of yesterday (up from the 909,024 in January 2018), according to a demographics website. With fewer than a million people, I guess the country can keep accurate track of every birth and death.

The country is rolling out the red carpet for the ADB meeting, described by Fijians as the biggest international gathering they have ever hosted. It is also the first time that the ADB governors’ meeting is being held in a South Pacific island state. 

Fiji is classified as a middle-income country. Its gross domestic product per capita PPP stood at US$8,703 as of 2017, compared to the Philippines’ $2,988.95 in the same year.

Still, the ADB reportedly assisted in strengthening Fiji’s capacity to host this event, including boosting Internet connectivity at least around the main venues and accommodations. 

The Internet was still slow in my hotel, however, although the lovely view and friendly staff made up for it. Like Filipinos, Fijians take pride in their hospitality. The first word a foreigner quickly learns upon arrival is “bula” – the Fiji equivalent of the Hawaiian aloha.

About 500 volunteers, including foreign students, were welcomed by Fiji to assist in dealing with the ADB participants.

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Tourism is Fiji’s largest source of foreign exchange earnings and continues to be its fastest growing industry, topping the combined revenues from its principal exports – gold, sugar, fish, garments and water. 

Yes, water; the country takes pride in its fresh water resources. It’s safe to drink water straight from the tap in my hotel.

Since 1970 when Fiji joined the ADB, the bank has provided the country with $524.4 million in loans, $35 million in grants and $33.7 million in technical assistance. The ADB support program for Fiji has focused on expanding access to clean water and sanitation as well as improving transport infrastructure. In February 2016, the bank provided another $50 million in aid after Fiji was flattened by Tropical Cyclone Winston. The Category 5 cyclone was said to be the second most powerful in recorded history to hit the Southern Hemisphere.

A successful hosting of an event as big as the annual ADB governors’ meeting can only be good news for Fiji tourism. Supplies for the meeting are 90 percent sourced locally. New roads were built. Even hotel pillows at the meeting venues were reportedly replaced.

This city is the country’s transport hub. Landing at the international airport here, visitors are greeted by the sight of lush greenery. I don’t think the plants were merely transported there recently for the ADB event. The archipelago of 300 islands is green, and you can tell if a place is used to having clean surroundings. I doubt if there is any island here whose waters can be described as a cesspool.

It’s fitting that among the principal topics for this week’s ADB gathering is the role of tourism for sustainable development.

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Another topic in the ADB agenda is climate change. Like the Philippines, the Pacific island states are among the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Rising oceans, coral bleaching, more powerful typhoons – we’re also familiar with these problems. 

The summer heat in this city is scorching, but at least the clean ocean breeze eases the humidity. Pacific island states are finding innovative ways of coping with global warming. 

In Vanuatu, for example, locals are growing coral gardens. That’s right, corals are animals so they are capable of growth. And there are fast-growing species such as the Staghorn coral that can be “planted” on a three-strand rope, and then attached to a wire mesh bed that is submerged in shallow seawater. When the corals become established, they are transported to selected sites for further growth. Vanuatu now has several coral nurseries.

Fiji faces the added risk of its islands being inundated by a powerful tsunami triggered by an earthquake.

Like the Philippines, Fiji sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire. Last year, Fiji was rocked by a magnitude 8.2 earthquake in August, followed by a magnitude 7.9 in September. There have been several weaker quakes since then.

There were no fatalities in those two powerful quakes, but there was massive devastation. I’m not sure if the country is ahead of the Philippines in terms of earthquake resiliency. It’s a tiny state with fewer high-rises and public works infrastructure. My hotel is a tropical resort-themed single story structure that sprawls along rolling terrain from where I can easily run to open space in case of another Magnitude 8.2 earthquake.

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Even if it has a higher GDP per capita than the Philippines, Fiji is still a developing country, with tourism problems similar to ours. We were warned, for example, that while there are emergency health facilities in this city, the nearest hospital equipped to deal with a major medical problem such as a heart attack is a two-hour drive away.

For some, that may add to the raw appeal of the country. Fiji’s landscape evokes stories about Robinson Crusoe. Records of early cannibalism (Fiji used to be called the Cannibal Isles) – disputed by some quarters – add to the mystique of the archipelago.  

The airport in this city is the size of our secondary gateways, but it’s clean and efficient. Mass transportation is limited, but surely visitors don’t come here for the modern amenities and efficiency of a megacity like Tokyo.

Each country must play to its own strengths. Fiji has its natural beauty, and it’s reaping the economic benefits of luring visitors to these natural attractions. Now the challenge is making such revenue earners sustainable.

ASIAN DEVELOPMENT BANK
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