Spoiling the fun

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Fiji is clean, green and lovely, and the people are as friendly as Filipinos. But a foreign visitor’s enjoyable memories of a country can be ruined by unpleasant experiences, especially at the airport departure area.

My trip to Fiji reinforces the importance I attach to providing the best service at our gateways. Some of our Asian neighbors got this early: two of the top international airports, as rated by industry players themselves, are in this region: Singapore’s Changi and South Korea’s Incheon.

I think the quality of their airports not only indicates the level of their development but has even contributed significantly to their progress. And air connectivity is critical to the success of sustainable tourism. This was pointed out during sessions on the topic at last week’s 52nd annual Board of Governors meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Fiji’s resort city of Nadi.

The Fiji government did pull out all the stops to welcome the ADB delegates and other people who attended the gathering.

But among the souvenirs I have kept of the visit – my first to Fiji – is an Easy Lock resealable plastic bag size 18 cm by 18 cm – not the heavy-duty type for freezer use, but a thin one. Why? Because at the gate before the carry-on luggage security check at the Nadi International Airport, I was required to buy the plastic bag for FJD$1 (about P25) for my lipstick.  

The lipstick is not the liquid or gel type. I have put this type of lipstick in my carry-on bag in all my foreign travels precisely because I know it need not be discarded like certain types and amounts of liquids and gels. I have never been required, whether in the most advanced economies or in conflict-torn Afghanistan, to put such a lipstick in a plastic bag.

Except in Fiji. And it cost me P25. I told the female airport guard that it was the most expensive piece of plastic bag I have ever bought in my life. She smiled and said it was just a dollar.

But for P25, I can buy about 50 pieces of that plastic bag in Manila. I wouldn’t mind paying P25 to use an airport luggage cart (it’s free at the Nadi airport), but I resent being overcharged for that plastic bag, and being required to use it for lipstick in the first place.

It became even more galling after another Filipino traveler showed me that he was allowed to keep an aerosol spray can about six inches long plus a large assortment of liquids and gels in his carry-on, despite numerous signs on the way to the security check area that such items were prohibited.

*      *      *

The uneven application of rules can cause resentment. I was able, for example, to change my Fiji dollars to US at the counter near the baggage check-in, with only my passport and boarding pass required. But another Filipina who went to the currency exchange (same outfit) after the security check to do the same was asked for an additional document: the receipt from the foreign exchange dealer where she had bought the Fiji dollars. She no longer had it, so she wasn’t able to exchange her Fiji dollars.

If I had been required to do the same, I wouldn’t have been able to, since the Western Union outlet where I changed currency in Nadi’s main shopping street at the town center didn’t give me a receipt.

The Filipino with the aerosol spray can had a problem of his own: he and another Filipino traveler were not given boarding passes by Fiji Airways for their Manila-bound Cathay Pacific connecting flight in Hong Kong. I told them that without a boarding pass, they would likely have to go through the Hong Kong arrival area and check in again. The other Filipino managed to get his connecting flight boarding pass, but the guy with the aerosol spray did not.

Sure enough, he spent much of his transit time in Hong Kong going through the arrival process. He had to retrieve his check-in luggage and then check in again for his connecting flight.

Such hassles leave an indelible imprint on tourists.

*      *      *

With some 3,000 visitors, the ADB meeting was the largest-ever international gathering to be hosted by Fiji.

We were given a booklet, prepared by the Nadi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which provided not only a list of shops, restaurants and foreign exchange dealers in the city that are “genuine and ethical operators” but also discount promos as well as a section on “tourist rights” against touting by merchants.

The booklet encouraged tourists to report to the Tourism Police information booth cases of merchant overpricing and charging of high taxi fares without a meter.  Fijians are also prohibited from willfully giving tourists wrong information or falsifying information, forcing tourists to enter shops, blocking the path of tourists or harassing them verbally.

I read the booklet, however, only after I and another Filipina had taken a taxi that contracted our fare from our hotel to the city center. He initially asked for FJD$15, but later settled for FJD$12.

On our way back, we chanced upon another cab near the spot where we had been dropped off. The driver, who called himself “Junior of the black taxi,” used the meter, explaining that he had been fined a total of FJD$140 in recent months: twice for operating without a meter, at FJD$50 per offense, and twice for stopping to pick up his fare at spots that were not designated for it, at FJD$20 per case.

Based on the meter, we were charged FJD$10. So the guy who didn’t use his meter had overcharged us a bit; it would have been higher if we hadn’t haggled over the rate.

*      *      *

Taxi service also gives a good indication of the honesty of a society. If we want to boost tourism, we must have a system of certifying taxi companies for honest service, and informing travelers about them.

ADB president Takehiko Nakao, in his closing remarks on May 4, said sustainable tourism has become an important contributor to gross domestic product and jobs.

Nakao said about 350 million international tourists arrived in Asia and Pacific countries last year – more than double the number in 2005.

The competition for those tourists is stiff. And the winners are those who know how to pay attention to the details so that nothing spoils the fun for the traveler – such as overcharging cabbies, silly requirements and whimsical application of the rules.





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