Easing visa requirements, boosting tourism in the Pacific region

Fiji – its visa procedures are among the least restrictive in the world. Zac/Wikimedia Commons

Tourism is an important economic sector for many developing countries in the Pacific, and set to to remain so for the foreseeable future, as visitor arrivals are forecast to rise by 6% to 7% per year until 2019. This is expected to boost economic growth, particularly in tourism-dependent countries. However, according to ADB’s Pacific Economic Monitor of December 2015, growth could be boosted by easing visa requirements, simplifying customs and immigration procedures, and expanding air links. Countries also need to increase their capacity to absorb more tourists, especially during the peak season.

“Capacity is not limited to the number of rooms, food and beverage outlets, and tour operations,” the report notes. “It also includes hard infrastructure, soft local services, the service capacity of the industry, and most importantly, the capacity of local people to absorb increased numbers of tourists.” This is a genuine concern for many of the Pacific’s small and marginal island economies.

Learning from Asia’s tourism hotspots

The experience of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in removing or reducing bottlenecks in tourism facilitation through regional cooperation offers important lessons to Pacific island economies, where distances between islands are greater and transport costs are also higher, the Pacific Economic Monitor says.

The ASEAN example shows that improving connectivity and visa facilitation are important in expanding tourism. The Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity includes improving physical (e.g., roads, airports) and institutional (e.g., visa harmonization) links. The ASEAN Single Aviation Market is a key part of the plan. Under an open skies policy, airlines from member states will be allowed to fly freely throughout the ASEAN region. ASEAN also promotes intraregional tourism by offering visa-free travel for citizens of member countries.

The report suggests several ways of improving air services to and around the Pacific, which suffers from limited flight capacity and air links. These include pooling of airline resources, flight code-sharing, developing regional air service offices to streamline security and aviation compliance, increasing foreign investments in tourism facilities, and professionalizing commercial management of tourism facilities by facilitating entry of skilled people.

Easier visa procedures are crucial to attracting more tourists and in promoting multiple destinations in a region. The report notes that the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, and Vanuatu are among the least restrictive destinations in the world. The rest of the Pacific islands though, could simplify their visa processes.

“Where necessary, e-visas together with integrated data systems can prevent problems with implementing visitor-friendly visa processes. Island nations could consider cooperating to facilitate the visa process for countries that require more scrutiny or more sophisticated processes,” the report suggests.

Responsible, sustainable tourism

Any plans to expand tourism however should take into account the effects on social, cultural, and economic systems, the report says “The ability of small island environments to scale up tourism while maintaining the visitor experience and addressing the needs and concerns of local communities must be paramount in planning and decision making,” the report says.

Many ASEAN members also cooperate on developing and marketing the region as a multi-country destination with a wide range of attractions. Its strategy is to focus on six market niches: experiential, creative, adventure, extended or long stay, mass tourism, and business-related visits.

Pacific island countries can benefit from ASEAN’s strategy as it is not anchored in just increasing the number of visitors but also on the quality of tourists. For instance, targeting tourists who will stay longer and spend more in more than one destination will put less pressure on island systems. During the off-season, island destinations can focus on older travelers, who tend to have flexible schedules, to take up the slack in demand.

This article was originally published on Asian Development Bank online and reproduced here with their kind permission.