Fiji: Caught in the Revolving Door

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Tourists like a place to match its postcards. When Fiji's May 2000 coup replaced images of palm-fringed beaches with a jumpy montage of riots and burning buildings, many would-be visitors went elsewhere. Planes flew to Fiji half empty; hotel workers, waiters and tour guides lost their jobs. Earnings from tourism fell by an estimated $85 million.

Authorities rushed to project a calmer image. "White sand beaches ... azure lagoons ... friendliness and hospitality," cooed the ads. Smart marketing, price-cutting-and a year of stable government-have helped erase the bad-news pictures. "Things really started picking up in mid-2001," says Dixon Seeto, general manager of the popular Naviti Resort. More than 350,000 tourists went to Fiji last year, up 20% on 2000. Next year, says Seeto, "we're looking at breaking the 1999 record" of 410,000 arrivals. For tourism, it will be as if the coup never happened.

But many locals can't shake the fear that it will happen again. As vacationers fly in, Fijians are flying out-for good. In 2001, over 6,600 emigrated, 15% more than in 1999. Mostly ethnic Indians, they took with them skills-in business, accounting, engineering, IT, teaching and medicine-that Fiji's floundering economy badly needs. And the exodus shows no sign of slowing, says University of the South Pacific economist Biman Prasad. Islanders have always been lured abroad by better prospects, he says, but Indo-Fijians are increasingly worried about racism and security: "They feel unwanted and fearful about the future."

"It's been one coup after another," laments businessman Subas Chand (three, in fact, since 1987). "And things haven't really settled down." Given the opportunity, says Chand, who recently moved to Sydney, "virtually everybody I know would go." Only skilled professionals, though, have a good chance of emigrating. "We've been inundated with inquiries," says Sydney migration agent Grant Williams, but tight migration rules mean "more want to move than can."

Continued political stability will ease the restlessness of many would-be emigrants. Economic growth will also help-and for that, tourism (which employs 1 in 6 workers and is the country's biggest income earner) is vital. If more foreigners find Fiji a great place to visit, maybe fewer locals will find it a great place to leave.