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Fiji: Reality, brand, mirage

What do you know about Fiji?

Before getting involved with Global Voices, I knew that it was an island paradise somewhere in the South Pacific much beloved by vacationers and honeymooners and that, despite being an island nation surrounded by seawater, they export a lot of high-priced bottled water.

As I’ve followed Michael Hartsell’s reporting on Fiji on Global Voices, I’ve gotten a very different impression of the nation. The tensions between ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians have divided the nation politically, leading to rewritings of the constitution and severe government instability. Fiji has had four (or four and a half, depending on who’s counting) military coups since 1987 and is currently under the thumb of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who’s taken power three times since 2000, twice via military coup. (Earlier this year, the Fijian supreme court declared his 2006 coup illegal. Bainimarama stepped down from his post of interim Prime Minister for 24 hours, while the President abrogated the constitution and fired the judiciary, then immediately reappointed him as Prime Minister. That’s the half coup, for those of you counting. Confused? This might help.) Fiji has been expelled from the Commonwealth, condemned by Amnesty International for arresting opposition politicians, church leaders and journalists, and today, severed diplomatic relations with Australia and New Zealand, its two largest and most powerful neighbors.

(This last one is a doozy. The row with Australia and New Zealand concerns Bainimarama’s plan to hire Sri Lankan judges to replace the justices fired earlier this year, when the supreme court was liquidated. Australia and New Zealand have had travel bans against senior members of Bainimarama’s government in place, and when the Sri Lankan judges travelled through Australia to Fiji, they were informed that they would be subject to the same bans once they took their positions in the Fijian government. Bainimarama argues that Australia and New Zealand had banned transit; Australian authorities say they merely informed the Sri Lankan judges that they’d not be able to return through Australia once joining the coup government. Given the importance of Australia and New Zealand as trading partners, it’s hard to imagine this ending well for Fiji.)

I’ve been fascinated for years with the concept of “nation branding”, an idea promoted by Simon Anholt, a UK-based researcher and consultant. I heard Anholt on a BBC broadcast years back making the salient point that Ethiopia has a great brand for recieving famine aid (even if that’s an outdated understanding of the country) and a lousy brand for tourism. It’s an idea I’ve found useful in understanding some of the challenges that African nations face in encouraging tourism and foreign investment – if everyone thinks your country is impoverished and ill-governed, who’s going to want to visit on vacation or buy shares on the local stock exchange? Part of the challenge of rebuilding Africa is rebuilding an image and narrative of the continent that shows it as open for business. (See “Africa’s a continent, Not a Crisis” for more of this line of thought.)

Fiji is somehow blessed with a nation-brand that many African nations would kill for. Despite the 2006 coup, Fijian tourism brought in nearly $500 million in 2008, 24% of GDP, more than the nation earned from the next seven industries combined. Major international hotel chains have large properties in Fiji, and air travel patterns suggest the importance of tourism – international flights land in Nadi, the tourist capital, not the governmental capital Suva, which is served by a prop plane from Nadi. Fiji Water is now the leading imported bottled water in the US, and represents 20% of Fijian exports and 3% of GDP, benefitting from and reinforcing an image of Fiji as an unspoiled tropical paradise.

Defending the brand of Fiji has become a major political cause for the Bainimarama government. In April, after expelling a number of foreign journalists, the government instructed journalists that they needed to begin practicing “the journalism of hope“. Some journalists responded by filling local newspapers with non-news – the Fiji Daily Post ran stories titled “Man Gets on Bus” and “Weather to Improve Soon”. Bloggers have filled in the gaps, taking great risks to publish ferocious political commentary, usually under psuedonyms.

Anna Lenzer, a journalist for Mother Jones, found out just how serious the Bainimarama government was about nation brand when she came to Suva to report on the various ironies that surround Fiji water – a green-branded product with an immense carbon footprint, a premium bottled water produced in a community with no drinkable tap water, a dominant player in the local economy with a stated disinterest in Fijian politics. She was detained and questioned after sending an email from a cybercafe with links to articles critical of the government, and fled the country with the help of the US Embassy.

Her article, “Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle” is an excellent introduction to the strange phenomenon that is Fiji water, though I think she lays too much blame on the Fiji Water company and not enough on the military government and the circumstances that led to the recent coups. It’s worth reading Fiji Waters’s response, even if it’s something of a cop-out – I think Lenzer is right to point out that it’s hard for the company to position itself as environmentally and socially responsible while working with a repressive government. And I can’t argue with this line: “The reality of Fiji, the country, has been eclipsed by the glistening brand of Fiji, the water.”

Fiji may be a case study in eclipsing a complex reality with a shiny brand:

– Start with a country with low media attention.

– Invest massively in tourism, presenting visitors with a reality that’s not wholly, though mostly, divorced from ordinary life in the country. (All tourist destinations do this to one extent or another. Fiji appears to have embraced this strategy thoroughly, providing a string of five-star compounds insulated from the outside. This blog post complains that, at some resorts “Fijian society is reduced to over-chlorinated swimming pools and overpriced palm hats which fall apart in the departure lounge of Nadi Airport.” At the same time, the author wonders why service at these resorts seems so poor these past few months, and worries that, “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’.”)

– Build or embrace an export that reinforces your brand image.

Surpress contrary media voices via censorship or exile.

What would it take for circumstances on the ground in Fiji to damage brand Fiji? What would it take for Fiji to move beyond this mirage and build this vision of a nation in reality?

7 thoughts on “Fiji: Reality, brand, mirage”

  1. Ethan,

    Remember your interview with “On The Media” about the echo chamber and homophily. Seems that your post on brand Fiji is guilty of the same sins.
    Maybe you should leave blogging on Fiji to bonafide bridge bloggers and you can settle with Kenyan wedding rituals!

    Also regarding the media freedom excuse in Fiji, Cafe Pacific’s latest post, will bring you up to speed because you’re information is on dial-up mode.

  2. Thanks for the pushback, laminar_flow. In fairness, I am citing several Fijian bridgebloggers in this post. They’ve got a different point of view than you do, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that I’m ignoring Fijian voices. You’re correct in saying that I’m not pointing to all Fijian voices, and I’m grateful for you taking the time to point to a blog that challenges the assertions I’m making about media freedom here. I would also note that organizations like Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International and Human Right Watch have expressed serious concerns about press restrictions in Fiji.

  3. Jefferson I think we're lost

    Because I have lived in parts of Africa and Fiji (and follow both bloggers), I feel compelled to respond. Yes, many African countries would love to have Fiji’s brand. At bottom, Fiji does well because it is a middle-income country that has good infrastructure and a fairly well-educated population.

    Of course, Fiji has problems. Unlike most African countries, Fiji needs to figure out what to do with the traditional power structures of the (Methodist) Church, the Land and the Chiefly system. My feeling is the problem lies with the chiefs, who were given too much of a say in national politics in a country where 40 percent of the population is not ethnic Fijian.

    Going through this process will be particularly painful. That’s why the present government’s distaste for a free press (and debate) is especially dangerous; especially in light of the fact that the government is stalling any “reforms” for the next few years.

    That doesn’t make this government evil. Fiji lives under military power and its government rules by fiat, but as far as dictatorships goes, this is fairly benign. (I’m setting the bar low, I understand.)

    The question in Fiji — much like in other multi-ethnic states that have gone bad — is who is leading whom? Is leadership responsible for pushing people towards ethnic tensions? Or, are people more than willing to be lead to hate — and even worse?

    As Bill Berkeley persuasively argued in the Graves Are Not Yet Full, leaders were to blame in five of the world’s most horrific inter-ethnic nightmares. Things are nowhere near as bad in Fiji, but if I had to find blame for political instability and discriminatory governments, I’d look at the country’s leaders. By saying that, though, I would also have to point a finger at Fiji’s military. This almost wholly ethnic Fijian institution has had more than its share of the power.

    With respects to Laminar_Flow and the other good people who watched in horror as the previous ethnic Fijian government ruled for the benefit of ethnic Fijian society: I don’t think Fiji will move forward without Bainimarama moving aside and (at the very least) appointing a civilian government. All talk about political modernization and inclusivity is moot with a military leader at the helm.

  4. Thanks for this post Ethan – its great to see someone from outside the Oceania region taking an interest in what is going on in Fiji. Your point about brand Fiji an interesting one – in Australia, the Fijian brand is very different. Its much more caught up in coups, cheap accommodation and cheap flights. The ‘prestige’ bit of it doesn’t really wash here. Interesting that despite the global reach of media and PR campaigns the actual experience of governments (ie our government is a lot more involved in Fiji than the US is)and citizens (lots of Aussie expats) informs the brand here, and the lack of it allows the ‘other’ brand to flourish in the US. I think the main problem with Fiji Water is probably the same as with most other globalised green brands – anything involving that many air miles is going to be contradictory from the start, whether the military government exists or not.
    I think the continued tourist numbers despite the coups are mainly due to the fact that it takes a lot to put Australians off a good cheap holiday… not much to do with the government’s ham-fisted attempts..Its the discounts (which are killing any profits locals might make) and cheap airline tix which are bringing people in and will continue to until something visibly bad – not just midnight beatings – happens.

    Also, the change in contribution to GDP from sugar (used to be no 1) to tourism and remittances from military folk serving overseas (now 1 and 2) has lot to do with the underlying politics of this coup. Ethnic Indians benefit more from sugar – ethnic Fijians benefit more from land/military remittances.

    Apologies for the long comment.

  5. What would it take for circumstances on the ground in Fiji to damage brand Fiji? What would it take for Fiji to move beyond this mirage and build this vision of a nation in reality?

  6. think Fiji will move forward without Bainimarama moving aside and (at the very least) appointing a civilian government. All talk about political modernization and inclusivity is moot with a military leader at the helm.

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