In Solomon Islands, local tourism operators have also felt the impacts of it apart from other bigger operators because they depend very much on tourists coming into the country and use their services.
Owner of the Imperial Travel Services (ITS), a locally owned family inbound tour operator in Honiara has expressed what she and her family encountered after going through the last few months without their business up and running.
Ender Rence, a mother of two beautiful young daughters explained her family business (ITS) is specialised on meet and greet with tourists, be leisure or business visitors, and also arrange tours for the visitors and guests.
“What my business usually offers is we provide first-class meet and greet services with visitors at the international airport and provide them with tours whether it be leisure or business visitors.
“We also provide airport transfers both to and from the airport, collection of historical WWII tours, tropical paradise, short trips for banks/coffee/lunch, scenic tours and other customizable tours, hotel reservation/tourism logistics and lastly bird watching tours and travel advice,” she said.
But early this year the global health crisis - Coronavirus (COVID-19) came knocking and negatively hit hard on all sectors.
The tourism sector is no exception because all flights were grounded.
Ms. Rence recalled the impacts of COVID-19 on her business started when the government went on to impose a ban on normal flight schedule following the declaration of the State of Public Emergency in Solomon Islands by His Excellency the Governor-General.
She and her beloved husband Atkin Rence decided to start their new business called the Imperial Travel Services after few years working with other non-government organisation (NGOs) such as the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT) and the World Vision Solomon Islands and the National Statistics Office.
She said her husband is the ITS Operations Manager and is one standing behind the business.
She added the Imperial Travel Services started as a taxi service in 2004 base at the domestic and international airport meet, greeting, and farewelling outgoing visitors.
“Later on we decided to change that into an inbound tour operator but to be stationed in Honiara to provide transport services for the visitors and that’s how we got started,” she said.
However, as the COVID-19 outbreak was announced the movement of visitors also came to a halt.
“That’s when I start to face challenges. Since I left all my past jobs, I and my family only rely on our business for income to buy food, school fees, and other family obligations,” she added.
Ms Rence said now her business is no longer actively operating because they have no clients.
“And it really affects us since there is no income to meet the family needs.
“For six months now we are out of business which means finding food to put on the table is very hard.
“Our kids don't attend school; our vehicles are not maintained to service let lone paying up for their license.
“The homes and offices we are renting, their rental dues are long overdue for payments.
“Psychologically we are very much affected.
“If the government could seriously look into our situation that would be great,” she added.
Rence said Imperial Travel Service handles an average of 5 tourists per day around one thousand five per year.
“These tourists spend two weeks the max in the country and the benefits are vast.
“They arrived by plane, mostly tourists booked via our national flag carrier the Solomon Airlines,” she said.
She said the tourists upon arrival at the airport they were met by Imperial or transport services where they were then taken to their accommodation and welcomed by a beautiful lady or a boy with a bush lime juice.
“These are the people who are now without jobs due to the Covuid-19 impacts.
“As I can see, the impacts on COVID -19 is not only affects my business but also those I relatively worked closely with them especially the accommodation providers because that’s where they accommodate those visitors for their earnings,” he said
Ms. Rence said the local fishermen and women might also experience the same because those visitors usually love to buy their catches as well as the farmers.
She added when those visitors wanted to go on a tour, Inbound Tour Operators are the ones who usually made arrangements and organize tours for them.
After all the resource owners will also get some custom fees so the benefit goes back to resources owners as well, she added.
“The artists, weavers, craftsmen and women are also benefiting because when those visitors return home they also buy souvenirs from them and also the hotels as they would pay washing detergents and food supplies.
“Imperial Travel Service is one of the first to operate as inbound tour operators who do meet and greet in Solomon Islands.
“Now it has now grown to become a popular choice among overseas clients, regional eco-tourists and has worked closely with many international organisations that operate in the Solomon Islands,” she added.
Rence said in terms of the benefit of local inbound tour operators, there is a greater need for local tourism activities such as inbound cruising, festivals, or local events that can be organised to help stimulate the local economy.
She said the international tourist is no longer exits but let’s not forget that local tourism is alive and well.
“To understand the real definition of tourism is movement from one point to the other,” she said.
She said in 2018, Imperial Travel Service is proud to be the first to organise the first-ever Pana festival in Central Islands Province.
“During at the time, we provide transport service (Cruise ship) for more than 50 tourists to visit the festival and adventure to see the islands, the culture and to visit one of the most tourist destiny in Central Islands, the Roderick Bay,” she said.
She said the government needs to understand that they are not standing still but currently mobilising to ensure inbound tour operators continue to stimulate the local economy by creating activities.
She said with the current establishment of the Economic Stimulus Package planned by the government, it’s her hope and wishes that such assistance is also prioritizing tourism as an industry that supports the economic development of Solomon Islands.
“That can benefit businesses as her family owns and other inbound tour operators and other local tourism operators in the country,” she said.
Ms Rence said such locally owned businesses as the one she is operating needs to be prioritized. And for them, the only way to survive is the package.
She said Tourism is not like Cocca or Casava where its productivity only comes ones a year.
“Unlike Tourism when you’re properly done with all the marketing and arrangement the benefits keep flowing but for cocoa and Casave, you have to wait for three to nine months or even another year before you get what you like.
“Not only that, with this current pandemic, what will happen to the cocoa if those imported countries went on lockdown due to COVID-19?
She said in terms of food security, Solomon Islands is still ok since we have our markets available and people continue to plant food. Agriculture is natural and should not be a problem.
“The priority should be on the tourism sector as it is the most affected sector,” she said.
Ender said with regards to her business, it’s all about life in its fullest and nothing more nothing less and if the government is seriously thinking about its people, there shouldn’t be any string attached so that people can wait and wait, rather they should get the assistance they deserve as soon as possible.
By IAN M.KAUKUI