BY BEN BILUA
MOST tourism operators are looking forward to international borders reopening, but are they ready?
Like other tourism operators in the region, local operators have felt the brunt of COVID-19.
In Western Province, Agnes Getaway Lodge (Munda) and Kesoko Inn (Noro) have to dig deep to keep their doors open during the pandemic.
The closure of international borders in April 2020 and five months of domestic travels restriction have taken a toll on these local operators.
They were tested financially and mentally over the past 29 months but their resilience to get back to business is tremendous.
Vincent Mayamaya, the General Manager of Agnes Getaway Lodge said the closure of international borders was a huge blow to Agnes Getaway lodge as it depended almost entirely on international tourists.
Agnes Getaway Lodge was lucky to have signed up for the âUmi Tugeda Holidayâ travel bubble â a local tourism bubbled launched in 2022 which aimed at boosting the countryâs domestic tourism numbers, Mayamaya said.
âWe focus on the domestic market for the past months. We worked closely with Solomon Airlines through the âUmi Holidayâ package and we also work closely with Dive Munda to accommodate local divers who were part of a diving training organized by Dive Munda and former Miss Solomon Islands Gladys Habu.
âThis was our lifeline and it gives little justice to our financial pressure,â Mayamaya said.
For many tourism businesses in Western Province the low point of their COVID-19 journey arrived with domestic travel restrictions.
âThings (were) getting worse and we found ourselves in a situation where few local operators nearly lost (their) business,â Mayamaya said.
Francina Veo of Kesoko Inn shared similar sentiment saying that international border restrictions followed by COVID-19 outbreak nearly put Kesoko Inn out of business.
Kesoko was not part of the Umi Tugeda Holiday Bubble and that contributed to its challenges.
Veo had to lay off some staff and halt Kesoko Innâs operations until further notice.
âWe see our bookings reached rock bottom during the height of COVID-19 in Noro. Income was really bad that we faced an uphill challenge trying to serve our business.
âIt has been five months and we are still struggling,â Ms. Veo said.
Both operators said that they have missed out on the governmentâs stimulus package.
Strategies to serve business
The most difficult challenge for both operators was to decide whether to let go of their employees to ensure survival of their company or to keep their employees and risk bankruptcy.
At Agnes Getaway Lodge, employees were given an opportunity to continue their duties.
Mayamaya said he decided to decrease employees working hours, separated his staffs into two groups and allocated separate shifts to each group.
âI see all my employees as family, so instead of terminating my employees, I put them in groups and they rotate every fortnight. Each group took turn every fortnight just to give a change to earn a living during this difficult situation,â he said.
This was not the case for Kesoko Inn.
Veo said Kesoko Inn management had no choice but to lay off seven of its staff.
âKesoko Inn was unable to generate enough revenue and its becoming difficult to pay employeesâ salaries so management decided that the best approach was to save the business.
âOnly family members volunteer to keep the operation going.
âWe felt sorry for our staffs but do not have other options,â she said.
Ms. Veo said Kesoko management was planning to reinstate the staff when operation is back to normal but the staff could not wait and have secured jobs elsewhere.
Now Kesoko will have to scout for new recruits when business is back to normal.
Preparation towards border reopening
Solomon Islands will open its international border next month and Agnes Getaway Lodge and Kesoko Inn are more than ready.
They have not just survived -they have renovated and are thinking of new experiences to offer tourists..
Agnes Getaway Lodge has made refurbishments on one of its bars, upgraded its jetty, constructed new double bed rooms, improved its existing bungalows and redesigned its corridors.
Mayamaya said one of Agnes Getaway Lodgeâs buildings has been transformed into an Isolation Center for COVID related cases.
His staff have undergone series of Standard COVID-19 Extra-Care Trainings which was carried out by the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Health.
âIâm confident that my staffs have obtained relevant knowledge and skills on how to handle a situation where a guest is positive with COVID-19,â he said.
Mayamaya further stated that Agnes Getaway Lodge has found a new product that tourists would be interested to see – a special tour to visit until-now hidden World War II sites in parts of Western Province.
Myamaya believes the World War II relics are museum pieces that are important for history and research.
Kesoko Inn has also made huge transformation to its rooms and its staff have attended similar trainings on COVID-19 Safety Standards.
Ms. Veo said a room has been allocated for suspected COVID-19 cases, to keep the local community and other guests safe.
âSince the outbreak, we encourage guests to swab and tested negative before booking and we will be encouraging our future guest to follow the procedure.
âWe have strict standard procedures when comes to COVID-19 and we hope to handle any situation and help our guests,â she said.
Ms. Veo said she is confident her staff are ready to handle circumstances when a guest gets sick.
âWe have gone through bit and pieces of the process to make sure COVID-19 Standard Procedures are satisfied during our trainings, so Iâm confident that we can handle any situation,â she adds.
Is Solomon Islands re-opening too late for its tourism industry?
With the July 2nd re-opening of Solomon Islands borders just days away, the tourism industry faces its biggest test yet â how to attract back tourists who have many other choices of destination.
Fiji and the Cook Islands have been open for months and other tropical destinations such as Bali and Thailand are also back in business.
According to Mayamaya, the decision to open the international borders is not too late.
âWe still have time. I think itâs good that we open our borders late because it helps us to learn from our neighboring countries on how they handle the situation,â he said.
Mayamaya said Munda is a primary diving hotspot in Solomon Islands but – so far – few international tourists have contacted Agnes Getaway Lodge for bookings.
Expectations are high but the future still uncertain.
âI hope tourism industry will quickly pick up and return to normal, time will tell,â Mayamaya said
âFor now, we are waiting to welcome tourists back in Munda and explore the richness of Western Province.