IT’S raining a sigh of relief on this humid day, which heralds the official turf turning ceremony at the Conua Primary School Kindergarden project. And aside from providing a welcome reprieve from the mugging March heat, it’s seen as good luck. I’m in Fiji’s Sigatoka Valley, hunting and gathering stories on the community tourism projects in which the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort plays a critical role. And the new kindy is just the latest in a long line of voluntourism activities available to the resort’s guests.
This is a story about hope, community, cyclones and courage. The cyclone component was never meant to be a part of this tale, but when Mother Nature speaks, she cannot be ignored. In late February, just weeks before my visit last week, Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Fiji, killing 42 people, completely flattening more than 108 villages, leaving more than 80 schools without roofs and causing more than $1 billion damage to infrastructure and crops.
While the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort was relatively lucky, weathering only superficial damage to things such as thatching on bures and destroyed gardens, its sister property Castaway suffered more serious damage and will be closed until mid year. Castaway guests were relocated to the Outrigger and everyone was placed in lock-down for six long hours while the cyclone raged. But Winston forgot he was dealing with Fiji. And despite the destruction, it’s still open for business with Fiji rapidly launching a fearless campaign #strongerthanwinston
These are warrior people from a warrior nation and aid is flooding in from around the world. But tourists don’t have to wait for something as devastating as Winston to help Third World nations such as Fiji. Since 2010, Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort has been involved in community projects and in 2014 it introduced the concept of “voluntourism” to its guests. Under the scheme, visitors are invited to become involved in a variety of projects from coral planting on the reef to visiting local village church services.
Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort General Manager Peter Hopgood has been instrumental in driving community tourism in the Nadroga province in which the resort is located.
“In my first year as GM I visited the 168 schools in the province and gave every kid a green shopping bag to take home to their parents to be used instead of plastic bags,” Hopgood says.
“We are now three months away from the introduction of Local Government legislation banning plastic bags in the province.
“It is still so pleasing, five years on, that every time I go into town I still see the green bags. Everyone has got one.”
And there are some big projects too. Last November, the resort opened the
$128,000 village meeting and school hall bure at the Conua Primary School in the Sigatoka Valley. The project took 14 months and the assistance of 80 volunteer guests to complete. The latest project is the construction of a $51,000 Kindergarden at the school. When finished in November it will accommodate 30 children. For the first time, the kids will have outdoor playground equipment.
Perhaps one of the most crucial projects about which he is most passionate in the new $384,000 maternity ward at the Sigatoka Hospital, built by the Coral Coast Hotels Association of which Hopgood is chair. The Association includes Outrigger, Intercontinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa, Shangri-La Fijian Resort and Spa, Warwick Fiji, The Naviti Resort, and Fiji Hideaway Resort and Spa. Outrigger visitors can book a half-day tour every Tuesday and Thursday to tour the Conua School Kindergarden project, Sigatoka Maternity Ward, and local produce markets. Money raised from tour fees (Adults $64/Children $41) is used to purchase building materials.
Hopgood says while there are many areas of need in the province, the hospital was “diabolical”.
“There were no birthing facilities in this province. Because of the distance, the mortality rate was horrific,” he says.
“Health is the biggest issue in Fiji without a doubt. We do a really good job here on the Coral Coast but we can only really target our area of responsibility. You go outside the province and you see how harsh it is.
“It took us five years to build the facility, now it’s the best in all of Fiji. The reality is Fiji is still Third World but we have a very good hospital.”
The resort also enables 20 international professional eye surgeons to come to the province each year, who restore sight to between 80 and 100 people. And every year, former champion Australian swimmer Shane Gould is invited as a guest of the resort to teach village children, who have to cross the Sigatoka River to get to school, how to swim.
“It just can’t be a hand out to the community. We help those who help themselves. They have to contribute both funds and labour,” Hopgood says.
“From a tourism perspective this is what all the other resorts in the area need to do…engage and bring guests into the community.
“It’s almost like every western child should experience this.”
Fiji may be the occasional cyclone, but it is overwhelmingly warm waters, sizzling smiles, aqua oceans and white sand. These are fresh fruit, frangipani and hibiscus flower days. It’s local seafood washed down by cold beer. Champagne and sunsets. Fire dancing under crescent moons. Shuffling hermit crabs and kids who play outdoors. It’s warrior dances and sanguine smiles. Bold singing and big hearts. Humility, humanity, resilience, family, community and courage. Above all else, Fiji is courage.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort – http://www.outriggerfiji.com
The resort has established a Cyclone Appeal to assist people living in the north of the country. The bank account details are:
Account Name: Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort
Bank: Suncorp Bank; Gold Coast Business Banking Centre