Kiribati: Big fish, nice people…

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Over the last few days I’ve been in Kiribati, a collection of 33 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator.

The country comprises three island groups of the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands.  The nation’s capital, Tawara (where I am), is located in the Gilbert Islands in the west, whilst Christmas Island (or Kiritimati) is found in the Line Islands in the Far East.  Kiribati is the only country in the world that is situated in all four of the earth’s nominal hemispheres, northern, southern, eastern and western.

In 1994 the International Date Line, which separated the western and eastern island groups by 23 hours, was moved in order to make a more convenient two-hour difference between the Gilbert Islands and the other two groups.  On 31 December 2000, Kiribati was the first country in the world to see in the third millennium and Caroline Island was renamed Millennium Island to celebrate the occasion.

According to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Kiribati is the second least visited country in the world (bottom of the pile is neighbouring Tuvalu).  In total, all the islands in Kiribati welcome around 5,000 inbound visitors a year.

Consequently, it seems like an odd place to be undertaking a visitor survey!  We commenced this in April 2013, in both Tarawa, which is characterised by business and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) visitors, and Kiritimati, which tends to attract leisure tourists for fishing.

Despite the low volume of tourism in Kiribati, it is a very important sector, supporting the local economy and the population of around 100,000.  Overall, the survey found that tourists spend approaching AUS$ 11 million a year (around £5.5 million) when in Kiribati.

However, the survey wasn’t all about expenditure.  Visitor surveys generate some of their most useful content from open questions that are often asked towards the end of the interview.  In Kiribati, we asked visitors what were the highlights and disappointments of their trip, as well as how they thought tourism could be improved. 

Many of these comments provide a gold mine of information for developing tourism in the country, and I hope the relevant authorities use them to improve their product and market tourism more successfully.  There is considerable potential in Kiribati, especially in an age when tourists are seeking new and exciting destinations so they limit their chances of running into other tourists!  Indeed, the strapline that Kiribati uses is “…for travellers, not tourists”.  It is a good one, as it suitably aligns visitor expectations with what they find when arriving on the various islands. 

If Kiritimati (Christmas Island), famous for its bone fishing, is ever looking for its own strapline, then the survey captured a comment from one visitor that would work perfectly: “Big fish, nice people!”

Can Cruising Shape Overnight Tourism?

This week I’m in the Cook Islands, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the South Pacific.  15 islands make up the Cook Islands, but the two most visited are Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  They complement each other well as they are very different.  Rarotonga is mountainous with impressive peaks, lush with vegetation, whilst Aitutaki is a low-lying coral atoll with one of the most picturesque lagoons in the Pacific.

We are here starting a cruise survey, which will run for the next five months, in both Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  Not all cruise ships stop at both destinations, some just go to Rarotonga, but it will be interesting to see what the different findings are between the two destinations.

One of the challenges cruise destinations face is distinguishing themselves from other destinations where cruise ships also stop at.  If visitors remember a specific destination, they are more likely to talk about it with their friends and relatives when they get home, and more likely to come back to visit as a (potentially) more lucrative land-based overnight tourist.

We have recently completed a similar survey in Vanuatu, interviewing in the capital Port Vila, and a small island called Mystery Island, which is little more than a very picturesque sand bank right in the south of the group of islands that make up Vanua

The findings from the survey showed that whilst visitors spent a lot less on Mystery Island (which wasn’t a surprise as there is less to spend your money on there), their levels of satisfaction were much higher than in Port Vila.  It is clear that Mystery Island provides a much better advert for Vanuatu than the bustling Port Vila, where the scramble to make money from cruise visitors is highly evident.

This raises an interesting discussion, for which I don’t at present have the answer.  Might it be better to develop cruisedestinations that provide entertainment and a relaxing atmosphere for visitors at the expense of trying to make as much money as possible, thereby leaving them with the greatest desire to return as a much more lucrative overnight visitor?

Cruising in the South Pacific, in particular on cruise ships from Australia, has grown rapidly over the last few years.  It could be the ideal catalyst for growing the overnight tourism sector as well.  But destinations that leave the best lasting impression on cruise visitors will surely benefit the most.

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