AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLERS will be among the first to benefit from major developments in infrastructure and facilities as Solomon Islands continues its investment in the tourism industry.
In an exclusive interview with Traveltalk in Sydney this week, Andrew Nihopara, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Culture and Tourism Solomon Islands Government, said Australia remained their traditional market and was vital for the success of the tourism industry in his country.
“The Australian market is very important. The potential to grow the tourism sector in the Solomons will depend on getting more Australians into the islands.”
Mr Nihopara was part of the largest delegation to ever visit Australia, with Bartholomew Parapolo, the Solomon Islands Minister for Culture and Tourism, and the Chairman and CEO of Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau, Wilson Ne’e and Josefa Tuamoto, also making the trip.
The visit came as it was revealed that international visitor arrivals for May had increased with official government figures showing close to a 13 per cent increase over the same period in 2015. This keeps the country on target for a nine per cent increase across 2016. They are hoping to eventually increase international visitor numbers to 5,000 a month.
“One of the areas we are exploring at the moment is a government subsidy that would address the cost of travel to the Solomons,” Mr Nihopara revealed to Traveltalk.
“It’s still at the early stages at the moment but I’ve always told the government that we need some short term interventions to get the traffic in while focusing on the long term development to support the sector.
“We will be exploring some subsidy packages with the airlines and the government and see how practical it is to drive up the leisure market.”
Among the strategies being discussed as part of a new national tourism policy is an upgrade to roads, the airport and existing accommodation, along with incentives to major international hotel chains to expand into Solomon Islands.
Port facilities will also be upgraded with the islands expecting an increase in visits from cruise ships.
A new tourism law is likely to come into effect and the government may also consider subsidising the return of the currently suspended direct Sydney to Honiara flights.
“Seat capacity is an issue, but we also need to address things on the ground, such as the standard of accommodation and service delivery,” Mr Nihopara said.
“We always compare ourselves to other countries in terms of cost because we want to deliver value for money.
“That’s why we want to address the quality of our products on the ground and at the same time increase seat capacity. But at the moment our domestic approach in upgrading our product is more the priority now.”
Like many of their pacific neighbours, Solomon Islands have shifted focus to tourism because of the unsustainability of other traditional revenue sources, in this case forestry.
The government is now trying to get the whole country to work together to create a viable and competitive tourism industry.
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“We will take a more structured approach to engage the whole country in tourism but we are taking it one step at a time,” Mr Nihopara added.
“We are working with our existing products on the ground and as we move along, develop new products to get the numbers in to sustain the industry.”
On a rainy afternoon in Sydney, it was easy for Mr Nihopara to sell the attractions of his country, with Australian’s representing more than 40 per cent of arrivals in May.
“The weather is one good reason. We are two hours and 15 minutes from Brisbane and only about four hours from Sydney,” he said.
“It is an unexplored, untouched destination, not too crowded. Our people are also one of our strengths. A simple smile means a lot to you as a visitor. It’s our people and the cultures we hold on to so dearly.
“Hopefully we’ll get more Australians to discover what Solomon Islands have to offer.”
Images Mark Harada