Fiji's image as a tourist paradise was tempered for a decade while the army stuck its nose (and guns) into politics. But in 2014 the country finally returned to democracy. Fiji wass looking more stable than it had for years, even as it was facing the challenges of globalisation, climate change and – of course – a struggle for international rugby glory. Just as Fiji's fortunes turned, the Category 5 Cyclone Winston arrived, causing widespread destruction. Visitors may notice residual damage to smaller villages, especially on remote islands.
In September 2014, Fiji finally held the elections that brought it back into the fold of democratic nations. A few months earlier, coup leader Commodore Voreqe 'Frank' Bainimarama stepped down from the military to contest the election. His Fiji First party swept the board, winning 32 of the 50 seats in the national parliament. Although the opposition parties called foul on certain aspects of the election, international observers certified the process – for which 84% of the electorate turned out – to be free and fair.
The election came on the back of a new constitution published in 2013. It enacted new rules to protect indigenous Fijian land, and the compulsory teaching of Fijian and Fiji-Hindi languages at primary school level, alongside English. While critics also noted that it gave the prime minister broad powers to impose a state of emergency, it also mandated the setting up of the Fiji Human Rights Commission – one of the few such bodies in the Pacific Region.
After the elections, Fiji was returned to the Commonwealth, from which is had been expelled after the 2006 coup. But Bainimarama was equally quick to show his willingness to reorient Fiji's international relations to suit the changing 21st century. Within two months of his election, he hosted the Indian prime minister and Chinese president in Fiji, and looked to strengthen Fiji's ties with their countries, as well as Asian powerhouses such as Indonesia. This went hand in hand with a cooling in relations with Australia and New Zealand. Bainimarama threatened to boycott future meetings of the regional Pacific Islands Forum unless the antipodean nations, which fund the body, were expelled. During the coup years, he had set up the rival Pacific Islands Development Forum, funded by China, to combat what he saw as colonial meddling in the region.
A Little Less Conversation
Bainimarama's plans for a new Fiji free of its old colonial ties came to a head in 2015 when his government unexpectedly announced the national flag – which has the British Union Jack in the corner – would be replaced. A public competition was held to design the new flag, and the national conversation drew sharp opinions both for and against the move. However, there was almost universal disappointment when the shortlist of finalists was published. When church leaders criticised the entries as being unworthy of representing the nation, the government suggested that there was still time to go back to the drawing board to get the process right. The new flag was due to be unveiled mid-2016.
If the flag debate provoked divisions, there is at least one constant in Fijian life that proves a great unifier: rugby. There was an immense outpouring of national pride when Fiji were crowned winners of the 2014-15 Sevens World Series, their first international title for 10 years. With Fiji currently the top-ranked Sevens side in the world, there was even more excitement when they were one of the first teams to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Locals joke that if the Fijian rugby team win the gold medal there, a month-long national holiday would probably be declared.
What Lies Beneath
Fiji faces challenges to diversifying its economy. Around 200,000 Fijians depend directly or indirectly on the sugar industry, but in 2017 EU quotas that have helped sustain sugar production were due to be abolished, and the economy is expected to take a hit. Visitor numbers are slowly growing (over 750,000 arrivals in 2015) and the closer ties to India and China include increased marketing to encourage tourists from these destinations.
At the same time, Fiji tries to prepare itself for the inevitabilities of global warming and rising sea temperatures and sea levels. Extreme weather events are becoming both more frequent and less predictable in the South Pacific. Fiji was battered by Cyclone Winston in early 2016, and rare is the speech by a Fijian politician in an international arena that doesn't draw attention to climate change in the region.
Fiji on Film
Cast Away (2000) Tom Hanks is all washed up on a desert island. Shot in Fiji.
The Blue Lagoon (1979) Tropical teen romance that made Brooke Shields – and Fiji – a movie star.
His Majesty O'Keefe (1954) Adventure film in which Yankee seadog Burt Lancaster swashbuckles his way through Fiji.
Best in Print
Kava in the Blood: A Personal & Political Memoir from the Heart of Fiji (Peter Thomson; 2008) Engaging memoir of Fiji's cultures and coups.
Getting Stoned with Savages (J Maarten Troost; 2006) Humorous travelogue centred on Fiji.
Worlds apart: A History of the Pacific Islands (Ian C Campbell; 2003) Excellent guide to Fiji's place in the Pacific.