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“Jobs and the elderly: a niche market for Fijian tourism” [The Fiji Times, 26 November 1999]

29/03/2012

Who cares that countries likeJapanandNew Zealandwill soon have very high proportions of old people, in their populations?

We should.  Or ratherFiji’s tourism and hospitality industry should.  For there is enormous potential for employment and income generation in looking after the elderly.

If we get our act together quickly, by the year 2003,Fijicitizens farewelling their migrating relatives atNadiAirport,  may be astonished to find dozens of wheelchairs waiting for passengers.

Coming off the Air Pacific Geriatric Flight 099 fromTokyomay be hundreds of elderly Japanese people. Waiting to depart on the same plane toNew Zealand, may be hundreds of elderly Kiwis.

But can we get thousands of elderly people all over the world, dreaming of retiring toFiji, when the weather in their countries turns nasty?  Just as they dream now of retiring toFloridaor the Australian Gold Coast?

Rich countries’ people are getting older

  It is a hard demographic fact that many developed countries likeJapan,Canada,United States,New Zealand andAustralia have very rapidly aging populations.

They also have “modern” and “western” values where increasingly, elderly parents end up in old peoples’ homes or retirement homes.

Children can’t or don’t want to look after them. Or the older people just don’t want to live with their children and grandchildren.

Being generally affluent, they are also willing to pay high fees for being looked after. Retirement homes in the developed countries are extremely expensive, because looking after the elderly is very labour intensive, and wages there are quite high.

When their winters set in, elderly people find their bones and muscles aching, while they are more susceptible to bugs and viruses.  They cannot get out in the fresh air.  And only a wealthy few can fly off to the warmer parts inFloridaor the Gold Coast.

EnterFiji, which has a lot to offer, on paper.

Fijians are service oriented

  One of our biggest assets in the tourism industry (as is indicated by many surveys) is the warmth, friendliness and hospitality of our tourism employees (and our people in general).  Just as some of our resorts have established an international reputation for looking after families with children, so also can we build a reputation for looking after the elderly.

Of course, employees would require special training.  But once their reputation was established, they will be an international hit, on par with our hospital nurses who are all disappearing over the horizon.

A strong financial incentive should be the much lower cost of staying in theFijiretirement homes.  Since the operating company will be facing relatively lower wages inFiji.

A good selling point for the elderly would be the fresh, clean and unpolluted air, and sunshine, in the middle of the vastPacific Ocean(did someone ask, what about the cane burning?).

With our tourism industry really taking off over the next decade, they will have multiple daily flights to all the destinations in the world, reducing their fear of isolation.

And perhaps at the end of it all, what about a cheap graveyard plot on a beautiful wind-swept mountainside?

Of course, there are many economic advantages forFiji.

Retirements homes industry can really help Fiji

  A retirement homes industry must make powerful inroads into our unemployment crisis: looking after the elderly is a very labour intensive exercise.  Ten thousand rooms for the elderly will easily require around twenty thousand workers directly, and much more through the multiplier effects.

A retirement village does not have to be in the “beach and surf” parts of the country, as the typical resort does.  It can be sited in areas (such as the hilly and sunny Nadi interior) which normally will not see any economic development, tourism, agricultural or otherwise.

A retirement homes industry does not have the typical disadvantages of the normal tourism industry.

For a start, there won’t be massive numbers of them zipping in and out, destroying our physical and cultural environment.

While the average tourist stays around 9 days, these retirees will stay for months at a time, or even the whole year. A hundred thousand “tourist days” of revenue, can be generated by the presence of only one thousand retirees.  Normal tourism would have to bring in 10,000 tourists to generate the same number of “tourist days”.

Moreover, these elderly sedentary retirees are not going to flood the rest of the country, nor are they going to encourage major increases in prostitution and spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

So what is the catch?  Why don’t we see retirement homes all over the country, if there are so many plus factors?

It won’t happen by itself: needs government initiatives especially medical services

  Unfortunately, a retirement home industry is unlikely to bloom by itself.

Firstly, the elderly need far more than just any old tourist resort.  The physical layout and design of the accommodation blocks, restaurants, lifts, ramps, the bedrooms, the toilets, showers, all need to be geared towards the needs of the elderly.

Those who have had to look after elderly parents, know all to well how a home designed for a young family, can be hell for the elderly.

Secondly, wealthy elderly are unlikely to spend long periods inFiji, unless there is a guarantee of quality and prompt medical facilities, able to cope with the typical problems of the elderly.

Private hospitals are beginning to spring up, assisted by demand from the tourism industry. This commercial demand will be significantly  boosted by the presence of retirement homes.  On a per thousand tourist basis, the elderly require significantly more medical attention than the generally healthier younger tourists.

The elderly will also require specially trained staff.   Yes, there will be the usual employees looking after the bingo games, the bowling greens, the putting and chipping, the croquet, the heated swimming pools, the wheel-chairs etc.

But there will also need to be specialist trained nurses who can cope with the day to day needs of the elderly, especially those who are relatively immobile or even bed-ridden, for instance in physiotherapy.

OurNurseTraining Schoolwould need to mount special programmes to train nurses and other para-medical staff skilled in looking after the elderly.

Government would need to develop special residential visas for those who choose to reside periodically in the retirement homes.

Not the least of the problems may be the special travelling needs of the elderly, on the international flights.   Could Air Pacific chip in (for a fee) with special flights for the geriatrics?  They might even coincide with Air Pacific’s off-peak periods?

If the Retirement Homes are built in the interior, there will also be the need to have proper tar-sealed access roads. Eighty year olds are unlikely to survive too long if they are bounced around on our typical gravel cane access roads.

And of course, reliable water, electricity and sewarage services are a must: the elderly are not tolerant of cuts in basic services.

Just looking at these few these factors alone, it is clear that tourist-oriented retirement homes are not going to appear inFijiby themselves.  The ancillary requirements are far too costly and specialised, to be initiated by any one private investor.

Government needs to facilitate a new initiative in this direction.

Need for strategic partners?

  There are potential investors, such as FNPF and Fijian Holdings.   Even Air Pacific could see this an another vertically integrating downstream activity which would further lock in profits to be made from the passengers they fly in- like their planned Denerau resort.

But our local investors will need to obtain strategic investment partners with skills in this specialist “tourism” market.

Companies with already established solid reputations in the retirement homes business inJapan,AustraliaorNew Zealand, should be attracted by the potentially high occupancy rates.

BecauseFijiis near the Equator, the elderly retirees from the North and South can play musical wheel chairs (or musical beds for some).

When the Northern folk fly in, the Southern folk fly back south.  When the Northern folk return to their homes, the Southern folk return toFiji.  And, of course, many would love to retire permanently toFiji, where they would continue to spend their savings (without taking anything out of the economy).

Religious organisations too

  On a much smaller scale, some of our large religious organisations and their associated religious orders, could experiment with the retirement homes industry, as a strategy of generating income and employment for members of their flocks.

Not only would they be well-suited to a “caring” industry, but they would have the advantage that their international connections and organisations could provide a trusted marketing network- something that no commercial organisation would have.

Fiji has comparative advantage in tourism, which will undoubtedly be an engine of economic growth for the next ten years.

The retirements home industry can be a niche industry which help us compete withBaliand Hawai, while broadening our demand base.

CanFijiafford not to explore this option?

[Appeared as “Age and geriatrics”.  The Fiji Times, 26 November 1999.]

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