LOCATED on the western side of Viti Levu, Lautoka is ideally known for its reliance on the sugar industry.
With the sugar city being blessed with sunny conditions and located next to the country’s tourism hub, one would also think that Lautoka has tapped into this fast growing industry.
But in reality, the city is fighting an uphill battle to even attract a small percentage of the thousands of tourists that arrive into the country annually.
This is despite the fact that tourists arrive practically at their doorstep with the Nadi International Airport located barely a half an hours drive away.
Over the years, Lautoka has been left to pick up the scraps from the arrival of cruise vessels at the Queens Wharf – one of the country’s four international ports.
Even though dozens of vessels arrived at the port, passengers were whisked away on buses to Nadi for shopping or scheduled tours under the pretext that it has more to offer.
The few passengers that choose to stay back are left with a few attractions such as handicraft stalls and entertainment activities along with the hidden quality of being able to shop at very low prices from the variety of retail outlets found in the city.
But due to the lack of coordination and cooperation on the part of all stakeholders to grab hold of the opportunity and develop its meagre share of the cake, Lautoka stands to lose the much-needed cash brought in by passengers onboard cruise vessels.
Queens Wharf was repeatedly rated as one of the worst ports of call through passenger assessments following their visits to the facility.
As a result of the low rating, relevant authorities had to move quickly to ensure Fiji did not lose its appeal as a port of call.
The low ratings are not a surprise if you take a closer scrutiny at what Lautoka has to offer on berthing, the first sight that greets them is an unattractive derelict wharf facility without even proper toilet amenities for visitors.
Add to that, there is a strong stench from a heap of pine chips stored at a nearby enclosure and pollution from the country’s largest sugar mill located up the road.
And if that is not enough, they are confronted by a container yard filled with overgrown grass and scrap metal strewn all over the place as they leave the port area.
To really rub it in but just like icing on the cake for Nadi’s grip on the tourism market, Port Denarau was identified as an appropriate alternative destination for cruise vessels to the Queens Wharf.
The first vessel to visit Port Denarau berthed off the coast of Viti Levu on July 25 with about 2000 passengers.
Pacific Dawn, Australia’s first superliner that features 795 staterooms – 165 more than the largest hotel in Australia, Four Points Hotel by Sheraton in Sydney, signaled the beginning of a new era for tourism on Denarau Island – probably the most developed tourism destination in Fiji.
Pacific Agencies National operations manager, Bradley Bower said due to the low ratings, they found it very difficult to sell Lautoka as a destination for cruise vessels.
Mr Bower said while a normal port of call required a rating of about 85 per cent in passenger voting, Lautoka continued to receive low scores around the 40 per cent mark.
“We had to search for another port of call because we just could not sell Lautoka anymore,” he said.
“Passenger ratings had dropped so low that cruise vessels just did not want to visit the port anymore.”
Mr Bower revealed after the first call to Port Denarau two weeks ago, they forecasted the arrival of 18 cruise vessels next year.
While it might be a bit late as Denarau braces itself for a significant economic boom, Lautoka’s city fathers are determined not to let it go without a fight.
For the first time, stakeholders have come together and formed a committee – the Lautoka Cruise Vessels Committee – to revive and restore the city’s appeal as a port of call.
According to council chief executive and committee secretary, Pusp Raj, the committee was formed to “bring life to the city of Lautoka”.
Mr Raj said it was the first time that people volunteered their services to develop initiatives that would attract cruise vessels back to Lautoka.
“We are trying to arrange for meet and greet information booths on Lautoka and Fiji as a whole at the wharf,” he said.
“We are also geared on providing passengers with entertainment at the Girmit Centre and Shirley Park as well. In Shirley Park, we want to have groups presenting cultural performances for the visitors.
“We have the facilities but all we need is just a little upgrading. What does Nadi have that we don’t?
“Now that we have formed the committee, we have heard the bad news that cruise vessels will now be going to Denarau and this will definitely affect the city.
“We understand that there are some teething problems at the wharf which includes its image but then we hope to work with relevant stakeholders to attract vessels back to Lautoka for the interest of all here.
“We are appealing to all concerned to think about Lautoka City when they are organising for vessels to visit.”
While Mr Raj admitted that Lautoka did not really have anything to offer passengers onboard cruise vessels, he said they were determined to focus on Fiji’s culture.
Mr Raj said they believed not all tourists wanted to visit Fiji to see a tourism-developed destination such as Denarau.
He said the committee created for cruise vessels was determined to provide tourists or passengers on cruise vessels with a true picture of Fiji.
He said if Lautoka was to change its fate, all stakeholders had to cooperate and make necessary arrangements to ensure the city’s image was improved.
“Shopkeepers should not only wait for tourists to come into their outlets. They have to improve their own shop – frontage and interior – to attract people.”
Mr Raj said while there was no real measure for the amount of money generated during a cruise vessel visit, it generated income for all in the country and it was vital that Lautoka attracted vessels back to the Queens Wharf.