Wednesday, 1 December, 2021 will go down as one of Fiji’s most historic days as it marked the reopening of the nation’s International borders to tourists after a forced two year hiatus. Karryon founder Matt Leedham was one of the lucky ones travelling to Nadi from Sydney on the first Fiji Airways (FJ) commercial flight back.
It’s difficult to summon happy feelings when your alarm goes off at 0300, and you have to get up in the dark on a seasonally cool Wednesday morning before stepping out of the front door to face torrential rain pelting down on your tired eyes.
That is unless you are about to embark on an extraordinary trip that will take you back to a unique place in the world where joy, smiles and sunshine are in abundance.
This was the momentous day that the nation of Fiji was reopening for happiness, and I was one of the lucky ones invited to fly to Nadi on the first flight back with FJ to take in the homecoming celebrations and then spend a few days back in paradise.
Here’s my story on a remarkable day for Fijians, the national airline and the wider travel and tourism industry in Fiji and beyond.
Want to know how the entire travel process works right now, to and from Fiji? Read my detailed guide here.
Arriving at Sydney International at 0330, I was surprisingly nervous.
This was my first International trip since a trans-Tasman bubble flight to Queenstown in June, and the rules and restrictions have changed significantly. Had I forgotten some of my paperwork? Had I got it right? What would the process be like now, and how long would it take?
I needn’t have worried. Arriving three hours before my 0630 departing flight with my paperwork (in a folder and backed up on my phone), including my PCR test results, insurance, vaccine certificate paperwork and booked itinerary, the ground staff quickly and efficiently went through all of my docs, ticking off their checklist and then printing out my boarding pass. It probably only took an extra five minutes or so than usual, and I was off.
Well, that was easy.
Heading towards immigration, I stopped in my tracks as the Fiji Airways aircraft crew walked past me in one long procession, impeccably decked out in their turquoise blue and brown uniforms and with faces beaming. “Bula!” they cried out. “We are so happy to be back,” said one of the crew with a frangipani flower in her hair.
The actual process of clearing immigration and x-ray was also quick and painless as, again, it’s still very quiet at the airport. The downside, however, of a quiet Sydney International airport right now is that many stores are still closed down or not open at that early hour. This included duty-free and the Qantas First lounge (currently accepting Business Class and Gold status members too), which wasn’t available that day but does infrequently open to match QFs outbound schedule, but not codeshare flights.
As such, it was a 20-minute wait for a coffee from the one open cafe with WH Smith, the only other retail option. A small detail, but certainly a stark reminder to have breakfast before you leave home and not bank on buying any last-minute electronics, gifts or duty-free. Hopefully, this will change quickly as more flights begin again.
Soon, they were calling the flight, and we were welcomed onboard our A330 while the masked up crew I’d just spoken to kicked into gear again like it was yesterday, bringing the Bula spirit and putting a smile on everyone faces as we settled into our seats.
The first flight experience
Once the doors closed and flight FJ914 began to push back, It wasn’t just the PA that was crackling as Captain Mosese Naivolasiga delivered a heartfelt thank you and explanation of how much this day meant to the people of Fiji.
“Today is a special day. It’s a new beginning, not only for you as you take your first step of your holiday, but for our nation,” he said.
“As we take our next first step to get back to normal, we are so grateful for you to be with us on this lovely morning, and as such, on behalf of a very grateful nation, we’d like to thank each and every one of you and for those that will be gracing our shores in the coming days, weeks and months as we recover, and create hope for our people.
“Not only for our nation but for those who have been affected. So on behalf of a grateful nation, please accept our sincere gratitude, and we would like to thank you in our traditional way by saying “Vinaka Vaka Levu.”
A rousing round of applause followed as we were reminded of this immense sense of occasion.
After taxiing past a gaggle of eager planespotters before taking off and flying over the city, hushed moments of contemplation set in for the 300 passengers on board, with the realisation that this was now actually happening. We were finally on our way to Fiji after almost two years.
Drinks and meals were served, chocolate cake and celebratory brownies were dished out, and people got comfy for the 3-hour 45-minute flight as the damp grey sky outside gently turned to one of sparkling blue. One passenger was sung happy birthday by the crew with many other passengers joining in. A lovely moment.
Soon, the first glimpses of the majestic outer reef came into view as we dropped altitude for a special flyover of beach resorts in Nadi and the Coral Coast.
Moments later, applause broke out on board as the A330s wheels touched down on Fijian soil, and we were welcomed with a water cannon salute as we taxied past the iconic “Welcome Home” sign on the Fiji Airways hangar.
Given Northern Queensland has been our next best tropical destination for so long (well, before the current lockdown anyway), we were a long way from there now and it felt marvellous.
The welcome home
The anticipation and excitement peaked as we stepped off the plane, walked down the aerobridge and into a scrum of smiling faces and cheering, TV crews jostling for positions and interviews, flash popping paparazzi everywhere you looked, and Fijian warriors who formed a guard of honour as we breezed past.
“Bula! Welcome home!” came the cries en-masse.
Traditional male dancers wearing straw skirts sang rousing songs. A Fijian Government delegation led by the Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama honoured our arrival before more colourful dancers energetically performed with spears and headdresses handmade from palm leaves.
There were tears, hugs, and more smiles as the Fijian military brass band played, and Tourism Fiji staff handed out gift bags as we made our way through the terminal.
I don’t think any of us on the flight could have prepared for the significance of this day for Fiji.
Stepping into the arrivals hall, an overjoyed Brent Hill, CEO of Tourism Fiji, welcomed us, saying, “It’s such an exciting day for Fiji and for our tourism industry. It’s been a long time coming! From airline to accommodation, Fiji tourism operators and related services have worked hard to ensure and uphold internationally benchmarked COVID-safety practices. The resumption of both domestic and international tourism is a credit to Fiji’s collective commitment for public safety and safe and seamless travel, coupled with our famous bula spirit!”
I’d never seen anything like it. My head was spinning at the symphony of happiness playing out in front of me. It was some welcome home and one to cherish forever.
Speaking to a proud Andre Viljoen, Fiji Airways Managing Director & CEO, he said, “Today is a very special day as we welcome back our Aussie friends. We have been working hard since March last year to prepare for this moment and ensure our guests have the safest and most enjoyable travel experience possible.”
Meanwhile, a teary Isei Tudreu, Nadi Airports CEO, said, “This is a very special moment for all of us in the aviation and tourism industry with the resumption of air travel. The spectacular welcome this morning with our warmth and hospitality echoing across the entire airport terminal has truly been a heart-warming experience for our first Fiji Airways flight.”
As we drove out of the airport for the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa in Natadola Bay, hundreds of locals lined the roads and roundabouts in Nadi.
There they stood, undeterred by the blazing midday heat, joyously waving flags and “Bula!” signs at passing cars and buses and dancing in the streets at the return on an industry that vitally represents around 40% of the nation’s GDP.
“Is this really happening?” I thought.
One hundred per cent it is. Because this is the place where genuine happiness lives, and I don’t think anyone coming to Fiji will not be touched by how quickly it finds you when you arrive.
It’s been terribly tough here for so many Fijians and the travel industry in the last 20 months, but now it’s time to put that behind them and look towards a brighter future.
In this new world we live in, it’s nice to know there’s still a place where you can find true happiness.
The bonus too is that it’s also a painlessly simple travel process to get here, being just a short hop, skip and a jump from Australia.
Matt travelled as a guest of Fiji Airways, Tourism Fiji and the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa.
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