"Welcome To Paradise!" says flight hostess of Air Pacific, as the plane touches down at Nadi International Airport. From the moment you arrive, the word "paradise" will be continuously repeated; you will not be able to escape it for one single hour. It will scream from the advertisement billboards, from the pages of glossy airline and tourist magazines and brochures. "Have your own slice of the paradise for reasonable price". "Invest in new development: your luxury villa in Paradise". "Dine in Paradise". "Swim in Paradise". "Honeymoon in Paradise."
Just a few miles from the center of the second largest Fijian city – Lautoka – child scavengers are working in the middle of enormous garbage dump, trying to make living by separating filthy objects of at least some commercial value. They are surrounded by appalling smell, flies and desperate looking dogs. At the entrance to the dump, big billboard is warning that trespassers will be prosecuted. This spectacle is apparently not for those who came to spend thousands of dollars seeking Eden.
And "Eden" it is, but some 20 miles from Lautoka, on reclaimed land that is called Denerau Island. It used to be a backwater, full of mangroves and serene tranquility. Now you can choose from several luxury hotels: Westin, Sofitel, Sheraton, Hilton, Radisson. There is a golf course; there are tennis courts, private luxury villas, marinas, posh steak houses and cafes, souvenir shops and delicatessen. Every night, visitors are offered lavish shows consisting of traditional "meke" dances.
It goes without saying that the paradise of 21st century is not "public": it is guarded; it has its own gates and armed security personnel. One has to be a foreigner or extremely rich (quite probably corrupt) Fijian or a member of the military (whose top brasses are both rich and corrupt, making astronomical money from "peace missions" abroad, often sending active-duty or retired soldiers as mercenaries on dubious missions to the hotspots all over the world) to have an access to this exclusive club – several square miles of manicured lawns and gardens, of perfumed servants and relative safety and security.
Last week, just a few miles outside the gate, on the access road to the ‘Paradise’, a young woman was dragged by her hair to the bush and brutally raped. Poverty and frustration are fueling a culture of violence. Military government is increasingly arrogant and spiteful towards its own people and international community. The racial divide between native Fijians and Indo-Fijians is growing. Prices are rising astronomically, making Fiji one of the most expensive countries on earth.
But bright yellow catamaran are still cruising between Denerau and splendid Yasawa and Mamanuca Island Groups; sprinklers are irrigating gulf courses and hotel gardens and evening shows go on, dancers performing in front of mesmerized audience.
Fiji is witnessing new type of mass tourism, which can be described as a "tourism behind the gate", or in some places even as "tourism behind the barbed wire". In Asia and Oceania the trend is already established in the places like Indonesian Bali, India, Sri Lanka, even Samoa and Papua New Guinea.
"The entire situation is obscene", explains Joseph Veramu, head of Lautoka Campus of the University of South Pacific and the leading Fijian novelist: my ‘guide’ to local slums as well as rich estates. "We have new developments here, called ‘Fantasy Island’. There is so much poverty in Fiji, but the rich are insisting on living in their dream world, in their fake gothic and neo-Roman fantasy. Of course the people in Fiji are aware of terrible and deep injustice, but so far they are not able to organize themselves. But that’s the story of this part of the world in general."
‘Veidogo’ means ‘swamps’, but it is also a name of the new settlement outside Lautoka. Nobody knows exactly how many people live here, as there is no official census conducted in the poorest areas. There is no road connecting Veidogo with the rest of the world. During the rainy season, narrow path leading to Sireli, suburb of Lautoka, can easily change to a muddy creek. Houses are built from carton and plywood; some have metal sheets used as roofs. There is no glass in the windows.
"Most of our children don’t go to school. And in the rainy season they cannot pass through the dirt. The nearest school is 3 kilometers away", explains Ms. Nahalo, Veidogo slum dweller. "Most people here are working at the garbage dump, earning between 50 and 60 Fijian dollars a week (30 to 40 US dollars at the current exchange rate). This has to sustain entire family, with the prices constantly rising. This settlement doesn’t even have electricity and our drinking water is rationed. We are receiving no help from this – military – government. Previous government at least came here and showed some interest, but not this one."
The second largest Fijian island – Vanua Levu – is one hour by plane away from Nadi. Although the island is poor, it hosts some of the most exclusive and expensive resorts in the world. One of them, connected with the town of Savusavu by dirt road, is called "Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort". After my brief work on Vanua Levu, I decided to visit the resort and talk to the staff. Surprisingly, the place didn’t look more exclusive than the chain luxury hotels on Denerau Island, just smaller. But the room rates here start at 575 US dollars, climbing to astronomical 2.400 dollars per ‘luxury’ room per night.
"We are doing well; our occupancy is around 80%, although elsewhere in Fiji, tourism is very hard-hit", explains Greg Taylor, General Manager. "Military coup last year had almost no impact on the bookings; just a few cancellations, but nothing substantial. There are almost no Europeans and no Asians staying here. On average we have 45% Americans and 50% Australians visitors. Those coming from the US never heard about the coup. Those from Australia heard too much about it, are tired to read about it and ready to go to Fiji again."
The taxi driver who is taking me to and from Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Island Resort is not as relaxed about the situation as the general manager. He is swearing at the military and the situation his people have to endure: "It is good for the super rich. They come to my miserable town and see how dirty and poor it is. They take some snap-shots of the children on the street, of the market and dilapidated buses. Then they drive on this unpaved road, check into the luxury of the resort, close the door behind them and enjoy feeling so rich and privileged. I think they come here in order to feel the contrast. If they are rich, it makes them feel even richer in poor Fiji. If they are not rich in Australia or the US, they feel rich in Fiji, anyway. Why else they would build so many luxury and exclusive resorts on this struggling island? I heard that they have much more beautiful beaches in Australia and New Zealand and that prices there are lower. Then why here?"
It is very difficult for two worlds with such different standards of living to coexist next to each other in comfort and harmony. Tourists staying at one of the posh resorts of Fiji can easily spend in 24 hours more than entire unprivileged Fijian family in one entire year. This, naturally, creates tension, or simply leads to over-charging and cheating. And it is happening not only in Fiji, but also all over Southeast, South Asia, and South Pacific.
Latest political and consequently economic developments brought gloom and desperation to the Islands of Fiji. One has to look at the faces of ordinary men and women of Fiji to detect frustration and fear. But they are forced to or at least paid to pretend. They pretend that they are happy, that the greeting "Bula!" is genuine; that they are true content men and women of the Paradise. Because paradise is what sells. People of paradise are supposed to fit to a stereotype: they are expected to be simple, ‘friendly’, poor but content, always smiling.
"?Passengers of shipwrecked canoes were almost always inevitably killed and eaten", explains cheerfully huge billboard at Sofitel Hotel. Cannibalism, which was wiped out in Fiji by Christians only 130 years ago obviously sells. Souvenir stores are offering wooden forks that were used to torture victims and to consume human flesh. Grizzly but titillating account goes on:
"Generally, those eaten were enemies killed in war, but other categories of people (conquered people, slaves) could also be legitimately killed to acquire a ‘bokola’ at any time. This was necessary because certain regular events required human sacrifice: the construction of temples, chief’s houses and sacred canoes, or an installation rites of a chief?"
"Then, as now, the best cuts went to the chiefs and priests", comments a laconically bored to death intellectually looking hotel guest, who apparently studied cannibalism in detail. "Christians never wiped cannibalism out, anyway. They just changed the menu. The rich here don’t have to stick forks to the human body, anymore. There are different ways how to kill, destroy or consume human being."
I don’t know the answers to the questions raised by the taxi driver in Savusavu. All I am certain of is that there are more and more fences, barbed wires and gates in both Asia and Pacific. And that the gap between the rich and desperately poor is deepening at alarming speed, while we are told that everything is fine, that we should enjoy traveling, that we should all love each other and live happily and harmoniously under wise guidance of the markets and free trade.
ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist, journalist, playwright and filmmaker. Editorial Director of Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com), co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), publishing house for political fiction. His latest novel – "Point of No Return" – describes life of war correspondents and cynicism of post-colonial arrangement of the world. Andre lives in Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]