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Fiji welcomes back tourists despite Omicron threat

Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcome tourists in Nadi on December 1, 2021, as Fiji opens its borders to international travelers for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe and devastated its tourism-reliant economy.LEON LORD/AFP via Getty Images

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Fiji welcomed back its first tourists in more than 600 days on Wednesday after pushing ahead with reopening plans despite the threat posed by the newly detected omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The Pacific nation is famed for its idyllic white-sand beaches and relaxed, welcoming attitude. And it depends on the tourist dollars those features attract. Fiji's economy took one of the biggest pandemic-related hits in the world last year, declining by 19% and prompting the government to offer jobless people tools and cash to become farmers.

So it was with a sense of relief that officials greeted the first tourist flight from Sydney. More flights from Australia and the U.S. are scheduled in the coming days.

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Fiji Airways Chief Executive Andre Viljoen told media that the resumption of tourism would help reignite the economy.

“Welcome to this very momentous day," he said. "We have been waiting for this day for the past 20 months.”

He said the airline's health and safety measures had been designed to account for potential coronavirus variants, and it had put in place extra screening for omicron to ensure passengers hadn't recently visited any high-risk countries.

He said the airline experienced some cancellations in recent days following media coverage of the new variant, which was first reported in South Africa last week, but they also had re-bookings and new bookings, resulting in little overall change.

Tourism Fiji Chief Executive Brent Hill said 75,000 tourists had booked travel to the country over the next couple of months and the group had launched a campaign fronted by Australian actor Rebel Wilson.

Fiji was spared from the worst of the virus until April, when an outbreak of the delta variant took hold. The outbreak killed nearly 700 people but has now faded to about five new infections each day.

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About 64% of Fiji's population is fully vaccinated and 70% have had at least one dose, according to research from Our World in Data.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said that chefs, gardeners and wait staff had been getting back to work in recent days.

“There is a real buzz of activity," he said.

Those jobs would create economic opportunities for others as the tourism ecosystem expanded, he said.