Lau finally opens its doors wide to the world as its first temporary port of clearance opens this week.
The arrival of 25 upmarket yachts into Vanuabalavu today signals the start of a new era for Fiji’s most outlying islands as they embrace yachting tourism on a big scale.
Until 2010, Lau was closed to yachting for many years and was not listed on the cruising permit issued by the then Ministry of Fijian Affairs.
The Lau islands could only be visited by invitation from a village headman with the approval of the Lau Provincial Council. When the government opened up the group of islands to yachties in 2010, it put Lau on par with the rest of Fiji’s waters and islands.
The only problem was that yachts arriving from ports upwind to the east from Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa, Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands and the US had to pass through Lau to be cleared in either Savusavu or Suva.
Going back 100 to 130 nautical miles to enjoy the pristine surroundings in Lau waters was difficult against prevailing east-south-east winds and this posed a risk for yachts.
The government — after hearing a proposal by the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association’s marine operators sub-committee, under which marinas come under — agreed to open a temporary port for the yachting season at Nabavatu on Vanuabalavu.
From today, Customs, immigration, biosecurity and health will be based at the Royal Exploring Islands Yacht Squadron, located in a sheltered bay at the top of Vanuabalavu.
The yacht club — whose patron was the late king of Tonga, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, when it opened in 2003 — will also be home to some of the yacht owners who are part of the Oyster World Rally which sails into Fiji this week from Tonga.
The rally, exclusive to owners of Oyster brand yachts, started in January in Antigua and will sail on to Savusavu, Port Denarau and Musket Cove Resort before heading for Vanuatu on its way back home.
Marine operators subcommittee co-ordinator John Philp said they hoped to promote Lau as the gem in paradise to the world yachting community.
“Lau is unique, virtually untouched because it was not exposed as Yasawa has been to yacht owners who travel the world looking for the perfect environment,” he said.
“It will give the people of Lau a chance to showcase their uniqueness. This is something we have worked hard at to promote to the people of Lau, to government and to the world of yachting.”
Mr Philp said Lau would gain popularity among yachting tourists as a result of the initiative.
“This will increase not only the projected revenue for the Lau Group but also the Fiji yachting industry as a whole by opening Lau as a new attraction and making Fiji a better yachting destination,” he said.
According to the 2012 Fiji Yachting Tourism Survey, only 20 per cent of Fiji-cleared yachts visit Lau each year.
Fifty-six per cent (370 yachts) of the 662 yachts that visited Fiji last year came from ports upwind of Lau, sailing non-stop past its islands to ports of entry at Savusavu, Levuka or Suva. With a port of clearance in Lau, the survey said approximately 2000 yachting tourists would perform their clearance there and would have easy access to visit the rest group.
Mr Philp said this would open tourism potential for villagers.
In its proposal to the Lau Provincial Council and the government, the sub-commitee said its objectives are to:
* Increase the number of visiting yachts in Lau;
* Benefit the people by providing legitimate revenue streams through yachting tourism;
* Preserve the marine environment by setting up marine protected areas (MPAs);
* Strengthen iTaukei traditions by providing opportunities to display such traditions;
* Create a strict code of conduct for yachts visiting the islands; and
* Improve border security throughout the group by increased Customs presence and forming partnerships with the yachting industry, villages and other parties
With a yacht’s stay estimated at an average of 45 days in 2012, the time required to cruise around north and southern Lau, and with a daily expenditure of $182 a yacht per day, revenue derived from cruising yachts and superyachts is estimated at around $2million.
Mr Philp said this would go directly to the villages.
For this week’s rally, he estimates yachties will boost revenue in Lau by $100,000.
Under the proposal for Lau, government will be required to staff the port of entry during the yachting season from April to October and the cost of this would be offset by fees paid by yachts for inward clearance formalities.
Next week, a second rally organised by the Island Cruising Association will sail into Lau waters.
While government officials are based there, they will conduct awareness programs with villagers on border security, biosecurity and health issues.
Mr Philp said none of the businesses engaged in the yachting industry in Fiji would benefit from the Oyster Rally or the other yachts arriving into Vanubalavu between June 10 and June 20.
“We are doing all of this at our cost in order to develop Lau as a yachting tourism destination.”
– FIJI TIMES