TEN YEARS ago, some travel magazines were urging us to fly to Fiji "right away" if we wanted to see that idyllic paradise in the sunny South Pacific. They predicted that the times were ominous for Fiji's future, that the "real" Fiji was fading fast, borne away by internal political strife and American money. A few writers were convinced that by 1978 Fiji woulb be another Waikiki and the native Fijian would be mistreated, frustrated and bitter.
Happily, the dire predictions were wrong. While the "real" Fiji is not exactly the Eden those travel writers described, it is still a happy place and more tranquil than many island nations.
A good deal of Fiji's charm results from the fact that there is nothing you have to do. Unless you are determined to be the active type, which is an odd thing to be on Fiji. You lie around on the beach, snorkel in the blue lagoon, admire the extraordinary coral formations. Progress is slow, but even the air of seedy neglect is appealing.
The Fiji the visitor sees today is Bali Hai island with a variety of luxury hotels, blue lagoons, palms bending over golden beaches, thatch villages and handsome and friendly islanders. The number of tourists who come to Fiji is still small and easily manageable.
Most Americans don't know where Fiji is, let alone make it their principal vacation destination. En route a traveler can get confused and fatigued due to time and date change. Fiji has been a good place to rest, offering a few refreshing days for the long-distance air traveler to Australia suffering from jet-lag hangover.
Which is too bad, in a way, because the island nation offers more unspoiled scenic variety than most others in the Pacific area. It is just as the romantic imagination conjures --over, and still free of blatant commercialism. (There isn't a hamburger, hot dog or fried chicken carry-out in all Fiji.) And it is a land to be appreciated not merely for the warm sun and restful atmosphere, but also for the complex variety of its people.
Fiji is not like any other Pacific place. Fijians were never slaves, never strangers forced to settle in a barren land. The visitor finds something that is rare in the 20th century: a native people living in their native ways, building their homes of pandanus thatch as they have always done, fishing off the reef in outriggers and retaining their splendid ceremonies for themselves -- not for tourists. A happy people contented with their lives, a situation almost unique in this anxiety-ridden world.
Most Fijians still live the traditional village life in clusters of thatched houses under the authority of hereditary chiefs. The organization of Fijian society is communal; everything is shared. To a Fijian, everything he has belongs, as a rule, to his family and good friends. To refuse one of his possessions to a friend who wanted it would be unthinkable. One realizes why most Fijians lack the desire to accumulate money and possessions, why they perfer not to work. There is no incentive for the Fijian to be industrious in the Western sense under the prevailing communal system. In addition, since the islands are tropical and the weather is usually good, plant and vegetable life is luxuriant and it's easy to stay alive with a minimum of effort.
From 1874 to 1970, Fiji was, at its own request, a British colony, and was so loyal to Britain the British press dubbed it the "colony that wanted to stay dependent." Since 1970, Fiji has been an independent parliamentary democracy, but still part of the British Commonwealth.
With independence, the Fijians' world changed a lot. In an agricultural country with limited natural resources and a rapidly expanding population, the new Fijian government had to take on the problems of an ever-increasing demand for new industries, new land settlements and the need to improve agricultural techniques. The country is struggling to find ways to provide worthwhile work for its people. The problem of creating jobs is complicated by the need to encourage the indigenous Fijian to work for his own benefit. About 10 percent of the native Fijians have left the villages for jobs in the towns, withdrawing from communal society. The Coral Coast
The 300 fertile, lime-green islands that make up Fiji are scattered over 250,000 square miles of sea. Luxury hotels have been built along the Coral Coast of Viti Levu, the largest and most important island. Huddled between the hotels are small villages where life has changed little with the passing years.
On the drive from Nadi to Suva, along the Queens Road, you see Fijian women washing the family laundry in the river with a box of detergent. Down the dusty road from a modern $5-million-dollar resort sits a tiny Indian-run store that is stocked with the bare essentials of village life: biscuits, tinned fish, tea, rice. The outward signs of a changing society crop up oddly alongside the other Fiji, with its quaint villages, ancient beliefs and dense brooding jungle that is never far from the outskirts of busy towns.
Fiji's distresses are difficult to discern. Leave it to the missionaries to tell you there is some poverty on the islands. Medical care is socialized, and the government takes care of the health and welfare problems of its people. I saw no one anywhere who looked undernourished or malnourished. There are no savage creatures, few poisonous ones and no crocodiles lurk in the swamps and rivers.
Yet complex problems grew out of Fiji's history. When the British took control, they introduced sugar cane as a cash crop. Fijians, traditionally a subsistence people, were reluctant to provide the sheer hard work required for sugar cane production. The British solved the labor problem by importing hungry, ambitious and hard-working East Indians as indentured servants. The Indians remained in Fiji, and are now third-generation, native-born citizens. In addition, recognizing the nature of Fijian society and believing that the Fijian had to be protected from himself as well as from others, the British provided strong laws to ensure that the Fijian would never be landless in his own land. Thus the Fijian owns the land he lives on. It is held in permanent trust for him and his heirs. He cannot sell the land.
The Indians, born on Fiji, loyal to Fiji, feeling Fijian, cannot buy the land they live on and work. It is easy to understand why some writers prophesized racial embroilment. However, everyone seems quietly intent on working things out calmly, without trouble, and Indians and Fijians are together in the civil service, the police force and sports.
Land is about all the Fijian does own or control. Europeans run the hotels and big businesses. Indians dominate the retail trade (especially the duty-free shops) and the road transport. The Fijian is not in business. When he works, it is usually as an employee of some one else's firm, or a laborer.
Still, the Fijians are always smiling and are probably the most hospitable people on earth. Yet, less than a hundred years ago, they were assiduously avoided. The islands remained in a kind of limbo, long after more obscure islands were charted, because the people were known as cannibals living in a network of dangerous coral reefs. The Fijians of today, if questioned, may make a good-natured comment about their ancestors, who strangled, baked and ate not only their enemies but also their friends and relatives. Religious and superstitious notions led them to believe that people arrived in the next world in the same condition in which they departed this one. Sick or elderly people were thus better off dead. They killed out of kindness. But that was the past. No Get Up and Go
In 1978, it seems ridiculous that there should have been concern that Fiji would become another Waikiki in the worst sense of the word. Many hotels are built around the periphery of Viti Levu, but the vast spaces between them, the fact that there is no central point of congregation, the nature of the people, all discourage that notion. And Fiji is far too primitive a place. Beyond the resorts and the hotels, the interior is undeveloped. There are not even adequate roads -- or any roads. Moreover, the climate does not invite a "get up and go" spirit.
Fiji says it has a thriving tourist industry, and looks increasingly to tourism for income. But it seems to me that there already are too many resort hotels in Fiji, that its geography is not conducive to profitable tourism. Fiji is nearly 6,000 miles from the West Coast of the United States. Although nearly 50,000 North Americans visited Fiji last year, a large increase from previous years, most of the hotels were nearly empty of American tourists during my recent visit.
Transpacific traffic already has begun to leapfrog over Fiji to Australia. This month Qantas discontinued its Honolulu-Fiji-Sydney service.
The most ambitious resort project in the South Seas -- Pacific Harbor -- already has cost more than $32 million and seems strangely out of place in Fiji. There is a golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., and villas that cost more than $100,000. Also, Pacific Harbor was built near Suva, the capital, on the wet side of the island. Suva gets about 200 inches of rain annually, which makes one wonder about the feasibility of placing a million-dollar golf course on perpetually soggy turf.
The money to build Pacific Harbor apparently came from a syndicate in HongKong, financed largely by funds from Arabian oil. There seems little evidence of American money on Fiji. The best hotel, The Regent, built and originally owned by Americans, has been purchased by a Japanese syndicate.
Hotel prices are about half the Tahiti rates. Food, except for fruit, is not particularly tasty.
John W. Holmes, North American representative of the Fiji Visitors Bureau, admitted that "some business will be lost" due to "the overflying of Fiji by Qantas." However, he pointed out that "Pan American and Air New Zealand have added additional service between the West Coast and Australia and New Zealand that will call at Fiji," while Continental Airlines is expected to operate "at least two flights each week to Fiji."
Holmes also indicated that mid-October to early December (and February to May) is a "quiet" season in Fiji. He said that would explain why I found hotels rather empty, and he explained that the turf was soggy at Pacific Harbor because "November-March is the rainy season." The turf "is not generally considered a real problem there on a year-round scale," he added. He said that in season Fiji receives many Australian and New Zealand tourists.
At the present time, Fiji is a tax-free haven for foreign firms. It is pictured as a coming new vacationland and crossroads, with the spectacular advantage of no direct tax for foreigners living on Fijian soil. No income tax, no company tax, no profit tax. Tax-free status of foreign investors could have a lot to do with projects such as Pacific Harbor.
Is the pattern of Fijian communal life doomed? Economists familiar with the situation believe that the Fijians' salvation lies in change. The ideas they promulgate is that the Fijian must be taught to compete for jobs in the market place with others who live in his homeland. He is now a minority in his own country. Indians make up more than 52 percent of the population.Yet, one wonders if the welfare and happiness of the Fijian will be improved if he owns a car, a radio and TV.