Farmers are helping save Pacific Island economies as coronavirus brings tourism to a halt

The Pacific Islands have been spared some of the deadliest health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. But by taking away the tourists, the virus has dealt a huge blow to economies and jobs largely dependent on foreign visitors’ spending to stay afloat.

As of May, every destination on earth had put in place some form of travel restriction, according to the UN’s World Travel Organization, and all tourism in the Pacific has stopped as a consequence, depriving many communities of income. In Vanuatu, 70 percent of tourism jobs are estimated to have disappeared already.

In the midst of this crisis, small-scale farming has provided the region with crucial resilience. Pacific Islanders have been receiving seeds and encouraged to start their own backyard gardens to be food self-sufficient. A barter system was put in place in Fiji, so residents could keep eating a wide variety of foods. And, an unintended consequence of border closures, reliance on imported foods fell in favor of fresh, local foods, a welcome development in a region with some of the world’s highest rates of Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases.

All of this goes to show why investing in agriculture is vital and how, when integrated with tourism, it can be a powerful engine for development, supporting farmers, consumers and the environment at the same time.

For decades, agriculture had been set aside in favor of more glamorous, more lucrative jobs in the cities, including in the tourism industry. But when local agriculture and tourism work hand in hand helped by “agri-tourism” policies, domestic production can be reinforced and increased, food imports can be reduced, jobs can be created, and nutritious foods be made available to more people.

Despite tourism making up substantial portion of Pacific economies – up to 90 percent in the Cook Islands – it does not always result in improved economic opportunities for smallholder farmers. It is estimated that 60 percent of food consumed by tourists in Vanuatu