By Kalinga Seneviratne
LEVUKA, Fiji (IDN) — This rugged island of Ovalau covered with greenery is only 13 km long and 10 km wide and is situated off the eastern coast of the main Fijian island of Viti Levu. Its only town, the port settlement of Levuka with about 1500 population is Fiji’s only UNESCO Heritage Listed site and a local community leader says that it could well be de-listed if the Fijian government does not pay enough attention to its heritage value.
Retired local schoolteacher and former CEO of Levuka Town Council Suliana Sandys is critical of the Fijian government for not giving enough priority to developing heritage and cultural tourism in Levuka.
“Heritage doesn’t have prominence in the government of the day. They have told that to our face and shown in the way they conduct affairs of the local government here,” she told IDN, pointing out a new market that is being built here that does not incorporate any of the elements of the local architecture. “Government says if there are open spaces and business person has money, why not develop it?”
A few years ago, when a businessman from Suva wanted to raze an old building and build a flashy nightclub, his plans were fiercely opposed by the local Heritage Society and quashed by the Town Council. But Suliana says that they are not opposed to tourism “we don’t want tourism that will bring vice here”.
Luveka’s exceptional architecture | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne >
Levuka’s natural harbour and anchorage attracted European sailors who first arrived here in the early 1830s. This was Fiji’s first capital after the island was ceded to the British by the local chiefs in 1874. Along the beachfront adjoining the harbour developed Fiji’s first city where shops, houses, salons, bars, and churches were built.
Today the bars and salons are gone as it is no more a centre of maritime trade in the region after the 19th-century whaling operations, the cotton boom of the 1860s fell, and the copra trade stopped in the 1950s.
Today, a Japanese-built fish processing plant, now owned by the Fiji government provides most of the employment for the locals, especially young women.
The city could not expand outwards from the beachfront because of the mountainous cliff terrain of the island. Thus, the capital of Fiji was moved to Suva on Viti Levu Island in 1881. The original shop-front buildings, churches and wooden houses on stills with their wooden windows opening upwards still stands. The locals have proudly preserved their city, protecting the town’s historic value.
The Levuka Historical Port Town was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013 and it is protected under the Fiji World Heritage Decree 2013. Listing was the culmination of at least 36 years of effort by various domestic and international stakeholders. It remains Fiji’s only World Heritage site, which UNESCO describes as “a rare example of a late 19th-century colonial port town that was influenced in its development by the indigenous community”.
Increased prospects for tourism have been seen as a key justification for listing, alongside the inherent heritage protection values. The Fiji Times, a newspaper still published, was started here in 1869. The town was also the site of Fiji’s first bank, post office, school, and town hall.
Suliana explained that with the help of a Japanese foundation they had organized workshops with local communities before the pandemic to develop a plan for heritage and cultural tourism to the island.
“We got people from every village to come for the workshops. Tell us their stories, tell us what they have that tourists would like to see. We did a leaflet done with locals from villages to promote tourism, telling their history and all that. We had tour guides trained to take people to their own respective villages. We planned trails to climb up the mountains, and hear the stories of the locals. The Department of Heritage just pushed it aside. They didn’t want to promote it.”
IDN contacted the Department of Heritage and Arts to find out why they do not support heritage tourism to Levuka, but we did not get a response, even though they promised to do so. But, the Fiji government’s global tourism marketing arm, Tourism Fiji’s CEO Brent Hill told IDN that they are keen to promote Levuka as a cultural tourism site and they would bring it to the attention of the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Tourism.
Luveka’s historic coast | Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne
“Currently we promote travel to Levuka as part of Captain Cook cruises as they do a trip to the island,” he said, adding that it is easier for them to promote a site that already has infrastructure and tours up and running. “Sending tourists to this historic, quaint town would mean it needs to have the right supporting infrastructure—like accommodation.”
There are only three small hotels here, and the Royal Hotel, reportedly the oldest continually operating hotel in the Pacific, is wonderfully intact with its 19th-century interior. “Levuka has always been a special destination for overseas visitors because of its people and history,” Nicolette Yoshita, co-manager of Royal Hotel told IDN. “When Levuka lost the copra trade this is what kept Levuka going. Visitor arrivals came in groups, then budget travellers and in the 80s, 90s mainly backpackers”.
Yoshita explained that all-inclusive packages could be offered with local entertainment in the evenings. “This is what we did before Levuka was closed down (for Covid). We had groups come in (through a travel agency) with guests accommodated at the Hotel, Ovalau Club & Private homes. Income from these groups helped keep Levuka alive,” she said. “The key is to have it run professionally and it’s where the Dept of Heritage and Arts could come in as they have the staff and an office in Levuka”.
Because of its UNESCO status, Levuka attracts many Fijian tourists as it is only about an hour’s ferry ride from the mainland. However, a local shopkeeper told IDN that the old shopfronts need urgent repairs to keep the buildings intact. “Very difficult to maintain our buildings what the British built is expensive to repair and no funds from heritage people.”
“This place has a lot of water, and we have five rivers flowing from the hills. There’s a lot of food we can grow here—cassava, yam, vegetables, chillies, pumpkins, breadfruit, coconut, mangoes—we can live on local produce,” local taxi driver Raj told IDN while driving me around the islands in bumpy roads.
The tour took about four hours including a visit to Lovoni—the only village in the interior that is on a valley created by an old volcano—and a dip in the crystal clear waters of a narrow river flowing down from the mountains. “For tourism to develop, local roads need repair …they were badly damaged by hurricane Winston five years ago,” he added.
Raj is a descendant of Indian indentured labour brought to the island by the British. The many villages around the island have interesting histories of European colonial conquests that paid scant respect to land rights. There are also many interesting stories of the communities’ survival, their cultural habits, and traditions that adventurous travellers may find attractive to experience, along with treks into the mountains and rainforests and dips in pristine rivers flowing across the islands.
Suliana believes that sustainable heritage tourism could be developed here if the government sends proper officials to work with the community to develop it. “It is local (Fijian) tourism that is boosting up this town,” she says. “I’m hoping we will not lose the heritage listing people have fought so hard to maintain. I hope they employ people in the heritage department who have some heritage background. Not just seasonal government workers who come and go without any passion for heritage.”
Hill says that Tourism Fiji will be happy to help Levuka to develop foreign tourist traffic to the island. “I think a bigger conversation needs to take place with several stakeholders and government …. if Suliana is willing to have a Talanoa (participatory dialogue) session with our Tourism Fiji team, I’m sure we can work out a way to better support or promote Levuka,” he told IDN. [IDN-InDepthNews — 12 June 2022]
Photo: Levuka’s historic street. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne
IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.
This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 12, 2022.
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