Analysis | SHIPPING

Preventing The Popping Of The Bula Bubble

Andrew Irvin is the University of the South Pacific (USP) Project Officer for the Cerulean Project at the Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport
15 Jul 2020 15:32
Preventing The Popping Of The Bula Bubble

As of June 8, New Zealand was able to confirm no active COVID-19 cases, and has moved toward the next step in economic recovery. Fiji has provided a similarly commendable response to COVID-19 in light of the global pandemic, and has been able to contain cases in the limited instances they have arisen.

However, from the perspective of domestic resources available to address public health concerns, as well as economic reliance on inbound flights and foreign exchange providing contributions to domestic GDP, Fiji and New Zealand are in profoundly different situations, despite a superficial similarity in COVID-19 containment and response.
Bula Bubble

Understanding the primary considerations for economic sustainability and success in the event of a “de-globalised” economy will be paramount to the successful implementation of a “Bula bubble.” Fiji is in a position where it may explore the opportunity to provide many of the natural resources required by its Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian neighbours.

As per 2018 figures from the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) reveal, Fiji is responsible for export values totaling; US$15.1m to Cook Islands, US$445k to FSM, US$17.9m to Kiribati, US$1.5m to the Marshall Islands, US$3.58m to Nauru, US$203k to Niue, US$815k to Palau, US$23.6m to PNG, US$26.8m to Samoa, US$15.5m to Solomon Islands, US$17.1m to Tonga, US$20.1m to Tuvalu, and US$29.7m to Vanuatu.

This equates to US$172.34m of intra-regional trade outbound from Fiji of the US$951 in total exports recorded under similar OEC methodology. Much of this trade value is re-exporting goods brought into the region through Fiji (chief among these items are refined petroleum products, of which Fiji logged US$612m in imported value in 2018.)

This diminishes the overall economic benefits to the domestic economy relative to the value of goods.


So how might Fiji ameliorate trade imbalances and vulnerability to the greater market movements in the global economy? We are currently seeing the profound negative impacts of travel restrictions and the pitfalls of heavy reliance on a single sector – tourism – for economic growth and performance.

There are three evident paths Fiji may pursue towards improved economic performance and stability in the face of variables beyond the control of Pacific Island Countries; the first is rapid diversification of goods and services provided across the Fijian economy that can be soundly verified as Fijian-grown, and Fijian-made.

Two high-value exports Fiji currently sends to other PICs are tobacco products and processed baked goods – both of which are reliant upon imported agricultural resources.

Textiles are also produced in large quantities, but the required cotton sits alongside tobacco and wheat as an example of how Fijian industrial performance relies upon agricultural output of other nations.

This illustrates how industrial, economic, and trade activities in the region are inextricably entwined with domestic agroforestry policy and productivity.

Travel focus

The intra-regional travel focus of the Bula Bubble must be strengthened by protective layers of additional economic integration to prevent it from popping in the event of another crisis that shakes the global market.

This strengthening may be best exercised in consideration of the other two paths towards improved economic performance; decarbonization and resource recovery.

Decarbonisation is the route through which the current fuel bill the region is slapped with each year can be drawn down and trade imbalances between the Pacific Island Countries and broader global market can be corrected.

Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership

The Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership is poised to deliver a paradigm shift in how maritime industry and trade around the region operate, and the US$500m for this initiative, if delivering 40 per cent emission reductions to the maritime transport sector by 2030, would pay for itself in avoided fuel costs (in Fiji alone) in under 7 years.

Resource recovery is, at the core, the goal of good waste management and tracking material flows around the region.

SPREP and PRIF are currently in the midst of conducting detailed waste audits in countries across the Pacific to identify, characterise, and quantify waste being generated.


The findings will allow each country to analyse what materials and resources are being lost along the way, either to landfills or released into the environment as pollutants. With this data, the scale should

become apparent at which materials can be collected, centralised, and remanufactured into various products needed for households, commercial operations, and public infrastructure.

Regional Recycling Hub

The Regional Recycling Hub proposed by PRIF has garnered attention from private sector, and at least US$20m in financing may be channeled into building this industry at a domestic and intra-regional level, should Fiji choose to host the facilities and operations in-country.

Between the Pacific Blue Shipping Partnership and the Regional Recycling Hub, there are exemplary opportunities for Fiji to shape and augment the economic security of the region in the coming decade for the benefit of all Pacific Islanders.

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