A friend and his family recently took a trip to Fiji. He returned home with stories of decadent resorts, luscious beaches and an itinerary of leisure activities that made me think he might need a holiday to recover from his holiday.
However as I listened to him recount his travels, I kept thinking about how different my own experiences had been when I travelled to Fiji for work last year.
On the flight from Australia to Nadi, the plane is always full of lively holidaymakers looking forward to a week of vacation bliss. Passengers are getting into the spirit of their holiday destination donning lays, colourful shirts, and flip flops ready to make a beeline to the pool deck as soon as they arrive at their resort.
I have to admit, when I got off the flight, I too had been immersed in the infectious buzz of my fellow travellers.
It wasn’t until I realised I was one of a handful of business people and aid workers boarding the connecting flight to Suva that my high spirits dissipated somewhat. My flight filled with excited holidaymakers had now been replaced by a flight of people lost in thought about the realities of life in the Pacific – a very different view to the Fiji that many Australians are used to.
In Suva, the differences compared to the holiday resorts thousands of Australians travel to each year couldn’t be starker. The sheer poverty that the locals live in is astounding. A 2009 Gender Gap Index found the estimated income earned in Fiji is US$2967 a year for a woman and US$6,079 a year for a man.
As a family of three, my friend estimated he would have spent more than $9,000 on their seven-day trip to Fiji including return flights, accommodation, food, day trips and leisure activities.
The total cost of this family trip to Fiji is more than three times the annual salary of a Fijian woman and would have paid the wages of both a Fijian man and woman for an entire year. I am not for a minute suggesting that we should not be supporting tourism, as it is a major part of the Fijian economy – but I do think as tourists, we need to take responsibility for supporting the countries we visit.
While I was in Suva, I saw first-hand the poverty Fiji locals lived in and spoke to many women who too often shoulder the burden of being the sole providers in their families. In fact, right across the Pacific, trading in fresh food markets is the only opportunity for many women to work, with women representing 85 per cent of vendors.
The stories I heard time and time again from the market vendors in Suva would horrify any Australian. Every day these women face unsafe working conditions including a lack of adequate hygiene facilities such as toilets and no lighting or sewerage infrastructure.
Female vendors are subjected to aggressive tactics from market managers and are continually exposed to bullying and violence. They sleep huddled together under their stalls at night to protect themselves from sexual assault.
Women in these communities can spend up to an entire week away from their families and return home without enough money to feed their families or to send their children to school.
While the circumstances these women face are unimaginable, exacerbating this is the fact that their industry is consistently undercut by imported produce from countries like Australia. Tourists consistently request imported food fearing ‘illness’ if they eat local produce.
The women at the marketplaces told me that international visitors who travel to holiday destinations in Fiji expect unblemished produce. Resort owners therefore choose to use international suppliers, including from Australia, rather than sourcing fresh produce locally.
While there is no doubt international tourism supports the local economy, what many visitors don’t consider is that their desire for a luxurious getaway is actually under-cutting some of the struggling local businesses.
In Australia, we are always told to buy local and support local business, but this is a message often forgotten when we travel overseas and we lose sight of how our consumer choices can affect entire communities.
As many Australians return from their overseas adventures it is a timely reminder to us all to consider what we buy and who we buy from when we travel. Having a holiday and buying local is one way we can make a tangible difference to empower women and end poverty.
This is why International Women’s Day 2012 is so important. UN Women Australia is raising money to improve conditions for women in marketplaces across the Pacific and we need your help.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the many inspirational women in all our lives, however, it is also a time to consider the challenges faced by women across the world each day – sometimes purely just to survive.
International Women’s Day is celebrated across the globe on March 8th each year. This International Women’s Day UN Women Australia is helping make marketplaces safe for women in the Pacific by fundraising for UN Women’s Partners Improving Markets program.
You can lend your support to this year’s campaign by donating, buying official International Women’s Day merchandise, hosting a fundraising event, or attending one of UN Women Australia’s flagship events across Australia. For more information visit www.unwomen.org.au.
Julie McKay is the Executive Director of UN Women Australia.