Footloose and Fancy FreeFiji is setting itself up as a vacation and property hotspot

Soft white sand beaches, crystal clear blue waters, shockingly colourful reefs, hospitable natives, amazing food … To many of us that sounds like Thailand or the Maldives, giants in resort property investment. But Fiji is starting to make waves and lure tourists, and has effectively rebranded itself for the modern vacation age.

The group of islands that make up the Republic of Fiji — over 300 of them — are located about three hours’ flight north of Auckland, making Fiji a popular destination for Australians and New Zealanders. It’s the equivalent of Mexico for Americans and Canadians, and Ibiza for Brits. But the country’s flag carrier, Air Pacific, is increasing the frequency of its routes to Hong Kong, making it infinitely easier to get there from Asia and positioning itself as a gateway operator to the rest of the South Pacific. The nation of just under one million is diverse and the culture that has resulted from the interaction of European, Asian, Polynesian and indigenous Fijian influences make for an eye-opening experience.

Fiji is still a largely rural country: most of the population still lives in small villages, and the traditions that define the country are still carried out on a day-to-day basis. That effortless “organic” lifestyle is drawing frazzled overseas tourists, and those seeking second homes are increasingly starting to look hard at Fiji. And it’s not that tricky. “From a commercial investment point of view, there are protocols that you have to go through, but apart from that it’s not much of a difficulty. The government is quite amenable to [investment] and residential is a lot easier,” explains Luke Ragg, a long time property consultant through Ragglands and Fiji Estates. Residency is granted with property purchases, however you do have to announce yourself to the taxman if the property will be rented out. “The tax department will want a piece of the pie, but it’s not impossible. It’s the kind of thing you’d be faced with anywhere else,” Ragg notes.

It’s no secret that the current prime minister, Commodore Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama has incited the ire of the Commonwealth of Nations and the Pacific Islands Forum for failing to hold elections in the wake of the 2006 coup that installed him as leader. Rumours of misconduct have flown for years but for the most part, he’s popular with the general public and has allegedly stated elections will be held in 2014. Thailand has also had its share of coup d’etats, and that hasn’t put a crimp in its tourism and business plans. That’s the hope for Fiji, and as long as it’s not Burma, travellers, and locals, don’t seem bothered. Regarding politics, potential investors, “Most people don’t want to become involved. Of course there is some opposition to it, some people are adamant about that sort of thing, but the lack of violence and such helps,” says Ragg.

Many credit Bainimarama with the country’s tourism makeover, and that may be starting to trickle down into property investment. A glance around Nadi indicates a handful of luxury residential developments on the horizon to augment the existing investment homes that dot the harbour around Denarau, which both investors and end-users are buying. “It’s a mixture of both; pretty much fifty-fifty, including in the more commercial enclaves like Denarau,” Ragg agrees. Purchasing in those large-scale developments makes paperwork a lot easier, but Ragg admits many purchasers like to steer clear of them — even though they’re springing up in greater numbers. The western and northern parts of the country are becoming minor hotbeds of construction, and more than one entire island has been purchased to create mini-towns. But small lots, less than one acre, are popular because of the freedom from rigid restrictions associated with them. “A lot more of these private sales are happening.”

So why the sudden activity? Unlike Cambodia, where scores of businesses are setting up shop, or Thailand, the grand dame of resort investment in Asia, Fiji has little in the way of foreign industry right now. As Ragg sees it, “Certainly the draw card is the ‘Fiji time’ and the relaxed attitudes, the friendliness of people here. When you move away from the central, built up areas it becomes even more pronounced. Like way up north on Viti Levu. It’s more laid back and less commercial in a lot of ways.”

Predicting Fiji’s future is a crapshoot, but the current trend in small-scale development seems to suit the country just fine. The strong Australian dollar inspired a minor boom in investments from there, echoed slightly by New Zealand in recent months. As long as Fiji holds on to what makes it, well, Fiji, the future could be bright. “There’s still quite a lot available in Fiji if you’re willing to look, and freehold [property] is a major factor. No one wants to renegotiate their leases at twice, or ten times as much as they initially paid,” Ragg sums up. “In the upper echelon, the mega-rich, are looking for places that are still relatively off the map.” Bula! to that.