Bula vinaka and a very good evening to you all.

I’m delighted to be in Denarau tonight for this year’s AON Excellence in Tourism Awards, where we acknowledge the outstanding contribution of service providers in the industry over the past year.

I was especially pleased to learn that this is the largest ever attendance at these awards – some 540 of you in this room tonight, a 25 per cent increase on previous years.

Part of this has been made possible by the provision of new infrastructure – the magnificent new Sheraton convention centre. And that in itself – coupled with other infrastructure improvements over the past year – is a sign of the health of the industry and a cause for great celebration.

But this record attendance also indicates something else – the enthusiasm of individual stakeholders in the industry to excel at what they do individually. And their enthusiasm for what we can all do collectively for the benefit of the Fijian economy and the wellbeing of the Fijian people.

I think we can all say that while the industry has its challenges, excellence has become a byword for the Fijian tourism industry. We are reaping the benefits of my Government’s determination over the years for a more integrated approach, a connective link between all elements of the industry to build one big team – a Team Fiji in tourism.

Brand Fiji has never been stronger. Brand Fiji has never been more recognised the world over. Whether it is Tourism Fiji, Fiji Airways, Investment Fiji, Film Fiji, Fiji Ports, Fijian Made or our Fijian Hosts program, we are all working together for the Team.

And that Team is scoring runs across the board, making a huge contribution to the Fijian economy, earning us a substantial income as a nation, and enhancing our reputation for excellence and consistency the world over.

We are like the members of an orchestra playing as one. And just let me tell you how much our performance improved last year.

In 2014, we had a total of 692,000 international visitor arrivals. We had almost 10,000 more visitors from Australia than in the previous year for a grand total of 349,000. From New Zealand, our second biggest market, we had 15,000 visitors more than the previous year – a total of 124,000. We had 6,000 more visitors from the United States. And 2,000 more from Europe.

But the big increase we are seeing is from our new markets, especially China. Last year, we had 28,000 Chinese visitors, an increase of 5,000 on 2013. But the Chinese market has grown from the smallest of beginnings, from just 4,000 visitors in 2009. So over the past six years, we have gone from 4,000 to 28,000 – a seven-fold increase.

China is where the growth is coming from and why our efforts to attract Chinese visitors are so important. Thank you Rosie Holidays and Fiji Airways for your wonderful work in bringing hundreds of new visitors into the country from Shanghai.

We are working with Fiji Airways to launch a permanent route to one of the mainland Chinese cities and to Singapore and are confident that this effort will pay even more dividends in the coming months and years.

In 2014, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan actually fell in the visitors’ table, though they are still making an important contribution to the overall numbers. But we need to be smart and we need to be adaptable. Working together, we need to identify other opportunities and go for them.

We have great hopes that the Indian middle and upper classes will start to see Fiji as a more attractive destination. We have seen a steady growth over the past few years, but the numbers from India are still relatively small – some 3,000 visitors. They are however, on average the highest spenders per head. The Minister and I agree that much more can be done to make travel from India easier and more affordable. And I’m sure that the Minister’s recent Indian Roadshow will also produce dividends.

In terms of the overall health of the industry, the total earnings from tourism increased from $1.31 billion in 2013 to $1.39 billion last year. This represents 33 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product, which means that one third of the Fijian economy is generated by tourism activity. It is also employing about 13 per cent of the total work force.

Tourism remains our biggest export earner and we must do everything we can to not only maintain that contribution, but expand it.

My Government places the highest priority on working with all of you in this room to create the best possible environment to achieve that growth. If Fiji is “Where Happiness Finds You,” then happiness for the tourism industry comes from Government and the private sector working in concert – you working as hard as you can to create happiness for others and us doing what we can to make you happy.

Ladies and Gentleman, we have seen a revolution in marketing and sales over the past few years, a streamlining of the industry to make it operate in a smarter fashion, to reach out to the world through website development to help people choose Fiji as their holiday destination.

My former Tourism Minister – the Attorney-General – stressed, in his address to you last year, the importance of connectivity between the tourism sector and what we are doing in Government to improve public infrastructure such as roads, water, electricity and airports.

We have seen overall a huge improvement in our roads, water and electricity across Fiji. –And now, we are turning our attention to improving the quality of our airports, which are generally the first and last port of call for any visitor to Fiji.

Airports Fiji Limited is going to spend $250 million to upgrade the 15 airports it operates, with a major investment in the refurbishment of Nadi Airport. We’re also planning a new terminal and runway extension in Nausori so that larger planes can service Suva and our Capital can see more of the tourist dollar.

As you all know, Government has plans to divest itself of shares in AFL because we believe that strategic partnerships with the private sector are the best way to improve efficiency and will also enhance the visitor experience with better services and infrastructure.

And of course, we will continue to acknowledge and reward those individuals in the industry who make a special effort to welcome our guests and are shining examples of genuine Fijian hospitality for the whole industry.

I want to make a special reference to Joji Veiqaravi who has been named the 2014 Fijian Host of Year for the quality of his service at Nadi Airport. Joji, it is people like you who are the most important in Team Fiji Tourism. Because one smile or act of kindness from any Fijian serving our visitors can make a lasting impression that generates happiness now and brings our nation repeat business.

With our economy growing at more than 4 per cent a year, the prospects for the industry and the economy generally have rarely been better. So whatever challenges individual tourism operators may face from time to time, the overall outlook is highly positive.

We have all witnessed the remarkable transformation and revitalization of Fiji Airways, which has never flown higher in the estimation of the travelling public. Nor further, as it reaches the potential we all believed it had, but has now been unleashed through the hard work of the management and especially the staff.

In the coming days, Fiji Airways will announce the highest profit ever achieved in the history of the airline, an amount so substantial that it establishes Fiji Airways as one of the country’s revenue icons.

It vindicates our decision to re-brand the airline to make it more of a genuine national symbol. It vindicates our decision to invest in a fleet upgrade and especially our new A330s, the fourth of which will join the fleet this year. And above all, it vindicates our confidence in the management and staff and the example they have set for Fijian industry as a whole of cooperation between management and workers.

Many people had lost faith in the airline and were convinced it was heading for extinction. Some are still arguing that Fiji doesn’t need a national airline. But we have been determined as a Government to keep Fiji Airways healthy and robust. Because we are not prepared to put the fate of our tourism industry and our nation in the hands of foreign carriers who care more about their bottom lines than our national interest.

Of course Fiji Airways has to pay its own way, but the fact is that not only is it generating unprecedented profits and bringing unprecedented numbers of visitors to our shores, those profits are being shared with the staff as a reward for their extraordinary effort in turning the airline around.

As a Government, we are also determined to keep our tourism marketing arm – Tourism Fiji – healthy and vibrant. We have maintained a consistently high level of funding for Tourism Fiji to grow our share of the international tourism dollar and are equipping it with the resources to develop new markets to complement the existing ones.

Our search for a new Chairman and CEO is well underway and their task will be to work as closely as possible with all of you to improve our overall position even further. I wish to also take this opportunity to recognize and thank Stephan Pichler for his hard work and dedication. Stephan, you certainly made an impact through your energy and enthusiasm on your short stay with us as CEO. But I am glad you will continue on the Board of Fiji Airways. We wish you all the best in your new role with Berlin Air.

Of course, one of the biggest boosts in confidence in the industry was the successful outcome of the election last September and the introduction of our first genuine democracy.

On top of our economic growth, this has produced a highly positive environment. We are also turning our minds to the task of equipping our workforce with better skills to service the tourism industry and the rest of the economy.

Our education revolution and vision we have laid out for Fiji to become a clever country, which includes free primary and secondary education, the TELS Scheme, the Toppers Scheme and now the technical colleges, are bound to improve the quality of the labour pool you can draw on as operators in the coming years.

So the long-term prospects are extremely favourable for our nation. And that confidence is being shared by local and foreign investors, our development partners, and global financial institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Finance Co-operation.

I urge you all to take advantage of the incentives my Government is offering for both new investment and re-investment in existing businesses. We have already done great things together and I am convinced that even greater opportunities lie ahead if we can continue to be bold and innovative.

I’m delighted to learn that we’ve had a record number of nominations for these awards from all over the country. And I’m especially pleased about the increase in the number of entrants from small to medium tourism operators.

A big vinaka vakalevu to the trustees and judging panel, plus the organizing committee, Tourism Fiji and the Starwood Hotels.

To the winners: Congratulations for meeting the standard of excellence we want everyone to aspire to. But to all the entrants: Thank you for the contribution you are making to the industry and to Fiji.

Our menu tonight is showcasing some of the work of Fiji’s best chefs. So enjoy the evening and here’s to an even better 2015 for Team Fiji Tourism.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.