May 12, 2021 Last Updated 12:56 AM, May 11, 2021

When World's Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji first screened earlier this year, international audiences vicariously took a road less travelled. The competition, which pitted 66 teams across 671 kilometres, saw participants use a compass and map to sail, hike, climb, paddleboard and bike through Fiji’s interior and maritime regions.

Amazon Prime, which aired the series, has approximately 150 million viewers in 200 countries and Fiji’s Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism, Faiyaz Koya, said the production injected F$30.6 million (US$14.4 million) into the country. More than 200 locals were directly employed, with many others also involved.

The event saw participating villages and communities paid filming levies. Supplies and equipment such as water tanks and water purification technology, plus books for students, were also passed on to communities.

Fiji offers massive rebates to international companies that film in the country. Production companies are eligible for a 75% tax rebate calculated on total Fiji expenditure. The rebate is capped at F$15 (US$7) million. The sector generated  F$134.1 million (US$63million) from 84 productions in 2019. The generous financial incentives are the reason the US Survivor franchise returns year after year.  

But there are concerns that the Eco Challenge Fiji opportunity has not been leveraged as much as it could have. Timing and the pandemic has played a part; while the series was filmed in September 2019 it was aired almost a year later, as Fiji’s borders remain closed and international tourism ground to a complete standstill. However there also appears to have been a lack of coordination and strategic thinking about how to market the opportunity across a range of sectors.

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After paddling, hiking, sailing, biking and climbing as part of the World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji, how does it feel when you finally cross that finish line?

“I was so thrilled. I was waiting for it for a long, long time. My expectation was really high, I told my team, top ten [finish]  but I’m so glad that we crossed the line,” says Eroni Takape, a local competitor with Team Namako.

“How did it feel to cross the finish line? Absolutely thrilled but also just a profound sense of satisfaction that we did it,” says another local competitor with the Tabu Soro team, runner and paddler Anna Cowley. “There were just people dropping out all the time, so that thought was always in the back of our minds, how far can we go?”

There was also a lot of pressure on the local teams," Cowley says. “The leaders, they’re so amazing…These are professional athletes, sponsored athletes but we’d never done this before.

“And then because we are such newbies, we hadn’t been really expected to finish. But to finish and prove people wrong was really satisfying.”

All participants in the Eco Challenge Fiji had to first audition by video and submit a CV detailing their sporting experience, before being selected as part of the event. They then had to undergo strenuous training and certification regimes before competing.

“There were a few months of training before the real race,” well-known Fijian triathlete and Takape’s teammate, Petero Manoa says. “And in every discipline …there will be a weak link in almost every team. Maybe someone will be weak in cycling, maybe someone will be weak in padding, so everyone won’t be strong in everything. That’s why we need a team, so everyone is working together.”

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