Overview: Ports of Fiji
It would be hard to find any aspect of our lives in Fiji that is not affected in some way by Fiji Ports. The evolution of Fiji as a nation has always been intricately entwined with the evolution of our ports.
There are six major ports distributed around the main islands of Fiji (Viti Levu and Vanua Levu) and the smaller outer islands; these are: Port of Suva, Port of Lautoka, Port of Wairiki, Port of Malau, Port of Levuka, and Port of Rotuma.
The following article was first printed in the Fiji Ports Corporation Limited 2017 Annual Report. Our team has embellished the article with upscaled images and expanded upon several of the key terms and milestones, allowing you to gain a greater grasp of the magnitude of the importance these individual ports of entry have had on the social and economic development of this great nation.
The History of Fiji Ports
From the early 1800’s the ports in Fiji began to evolve, with goods and services arriving from overseas and products like Sea Cucumbers (bech-de-mer), sandalwood and copra being exported.
In 1816, the wooden Queens Wharf was built at the Port of Levuka.
In 1849, the Port of Suva was established, with the completion of the Kings Wharf taking place in 1912.
In 1900, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company wharf was built at Lautoka (Port of Lautoka), which was then declared a Port of Entry.
With the opening of these gateways into Fiji, and as the nation became more and more sophisticated, the demand for products grew and diversified. The correlation between the development of the Ports of Entry and Fiji’s economic growth was established.
The crucial role played by our ports was recognised by Government and in 1976 the first Ports Authority of Fiji was formed. This has since evolved into today’s modern company, Fiji Ports Corporation Limited (FPCL), still known colloquially as Fiji Ports.
Ovalau Island Levuka (First Port of Entry)
On Ovalau Island, Levuka developed as the first Port of Entry in Fiji, offering safe anchorage inside the reef for bech de mer, sandalwood and copra trading vessels. The township itself had a well-earned reputation as wild and unruly in those early days until a consistent rule of law was introduced with the signing of the Deed of Cession that formally transferred Fiji as a Crown Colony to Great Britain on the 10th October 1874.
In 1875, the 6th Company of the British Royal Engineers arrived in the new capital to upgrade the town’s infrastructure, including the completion of the Levuka Queens Wharf in 1880.
Following the turbulent early days on the beaches of Levuka, the 1800’s were dominated by the export crops of sugar and copra that brought prosperity to the Port town of Levuka. Cotton also enjoyed a short-lived heyday as a ‘boom’ crop as production was disrupted in the southern states of America during that country’s Civil War, but production in Fiji could not be sustained.
Levuka and its Port flourished and was the site of many firsts. The site of Fiji’s first capital following annexation, it also held Fiji’s first local Government, from 1887; Levuka Public School, the first public school, was built in 1879; the first bank, the Bank of New Zealand, was established in 1876, and the nation’s first newspaper began in 1869.
All of these developments depended upon the import of goods, building materials and equipment. The physical limitations to Levuka’s urban development saw the nation’s Capital move from Levuka to Suva in 1882, with the Port of Suva becoming Fiji’s main port of entry.
New Capital Suva and main port of entry (Port of Suva)
In 1881, the land reclamation work opposite Pier Street saw the first major harbour work in Suva, with the building of the then Queens Wharf
In the 1880’s there was easy access by road and horse drawn tram or trolley line from the wharf to the general area of Thomson Street, the main waterfront street throughout the 1880’s, which was also the site of the Thomson and Renwick businesses.
Tramways or railways have been in use in Fiji since 1876, with horse-drawn vehicles serving the sugar cane industry and, from the early 1800’s, the transportation of cargo, to and from the wharves in both Suva and Levuka up until the end of the 1930’s. Over time in the sugar industry, the horse-drawn engines became steam-driven, and eventually, diesel powered, with tracks and engines being imported.
Diverse range of Imports
With Fiji’s 1891 census showing a total population of 121,180, at the same time a diverse range of goods was making its way across the sea to Fiji’s ports.
Imports needed for the developing sugar industry, construction, and infrastructure development and basic foodstuffs such as meats, rice, breadstuffs and biscuits, showed a steady increase since 1888. The Colonial Annual Report for 1891 noted that over the preceding four years, the principal import increases were in the items of drapery, hardware, livestock, galvanized iron and goods, and timber. These were accompanied by a growing demand for luxury items, with increasing imports of items such as furniture and woodenware, jewellery, wines and musical instruments.
Exports also increased from 1890 to 1891, with increases in the total tonnage of sugar and copra, and the number of banana bunches leaving Fiji’s ports.
The first car arrived in Fiji in January 1905, from Vancouver, Canada, brought here by its owner Mr Glidden, for a 10-day tour. By 1914, eight cars had been imported by private individuals and companies. Compare this with the 128,000 registered motor vehicles in 2003 and the number of vehicles being imported today.
Trading companies developed in direct response to the business opportunities made possible by the development of Fiji’s ports. Burns Philp was established in 1833, buying trochus shells for the button industry, beche-der-mer for export to China and copra for use in Europe as an edible fat. Between the two World Wars, Burns Philp built up a major shipping line, retail stores, wholesaling, car sales and inter-island shipping interests.
Likewise, Morris Hedstrom was founded in 1902, taking over a business in Levuka owned by Miller Hedy that had been started by R. Bentley, and then in Suva, taking over the business begun by Arthur Joske. Then in 1914, Carpenters was established, taking over Brown and Joske in 1936 and Morris Hedstrom in 1956.
With credit provided by the Bank of New Zealand and the Bank of New South Wales, these trading companies dominated in the marketing and distribution of goods as a result of the fast growing sugar industry, with Fiji surpassing the West Indies as producer in 1913.
Fiji’s capacity to import rose tenfold between 1881 and 1913, from £0.9 to £10.2, as measured by real export earnings per capita, and was maintained throughout the 1930’s. Through the 1920’s the principal export items continued to be sugar, copra and bananas.
The United Kingdom was the main source of general imports, including sugar machinery, steam and oil machines railway track, canning machinery, steel and metal bars, paints and oils, cement, hardware, cutlery and clothing.
Foodstuffs and coal were imported from Australia and New Zealand, petroleum products from America, and canned fish, motorcars and tyres from Canada.
Internal infrastructure country/Investments
HEALTHCARE MILESTONE 1 – Investment in health, infrastructure and communications ensued. In 1923 the Colonial War Memorial (CWM) Hospital was built and opened as a 108-bed facility, employing a medical staff of 27. This replaced the old Colonial Hospital that had provided medical training for Fijian students since being established in 1873.
By 1928, there was a residential Central Medical School, with places for 40 students, and by 1931, the CWM Hospital included a bacteriological laboratory, an X-ray plant and a Nurses Training School. In 1928, with budget surpluses recorded, investment in infrastructure development accelerated, making future economic development possible. But all this was dependent upon the existence of Fiji’s ports. As well as the new medical school, construction of new Government buildings began, road and bridge construction took place, Suva was supplied with water and electricity and. a new wharf was built at Levuka.
There were hospitals in Lautoka, Labasa and Levuka, several provincial hospitals and dispensaries and, serving the Pacific region, a Leper Station on Makogai Island.
Supply Chain and Telecommunications developed and expanded
The supply chain was also expanding: Two Government subsidised steamers: Transported people and goods between Suva and Lautoka, Savusavu, Taveuni, Nabouwalu and Labasa, while a daily motor launch plied the Rewa River from Nausori to Vunidawa. A daily motor vehicle service: Operated between Suva and Nausori, a weekly service travelled between Suva and Korovou in Tailevu, and twice weekly, from Ellington Wharf (seven miles east of Rakiraki) to Lautoka, with stops at Rakiraki, Tavua and Ba.
Telecommunications had also developed. Gone were the days when carrier pigeons plied the airways between Suva and Levuka in order to convey messages and breaking news. There were now telephone exchanges at Suva, Lautoka, Nausori, Navua, which became automatic in 1956, and a submarine cable linking the exchange at Levuka. Wireless stations were also maintained throughout the country and telegraphic communications beyond Fiji were provided by the submarine cable operated by Cable and Wireless.
By 1936, sugar remained the high earner with an export value of £1,331,701 for 140,864tons, followed by 34,582tons of bananas earning £406,393 and the now well–established mining industry produced 17,107ounces of gold bullion, with an export value of £131,884
This growth of imports and exports though the Ports of Suva, Levuka and Lautoka was instrumental in the continuing development of Fiji as the thriving economy we see today. In 1935, broadcasting began Suva, from Station ZJV, and in 1939 the new Government buildings were opened and the first Rewa Bridge was completed and opened; developments made possible by Fiji Ports importing materials and equipment.
Transport Infrastructure Development
When the new Rewa Bridge was built, beginning in 2003 and completed in 2006, Fiji Ports again played a vital role, not only facilitating necessary imports for the project, but also taking an active role in construction through subsidiary company, Fiji Ships & Heavy Industries Ltd (FSHIL).
FSHIL was responsible for the fabrication of the 40 tonne steel bridge box girder casting mould, which was used in the pouring of the concrete support piles on the Rewa bridge construction.
In 1939, the airstrip at Namaka, Nadi, was built, using equipment that came in through Fiji’s ports. This later became the Nadi International Airport. The airstrip was extended in 1942 and following the attack on Pearl Harbour, American troops replaced the 40,000 New Zealand soldiers who had been stationed in Suva, Nadi and Nausori.
The War Years
The war years saw import duty charges removed from items such as aircraft equipment, parts and fuel. But shortages also impacted the then colony. Financial Secretary, A.R. W Robertson, in Notice to Importers No.3 of 1942, warned of the impending shortage of matches as markets in Hong Kong and Malaya had been cut off because of the war.
Australia would be able to supply about one quarter only of Fiji’s normal annual requirements, “so the greatest economy” needed to be practiced. In fact, sales were rationed to three boxes of matches to people ‘’living in town or near a store’’, implying that those living more remotely might purchase larger quantities at a time.
Of course, border security was of paramount importance. Wharf Areas (Amendment) Order, 1942, under Defence Regulations 1939, provided Naval, Military and Air Force personnel, on duty in the wharf areas or aboard ship, with permits and with photo I.D., while temporary passes were available for visiting personnel.
The presence of overseas Navy and Military personnel from 1942 to 1946 boosted the development of Cumming Street’s tourist trade, selling filigree jewellery, and wares made of locally-sourced tortoise shell and ivory imported from India.
Tourists and tourism
Tourists and tourism were not new to Fiji. In 1918, William Lees published ‘Around the Coast of Australia and Fiji: A handbook of Picturesque Travel and General Information for Passengers by the Australasian United
The 17 pages Mr Lees devoted to Fiji provided photos and meticulously detailed information about the country and what the traveller might expect. The A.U.S.N. company’s twin-screw steamer T.S.S. Levuka “with extensive promenade deck” was specially designed for the 19-day Sydney-Fiji-Sydney round trip.
The New Zealand Union Steamship Company also provided regular voyages to Fiji. From 1908 till 1932, the S.S. Tofua, carrying 39 passengers and with a GRT of 4,349.99 after the second of her later two refits, was primarily engaged in collecting bananas from Fiji and other Pacific Island countries. In 1936 she was replaced by the M.V. Matua, in service until 1968, with a GRT of 4,395 and carrying 101 passengers. The M.V. Tofua II was in service from 1952 until 1973, with a GRT of 5,299 and carrying 73 passengers. Compare these with the Orient Steam Navigation Company’s cruise liner Oriana, launched in 1957, with a passenger capacity of 2,000 and a GRT of 41,910, which first visited the Port of Suva in 1961, and demonstrated the use of side propulsion to aid berthing.
During the 1950’s, imports included machinery and transport equipment, aircraft parts, and engines, private cars and taxis, motor lorries and chassis, tractors and tractor parts and rubber tyres. With the growing need for petroleum products to fuel these imports, diesel oil, kerosene, bunker oil were imported and in the mid-1950’s, the Vuda Point petroleum terminal was developed by the Shell petroleum company.
In 1961 the new Fiji Ports wharf opened at Lautoka, next to the CSR wharf that had served the town for many years, the rebuilding of the Suva Wharf was completed in 1963 and in 1965, Levuka Wharf became a base for Japanese fishing operations.
Financial Domestic Markets
By the mid-1960’s, the Fiji’s economic growth supported four branches and seven agencies of the Bank of New South Wales, one sub-branch and three agencies of the Bank of New Zealand, two branches and one agency of the Australia and New Zealand Bank, two branches of the Bank of Baroda and Post Office Savings Bank facilities were available throughout the country.
In 1963, Suva became a link in the Compac cable chain, which transformed overseas telephone services and in 1968, the University of the South Pacific was founded.
Electric & Power Grid Development
There were privately owned power supplies in Levuka, Nadi, Sigatoka, Labasa, while Suva City Council Suva had Fiji’s first public electricity supply, provided by a gas driven 65 Kw generator.
In 1966, the Fiji Electricity Authority was established as a statutory body, renamed Energy Fiji Limited in 2018.
Imports, economic growth and infrastructure development were not slowed by Fiji’s successful move to Independence from Britain in 1970. There was a growing demand for electricity, which led to the construction of the Monasavu Hydro electric scheme, beginning in May 1978 and commissioned in 1983. This multi-million-dollar project required the importing of earth moving machines, tunneling devices and heavy construction machinery, as well as the Pelton turbine generators that would provide electricity for Viti Levu.
Transport Highway Milestone – During the 1970’s a new highway was built between Suva and Nadi and 885km of rural roads were constructed.
Nationwide Port Upgrades and Developments
The 1970’s were of great significance for Fiji Ports as 1976 saw the inception of the Ports Authority of Fiji and the taking over stevedoring operations in Suva and Lautoka to consolidate the overseas cargo handling operations.
The following year Fiji Ports purchased cargo handling equipment, which included forklifts, tractor, trailers and a crane, constructed a single-span bonded warehouse in Suva, purchased office accommodation in Honson Street, Flagstaff, to be used as a headquarters, and in 1978, reconstruction began on the Port of Levuka.
The construction of a modern office block on the Flagstaff site was completed in 1980 and contracts were signed for the rehabilitation and upgrade of the Port of Suva, with construction beginning in 1982 and completed in 1984. The contract for the construction of buildings and other facilities at Suva Port was signed in 1985, with the project reaching completion in 1987 and in 1988 the Port Security Unit was established.
In 1989, Fiji Ports signed a contract for the upgrading of the Lautoka Wharf, a new 30tonne forklift was purchased for Suva. New regulations for the maintenance, control and management of Ports were approved by Government and property was purchased for a container development, which opened in February 1990 as the Rokobili container terminal. Phase 1 of the Lautoka redevelopment began in January 1990, and in September, property in Walu Bay was purchased and consultants were engaged for the second phase of the Lautoka redevelopment. There were also plans to develop the Lami jetty at the Bay of Islands as a designated fishing jetty. In June 1990 it was announced that Savusavu would be declared a Port of Entry.
The Government Shipyard, the precursor of Fiji Ships & Heavy Industries Limited, began work on the first of its shipbuilding contracts; to supply three vessels, worth $10 milllion, for the Australian company Sea Management Corporation Ltd.
The development of the Fiji Ports and its facilities went hand-in-hand with the growth of the economy in the 1980’s. In 1989, it was reported that the Fiji economy for that year had risen by 12.6 per cent with a real GDP of $814million, tourism had earned an estimated $280million and more than 87,000 people were in paid employment, with the manufacturing sector showing the greatest increase. The formation of Fiji’s tax-free zone in 1987 had seen a corresponding expansion of the garment industry and 7,000 people were employed by 82 companies by 1989. Between inception and June 1990, exports totaling $75million had been produced, reaching a record $150million in 2002. Machinery for this growth was all imported through Fiji Ports.
Again, investment in infrastructure took place in 1990, with the Savusavu jetty being extended, the upgrading of the Nadi backroad, and a $50million water pipelaying project, expected to be completed by 2006, began in Suva.
HEALTHCARE MILESTONE 2 – Plans were drawn up for the expansion of the CWM Hospital and the Fiji School of Medicine (FSM), the latter taking advantage of the enormous technological advances becoming available. For the first time, the FSM library could access the international medical database at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, using hardware imported from England.
Notable for Fiji Ports in 1991 was the establishment of the Tropik Wood Wairiki Port for exporting wood chips and the visit to Suva of the then second largest cruise liner in the world, the Queen Elizabeth II. This was commemorated on the front cover of Fiji Ports’ first ever, in-house publication, a 22-page magazine dated March/April 1991, and called, appropriately enough, FIJI PORTS, Gateway to the World
The 20th century ended with Fiji importing goods in 1999 at a value of $1,838,250,672. As Fiji Ports moved into the 21st century, recognition of the need for further reform saw Fiji Ports Corporation Limited registered as a company in 2004, to operate under the Seaport Management Act of 2005. In 2005, upgrades of $31million at the Port of Suva and $21million at the Port of Lautoka were completed,
In August 2013, FPCL entered a Public Private Partnership with Aitken Spence PLC, in associate Company, Fiji Ports Terminal Limited. This was followed in 2015 by the FPCL Divestment of Shares Agreement, with 41 per cent of FPCL shares Fijian Government–owned, 39 percent owned by the Fiji National Provident Fund and 20 percent held by Aitken Spence PLC. FPCL continues to serve the people of Fiji. With Fiji’s population now at 884, 887*, and with the total value of imports for the year 2017 in the vicinity of FJ$49,77532million**, Fiji Ports continues to import goods that help to improve the lives of all Fijians.
Today, it would still be hard to find any aspect of our lives in Fiji that is not affected in some way by Fiji Ports.
- [Energy Fiji Limited]. (2017, March 27). FEA Celebrating 50 Years since Establishment [Video]. Youtube. Link
- Fiji Ports Corporation Limited (2018, January 1). Fiji Ports Corporation Limited 2017 Annual Report. Parliament of the Republic of Fiji. Retrieved October 19, 2023, from Link
Additional Sources of Information
- Fiji Ports Corporation Limited Annual Report 2019 PDF
- Fiji Ports Corporation Limited Annual Report 2018 PDF
- Fiji Ports Corporation Limited Annual Report 2017 PDF
- Fiji Ports Corporation Limited Annual Report 2016 PDF
- Fiji Ports Corporation Limited Annual Report 2015 PDF
- Fiji Ports Corporation Limited Annual Report 2013 PDF