The Ultimate Guide to Lautoka

Nov. 20, 2017, 11:58 a.m.

Lautoka is home to Fiji’s largest number of open spaces and parks, Lautoka is notable for its leafy charm and has won several awards for being the country’s cleanest municipality. The picturesque metropolitan is the administrative capital of Fiji’s Western division and the country’s second city, laying between the towns of Nadi and Ba, on the Western coast of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island.

History

According to local legend, Lautoka takes its name from a battle of warring chiefs. Upon spearing the other, one exclaimed “lau toka”  and the name remained.

The Lautoka Mill was built by the Australian-headquartered Colonel Sugar Refinery (CSR) Company and opened in 1903. During these early years, cheap labour was sourced from India, under an indenture system known as the Girmit System, and from the Solomon Islands, where young men were often deceived and bartered to plantation owners during the infamous Blackbirding Era. Accounts note that Indian labourers were housed at the present-day site of South Pacific Distilleries near the mill. Their Solomon counterparts were housed at Navutusolomoni (now just known as Navutu), while part-European workers lived next door at Navutukailoma, where CSR houses remain to this day. Native workers resided at what is now Top Line and Natokawaqa. European workers lived at the main residential compound.

Early expatriates included Herbert Robinson, an Englishman who arrived earlier in 1899 and was overseer-in-charge of the CSRs Lautoka plantations ahead of the mills opening.

Frederick Jira, a Bohemian native who had overseen CSR steamers along the Richmond River in New South Wales, Australia, was dispatched to Fiji as an assistant engineer during the mills establishment, which significantly established a community of expatriate workers and labourers, and surrounding businesses that quickly sprung up to service their needs.

The CSR had its own butcheries and oversaw properties such as schools. Butter could be purchased in Lautoka at a time that it was usually home-made, while mutton arrived monthly by boat.

Prior to the mills opening, Lautoka was already home to cotton plantations. One of these was owned by a Mr. Winter, whose plantation at Navutu was later sold to the CSR, which built living quarters for its Solomon Islander labourers. Descendants of these early labourers remain at Navutu today, though the area is classified as an informal settlement, over a hundred years after its establishment.

In 1915, the Shamrock Hotel was opened by Australian-Irish immigrant, Pat Costello. The hotel still stands today under the banner of the Lautoka Hotel, on the corner of the main entry into Lautokas CBD. The Costellos were one of several foreigners who settled in Fiji and whose descendants remain in the Sugar City.

The indenture system that drew thousands of labourers from India was officially abolished in 1916 and restrictions were lifted on travel routes from India, which like Fiji, was a colony under the British Empire.  This saw a wave of immigrants freely make their wave to Fiji for commercial opportunities, including Punjabi farmers and Gujarati traders who worked as hawked, sold jewelry and religious artifacts and opened drapery businesses and grocery stores, amongst other operations.

Following the end of the indenture system of Indian laborers, a great deal of laborers chose to work as tenant farmers growing sugarcane for companies.

The growing township around the mill also attracted Australian immigrants such as the Costello brothers, whose descendants remain in the city and throughout Fiji.

Types of Properties

With limited housing stock, it is common for many low-to-middle income earners to rent a home in Lautoka and commute daily to Nadi for work. Lautoka has a large inventory of detached, single dwellings, with upmarket homes mostly evident in the hilly suburb of Simla. 

There are also many properties that consist of several units which are rented out and known as flats. These are usually rented out to a demanding rental market, or partly occupied by landlords while the remaining units rake in rental returns.

These are mostly evident in Field 40, Simla, Balawa, Tavakubu, Kashmir and Waiyavi. Poorly constructed homes are mostly evident in informal settlements such as Navutu, , Natabua Seaside and Velovelo.

On the city’s outskirts lays Koroipita (translated to “Peter’s Village after founder, Peter Drysdale), a model town of cyclone-proof homes housing low-income earners, and managed by its own municipal authority.

The main residential areas are Natabua, Simla, Field 40, Kashmir, Waiyavi, Natokawaqa, and Tavakubu. Residential areas on its outskirts include Naikabula, Lovu, Drasa and Vitogo, Wairebatia and Saweni.

About 400 new lots were due to be launched by the Housing Authority of Fiji at Tavakubu in 2017. 

Larger buildings of apartment units with management services or body corporates are almost non-existent in Lautoka.

Economy & Main Industries

The name Sugar City is derived from the local Lautoka Mill, the largest in the country. Reportedly also the largest sugar mill in the Southern Hemisphere, Lautoka has proved to be the most successful mill built in the country and after Penang Mill in Rakiraki, only the second mill established in the Western Division, where it is dryer. There was a belief (later proved wrong) that wetter climates would yield more and thus, the first mills in Fiji were erected in Nausori and Nausori, in the Central Division. These have all since been closed.

After its construction, a commercial hub sprang up around the Lautoka Mill, which was managed by European expatriate staff housed at the nearby Colonial Sugar Refinery’s residential compound. These commercial endeavours and the area’s base for cotton plantations eventually stablished a township.

The Port of Lautoka is Fiji’s largest port for handling cargo, especially for sugar, molasses, wood chips, petroleum, gas etc. The port took over the cargo handling operations of the CSR in the 1950s, while the FSC took on the CSR’s sugar production operations in the 70s and opened its own molasses and sugar loading facilities.

Pine has also been a mainstay industry for Lautoka, and began with the establishment of the Fiji Pine Commission (now Fiji Pine Limited) in 1976. An integrated saw and chip mill is based at Drasa, on the outskirts of the city, and exports through Tropik Woods Ltd, the commercial arm of Fiji Pine Limited. Landowners who lease their land to Fiji Pine are paid ground rental, alongside stumpage and forest-based levies to pine forests in Lololo, and other parts of Fiji including Bua, Nabou, Nadi, Macuata and Ra. Despite some turbulent years – such as a $5 million loss in 2010- it has made significant turnarounds and recorded $24.12 million in profits from 2010-2015, with a general improvement by $74 million and reduction to external losses by $20 million noted in 2015. The same year saw a new Vislana sawmill constructed to replace the old factory at Drasa, alongside a Windsor kiln system to dry softwoods.

Lautoka is a major business and manufacturing hub, and for the Fijian Government, the administrative capital of the country’s Western division.

Key business players include the Punja Group of Companies, which manufactures and distributes a wide range of food and beverage products, soaps, tyres and print media through its company, Universal Print. There are major distilleries; Paradise Beverages, South Pacific Distilleries and manufacturing houses for garments, print media, protective packaging, furniture, timber milling, steel works and a large host of other items.

Key Ares of Development

Lautoka is the second largest urbane centre in the country and plans to extend its municipal boundaries are expected to fuel further development. Its residential inventory is expected to be boosted with the addition of about 400 lots at Tavakubu by the Housing Authority of Fiji. Wairabetia lays on the city’s outskirts, between Lautoka and Saweni and is home to a considerable farming community and upcoming commercial developments. This includes a multi-million shopping mall, the first in the area.

Further along, Vuda is a picturesque marina hub for yachtsmen and yachtswomen travelling the South Pacific during the Southern Hemisphere winter. There are several resorts in its vicinity, including the newly opened Nila Beach Resort and Sunny Bay, an upcoming, waterfront residential community. Also coming up is the Vuda Hideaway Resort, an addition to the Sigatoka-based Hideaway Resort, owned by the Fiji Teachers Union- Corporative Thrift and Credit Limited.

In early 2017, the Tappoo family opened its second TappooCity complex in the country in the heart of Lautoka, housing a cinema and retail outlets that has quickly made it a central meeting point in the city.

Next door, the local stadium, Churchill Park was also reopened after a $5.5 million upgrade that included all-weather synthetic tracks to meet International Amateur Athletic Federation standards. This is due to be followed by the construction of an Olympic swimming pool that will add to the city’s inventory of sporting facilities.

The Lautoka Chamber of Commerce & Industry has indicated strong interest in developing Lautoka’s eco-tourism, which is centred around the waterfalls of nearby Abaca, one of several villages in the vicinity of the Koroyanitu National Heritage Park.

Given Lautoka’s thriving commercial hub, the Fijian Government plans to establish a Manufacturing and Creation Zone, similar to the Kalabu Tax-Free Zone outside Suva City, with Geo Tech surveys already conducted at Drasa and Wairabetia. 

Weather, Climate & Geography

Lautoka covers a land area of about 1,600 hectares and the weather is tropical with a usually elevated temperature.

The rainy season typically stretches from January to April and from October to December. This is one of Fiji’s leafiest towns, with afternoon and weekend rugby and soccer evident at many of its parklands, while most joggers opt for the scenic Marine Drive, which boasts views towards beautiful Bekana Island.

Population & Demographics

Lautoka is home to about 10 per cent of the country’s urban population. During the last country census, it noted a population of over 52,000 residents.  In 2012, it had about 8200 rateable properties, with some 20,000-people residing in informal settlements along peri-urban areas that have relied on municipal infrastructure, as noted by UN Habitat. 

Though its economic backbone has been traditionally based on sugar production, the expiry of land leases has forced waves of migration to its urban and peri-urban areas from rural cane-farming communities.

The main residential areas are Natabua, Simla, Field 40, Kashmir, Waiyavi, Natokawaqa, Tavakubu and Naikabula, Lovu, Drasa and Vitogo on the city’s outskirts.

Surrounding native villages include Viseisei, Lauwaki, Lomolomo, Namara and Abaca, which come under the indigenous district (known as tikina) of Vuda. The villages of Vitogo, Naviyago, Namoli (in the CBD), Saru and Vakabuli belong to the district of Vitogo.

Located in Natabua is the Golden Age Home, the sole aged-care facility in the Western division, and the Natabua Corrections Centre, which is being extended to accommodate a Women’s wing for female inmates.

Entertainment Attractions

The Northern Club is a popular sports and social club for locals and visitors, and home to a swimming pool and courts for tennis and squash, with a lively calendar of themed events.

South Seas Club and the Lautoka Club are also drawcards, with splendid views over the city’s waterfront and generous convention spaces.

There is a small pool of nightclubs in the city, including Wash Down, Hunter’s Inn and Zone, while there are two cinemas- the Damodar Group’s Village 4 and Life Cinema at TappooCity, which opened early 2017.

Parklands are aplenty, and it’s common to see families picnicking at the Punja’s Children’s Park, Lautoka Botanical Gardens and Shirley Park.

The Belo Vula Resort is also a popular attraction and a short boat ride away, on Bekana Island, which along with nearby Savala Island, is traditionally owned by villagers of Saru.

Schools & Educational Institutes

Lautoka is home to divisional campuses for the University of the South Pacific and Fiji National University. There are close to 50 primary schools and ten secondary schools, with eminent ones including St. Thomas Primary School and Drasa Avenue Primary School, and Natabua High School, the all-girls Jasper Williams High School and St Thomas High School.  There is the Lautoka Special School and the Sunshine Special School for students with special needs and disabilities.

Healthcare

The Lautoka Hospital is a divisional facility and the largest in the Western Fiji, and includes an Intensive Care Unit, operating theatres, physiotherapy department, a diabetes hub and dialysis treatment for kidney patients, dentistry and maternity ward amongst other facilities.

Private health facilities include the Avenue Clinic & Gym, Lautoka City Medical Clinic, and Bayly Clinic. Pharmacies include Western Medicare, Thakolai and Chovan Pharmacy, while gyms in and around the CBD include Pacific Fitness and the Body Academy Gym. In November 2017, the city was given its first 24-hour medical diagnostic centre with Zen’s Medical, which also gave Nadi its first such facility in 2006.

Emergency Services

The Lautoka Police Station is located at Matanakilagi House, along M.N Naidu Rd, and can be reached on (679) 6660222.

The Officer in Charge of Lautoka Policing District (OCPD/Lautoka) is Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Apete Rokoului, who can be contacted on (679) 9905218 while the Inspector of Operations for Police (IP), Samisoni Naqica can be reached on 9905 297.

The Police Emergency line is 917 while reports can be made to Crime Stoppers by dialing 919. Both lines are operated by the Western Division Command and Coordination Centre, which can be reached on (679) 6662222 or (679) 9905457.

The Lautoka Hospital has ambulance services and can be reached on (679) 6660399. 

Sea-based reports can be lodged with the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji (MSAF) Lautoka office on (679) 6661229.

The Fiji Electricity Authority can be contacted on 913 for emergencies.

The Water Authority of Fiji can be contacted on 5777 (for Inkk, Vodafone & Digicel users).

Key Transport Services

Like other municipalities, buses are a key mode of public transportation in Lautoka. The 2016 Household Travel Survey notes that about 95 per cent of the country’s population depend and use bus services as preferential modes of commute.

Although Fiji has a Geographic Information System (GIS) of road infrastructure, there is none for public transport routes, public transport stops or public buildings. Additionally, rural areas usually don’t have formal transport or built infrastructure for which to identify and geocode the origin or travel destinations.

The bus industry itself contributes about six percent to Fiji’s Gross Domestic Product and is overseen by the Ministry of Infrastructure &Transport. Lautoka has a large base of bus providers, including Lautoka General, KBL. These are all stationed at the Lautoka Bus Stand, next to the Lautoka Municipal Market in the CBD. Other modes of public transport include mini-buses, carriers and taxis.

Government Authorities

As the administrative capital of the Western division, Lautoka is home to most Government departments. These encompass offices for the Government’s Commission Western, Divisional Planning Officer, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health, Biosecurity Authority of Fiji, Ministry of Education, Immigration Department, Fisheries Department, I Taukei Land Trust Board, Fiji Revenue & Customs Authority, Fiji Ports Authority, Lautoka High Court, Lautoka Magistrate’s Court, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Registrar of Births Deaths & Marriages, Fiji Independent Commission against Corruption (FICAC), Divisional Police Headquarters, Investment Fiji  and other State functions. Municipal affairs are governed by the Lautoka City Council.