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Ecotourism: The Fijian experience

Development of ecotourism in Fiji
Ecotourism as a tool for long-term forest conservation
Case study: Bouma forest park

Lavisai Seroma
Head of Environment Division
Department of Forestry

Environmental tourism is grounded in the concept of the sustainable use of natural resources, as fostered by the World Conservation Strategy and the sustainable development strategy of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Ecotourism evolved in the last two decades from the interaction of environment and tourism interests. Ecotourism should be based upon a relatively undisturbed natural environment, be non-degrading and non-damaging, be subject to adequate management and contribute directly to the continued protection and management of the protected area used.

Ecotourism models around the world differ in their biases. Fiji tends to follow a model that incorporates local community involvement as a bias, given that members of the local communities are usually landowners. The Government of Fiji recognises that ecotourism has the potential not only to provide quality employment, income, and business opportunities for local people, but also to act as a catalyst for the preservation of the natural environment and indigenous culture.


Geography and population

Fiji is an archipelago of 300 islands scattered over 1.3 million square kilometers of the South Pacific Ocean. The mountainous islands, where 75 percent of the population resides, comprise 87 percent of total land area of 18,330 square kilometers.

Fiji's estimated 1992 population of 750,000, at a density of 39 people per square kilometer conceals densities in excess of 170 people per square kilometer on arable land. About 60 percent of the population lives in rural areas, but migration to urban areas is significant and increasing.


Fiji's natural heritage has been described in three words: rich, unique and ancient. It is abundantly rich in species. With 1,750 native vascular plants, the islands of Fiji carry a much richer biological cargo than other nearby groups such as Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, or the Cook Islands. Fiji also has 57 indigenous bird species, 23 percent of which are endemic. Fiji's forests cover approximately 1,067,310 hectares (both natural and plantation), on 58 percent of the total land mass. Almost all forests are on communally-owned native land.

Fiji's vegetation and wildlife are of exceptional scientific and genetic interest due to the high proportion of endemic species. The floristic diversity of the forest is estimated to be in excess of 300 species per square mile. Fiji's biodiversity is threatened due to a shift from a subsistence to a cash economy and increasing population. Deforestation caused by cash-crop development, urbanisation and small holder farming is currently occurring at about 1 percent per annum.

The threat to Fiji's biodiversity is serious but not yet irreparable. As development accelerates, however, damage may soon be irreparable unless sustainable development is established at grass roots and decision-making levels.

The land tenure system

Central to land conservation in Fiji today is the country's land tenure system. Some 83 percent of the land is native land held under customary communal tenure by land-owning groups (mataqali) of ethnic Fijians. The administration and control of these lands is the responsibility of the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB). Native or Fijian-owned lands are classified as either "native lease" or "reserve" lands. The reserve lands are set aside for the sustenance and well-being of indigenous owners. No non-Fijian may utilise these lands unless such lands have been de-reserved through the consent of both the landowners and the NLTBs. Leased lands (i.e. lands surplus to landowner's immediate requirements) may be leased out to Fijians and non-Fijians alike for development or other purposes. For administrative purposes the "mataqali" is recognised as the main proprietary unit.

The Government Lands Department administers and controls a further 10 percent of the country's land resources. Freehold lands account for 7 percent of the national land area.

Fijian land ownership is therefore closely knitted with the owners' history. This is significant as it involves rights and interests which often emanate from the various traditional bases. These are often described as a "Bundle of Rights."

Tourism in Fiji's economy

Tourism has been the country's largest gross foreign exchange earner over the last three years, surpassing sugar. Tourism generates some 25 percent of gross foreign exchange earnings and is estimated to generate, directly and indirectly, about 14 percent of GDP (without taking into account activity generated by tourism investments). It provides employment, directly and indirectly, for an estimated 40,000 people (about l 5 percent of the labour force). The performance of the industry in recent years is summarised in Table 1. Tourism in Fiji is dominated by private sector activity. Foreign investment plays a major role.

Total gross earnings from tourism in 1993 were $363.3 million. After major setbacks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, tourist arrivals have recovered. The main source markets for Fiji are Australia and New Zealand. Japan is expanding rapidly as a source of tourists as air access is improved. Europe, USA, Canada and Southeast Asia are also developing as important source markets.

Table 1. Fiji tourism: visitors, length of stay and expenditures

















Average length of stay (days)








Visitor days (millions)








Expenditures (US$ million)








Development of ecotourism in Fiji

The Government's tourism initiatives have traditionally concentrated on marketing, not on planning. The potential problems with this orientation are accentuated when tourists' preferences move towards a product (cultural and natural) that is publicly owned, remotely located and lacking in infrastructure. Difficulties also arise if the industry is slow to accept shifts in interests away from holidays focused on sun, sand, sea, and swaying palm trees, towards a more experiential or educational visit.

Developments within the industry and its marketing have given insufficient attention to the possible significance of Fiji's cultural and natural heritage. Places of historic importance, ancient archaeological sites, Fiji's rainforests, mangrove swamps and reef system have been under-utilised as tourist attractions. The concept of sustainable tourism, however, can find its greatest support through the increased development of ecotourism. Now is also a perfect time to pursue sustainable tourism, as Fiji, is moving towards a range of new initiatives in the area of sustainable resource use, under its National Environment Strategy adopted in 1992.

The concept of Fiji repositioning itself as an ecotourism and World Heritage destination is realistic. It also coincides with the Government's avowed intentions to conserve our fragile environment, protect our heritage and find greater employment for rural communities.

Strategies for ecotourism development in Fiji must consider the provision of employment and income generation for landowners, the difficulties in the land tenure system, the need to conserve the fragile environment and the need to protect cultural heritage. Diversification of the economy and the generation of foreign exchange are other considerations.

In 1992, the Government of Fiji issued a statement in support of sustainable tourism. It included the following:

"Ecotourism enhances visitor exposure to and awareness of the ecology of Fiji's unique natural attractions and this will be emphasised. The promotion of cultural heritage and ecotourism in the country will require the development of middle level and "backpacker" type accommodation. This type of tourism stimulates secondary tourism, is of particular benefit to remoter regions, and offers particular opportunities for indigenous Fijians to become involved in the tourist industry Continuous efforts will be undertaken to spread the benefit of tourism development to other areas in the country "

This statement reinforces and encourages environmentally and culturally related tourist activities established in the country from as early as the 1970s. Even though these small culturally-based, individually-owned, inadequately-managed ecological and heritage travel sites were hardly recognised, they have played a significant role in the development of viable alternative visitor destinations.


Tour companies are pioneers in the development of ecotourism in Fiji. Most of their activities, however, were culturally or heritage based. The Department of Tourism has been involved with tour groups in marketing activities. In forest-based tourism, the Department of Forestry played a lead role through the development of the Colo-i-Suva Forest Park for recreational and educational purposes as early as 1974. The national Trust for Fiji has been active in the preservation of historical sites and buildings and the Fiji Museum.

Major interest in ecotourism development emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s when other organizations, especially the NLTB, became active in conservation through ecotourism.

There is a general lack of coordination of ecotourism development in Fiji. Respective organisations have sometimes been pursuing their own developments with some complications, especially where there is conflict or duplication of interests. There is, however, a National Steering Committee of the NLTB, established in 1992, to coordinate conservation and ecotourism development in the country. Members of this committee include representatives of those- departments that have, or intend to undertake, ecotourism activities.

The Government also set up an Ecotourism Unit within the Department of Tourism in 1992. The objectives of the Unit are:

1. to increase the involvement of the indigenous population in the industry, particularly in rural areas; and

2. to promote and develop tourism that enhances visitor exposure to Fiji's unique natural and cultural attractions.

The Ecotourism Unit is currently staffed with three officers. A priority of the Unit is the formulation and implementation of a policy for ecotourism, as presently there is no legislation to provide guidelines, regulations, monitoring or infrastructure.

A preliminary register of sites of national significance identifies 140 sites that have the potential to be developed for ecotourism. Only 19 percent of these sites have been developed thus far, so the potential for expansion is enormous.

Cultural and environmental impacts

It has been suggested that ecotourism can provide foreign exchange and economic reward for the preservation of natural systems and wildlife. But in reality ecotourism is also a threat to the resource on which it depends. These threats begin during the development stage, when facilities are constructed, tracks aligned, roads constructed and other infrastructure established to accommodate potential visitors. Threats of degradation of the resource increase when tourists arrive. At times, giving priority to economic benefits overrides the limits of carrying capacity. This ultimately results in resource degradation.

Cultures and traditions are also eroded when abused for monetary rewards. The social structure of closely knit families, groups of families, clans or even tribes can be affected by the infiltration of different cultures.

Ecotourism in Fiji takes into consideration the above possible conflicts and the consequences that may arise. The impact of ecotourism on the environment is so far insignificant as visitor arrivals to these developed sites are comparatively low, and operators have been advised to safeguard their resources.

Culturally and traditionally, ecotourism development is thus far having positive impacts. Ecotourism has revived traditional dances, traditional meals and the traditional obligation to entertain visitors. But to some degree ecotourism has also caused discontent among indigenous Fijians, especially where it involves the sharing of gains from ecotourism. It has promoted greed as opposed to the sharing and caring attitudes that the Fijian people are renowned for. This has generally caused the disintegration of closely knit family bonds, a foundation for leadership in the Fijian community.

Ecotourism as a tool for long-term forest conservation

Traditionally, the taboo system common in the Pacific had been an efficient manner of protecting forest resources. The system unfortunately has been drastically relaxed, in most societies, through the power of money and decreasing resources. Increases in population have put further pressure on resources, aggravating the deterioration of this traditional obligation. Today, conservation and preservation are only attractive if the sustainable management of the resource involved provides some practical gain. If not, destructive exploitation can easily result.

In Fiji's context, the development of ecotourism has been based on the understanding that landowners will benefit through income generation (via employment and business opportunities). Preservation is secondary. Whilst the development of ecotourism in Fiji is a link between utilisation and preservation of the forest resources, it will only be effective in forested areas that have specialised and unique features, to which visitors will be attracted. Fortunately there are numerous untapped and attractive sites in the country that can be developed for such purposes. But the biggest stumbling block that is currently being faced is the lack of infrastructure to reach these areas and the lack of funds for establishment.

Reserved forest and preservation initiative

The adoption of the reclassification of the country's forest resources from the recent reinventory effectively means that potential biodiversity conservation areas have increased to 302,737 hectares, of which 264,297 hectares are protected forest and 38,440 hectares are reserved forests. This is 28 percent of the total forest cover and 16 percent of the country's land area. These areas are not legally binding and some protected forests can be utilised for intensive management.

The Forestry Department is responsible for the establishment and management of reserved forests. To date there are 16 forest reserves and 8 nature reserves, covering an area of 36,000 hectares. These are legally protected areas proclaimed under section six of the Forestry Decree. They constitute 3.3 percent of the total forest area.

It is now accepted that in order to secure nature reserve areas, land-owning communities should be compensated for foregone opportunities. The NLTB and the Department of Forestry have developed a monetary compensation scheme for landowners who have had their forests protected for national conservation purposes. Compensation payments to landowners involve a one-off payment based on the value of the timber and ongoing payments based on the value of the land and foregone development opportunities such as agriculture or forestry.

Compensation payments are not appropriate for every conservation area, nor are they sufficient to protect all areas. They can even encourage the wrong type of attitude towards conservation. Successful, long-term local commitment to conservation depends as much on landowners believing that conservation is in their personal interest as it does on carefully targeted outside support.

Development of forest-based tourism

The Department of Forestry encourages the development of communally owned forestbased parks anticipating that they will help preserve specialised plant communities. The initiative is based on the understanding that landowners will reap the benefits of ecotourism projects and that they should initiate and be involved in decision-making from conception through management of such projects. To allow landowners to control the operation of ecotourism sites reinforces their authority over their land and helps them be more responsible in the preservation of facilities and the forest resources.

The relationship between protected areas and local communities is a key factor in the long-term conservation of natural resources. This is especially the case in remote areas of developing countries where effective control is difficult to maintain without the support of the local community. The local communities need to be involved as early as possible. It is preferable that the initiative to develop an ecotourism area should come from the community and that their involvement should start from project conception, and not just during the much later stage of project implementation

The Department of Forestry has been involved in forest-based or community-based tourism through the provision of technical assistance in the establishment of trails or picnic facilities modeled along the lines of the Colo-i-Suva Forest Park. This park has been established and maintained by the Department for the last 20 years. It has been used by schools for educational tours and by members of the public. Amenities provided include B-B-Q facilities, picnic bures (huts), cloakrooms and toilets around natural attractions such as waterfalls, hiking trails and a camping area.

Recently the Department's involvement in the development of ecotourism has been reduced to purely technical assistance. Its objectives are:

1. The conservation and enhancement of important, and in some cases, unique aspects of Fiji's rich natural and cultural heritage.

2. The establishment of first class recreation and tourism assets, that are commercially viable, for the enjoyment and benefit of local and overseas visitors.

3. The creation of local employment and income generating opportunities for landowners.

The Department has played a vital role in the development of forest-based ecotourism projects. Of prominence in this regard is the establishment of the Bouma Forest Park in Taveuni. Currently two phases have been commissioned and are operational. The development of other phases is presently being pursued.

Technical assistance from the Department also contributed to the development of Tavuni Hill Cultural and Archaeological Park near Sigatoka. The project was developed by the Department of Tourism and has been operational since 1993.

The establishment of Mt. Koroyanitu Forest Park, near Lautoka, in 1993, was coordinated with planning and technical assistance from the Department. Further, development of potential sites within the area is being considered.

The above projects are managed by landowners on a commercial basis. In all cases, voluntary manpower provided by landowners was a key factor in the completion of the projects. The New Zealand Government played a vital role in the provision of capital funds. It is presumed that external funding will continue to be sought for ecotourism.

There is great potential for the development of ecotourism in the country. Even though at present ecotourism does not make a major impact on the economy, it is envisaged that once other areas are successfully developed and fully utilised, the impacts will be significant. Ecotourism already contributes rural employment and income for landowners. The Department is currently working with other agencies, especially NLTB, to expand and realize this potential.

Case study: Bouma forest park

The following case study provides details of the planning, establishment, management and people's participation in ecotourism projects in Fiji.


The Bouma Forest Park is a forest-based ecotourism project. It is located on the island of Taveuni, Fiji's third largest island. The island still retains around 60 percent of its land under tropical rainforest. Most of this (11,291 hectares) is classified as forest reserve with an additional 4,015 hectares as nature reserve. Fiji's largest lake, Tagimoucia, is found on a high plateau in the central range. Forest types include beach forests, tropical lowland forests, cloud forests and mangroves. Numerous undisturbed streams, rivers and waterfalls are still prominent on the island.

The natural qualities of Taveuni and its potential for environmental tourism were recognised as early as 1973 when the UNDP-funded "Tourism Development Programme for Fiji" proposed that Forests of Taveuni be protected for tourism and nature conservation, with recreation development centered on the much frequented Tavoro Falls (site of the now developed Phase 1, Bouma Forest Park). Subsequent studies have reiterated recommendations to protect Taveuni's forests and stressed their conservation and nature tourism values.

For over 20 years people of Nakorovou village have been showing visitors to a waterfall on their land, about one kilometer from the coastal road. Known as Tavoro Falls, it is situated on Tavoro creek near the village. An average of 96 tourists a month visited the waterfall and were charged $2.00 per person. In 1988, the people of Nakorovou approached NLTB and asked for help to establish a forest park on their land. In consultation with landowners and with technical input from the Department of Forestry, a development plan was drawn up for the district of Bouma, including the Tavoro Falls Recreation Area.

In May 1990, NLTB and the Forestry Department, on behalf of the people of Bouma, presented the New Zealand Government with plans of phase 1 of the proposed Bouma Forest Park - the Tavoro Falls Amenity and Recreation Area. The New Zealand Government agreed to fund the development and the Department of Forestry, with landowners help, established the park in early 1991. The Tavoro Falls Amenity and Recreation Area was opened in April 1991.

Project objectives

The project involved the provision and expansion of tourist facilities, based on several identified natural features, while concurrently ensuring the conservation and protection of the attractions and the forest in general. It provides opportunities for nature viewing, photography, hiking and trekking, fresh water swimming, bird watching and other forms of passive recreation. The project has the following objectives:

1. The conservation, protection and enhancement of important, and in some cases, unique aspects of Taveuni's rich natural and cultural heritage.

2. The establishment of first class recreation and tourism assets for the enjoyment and benefit of local and overseas visitors.

The creation of local employment and income opportunities for the tribes, the villages and the general district of Bouma.

The Bouma Forest Park emphasises landowner involvement in development-and heritage protection. Significantly, the landowners have initiated the development of ecotourism and are committed to developing their land for tourism rather than traditional exploitation of their natural resources.

Project description

The Bouma Forest Park is a multi-phase project that comprises multidisciplinary recreation opportunities for each of the four villages/tribes that make up the greater district of Bouma. Four development phases have been proposed, based on recreation opportunities for each area (table 2).

Location and protection status

The project area is on the eastern side of Taveuni Island bordering the northern boundaries of the Taveuni Nature and Forest Reserves. It is approximately a 30-minute drive from the airport and a 1-hour drive from the main administrative/shopping centre of Waiyevo.

The project covers 1,603 hectares. All project land is communally owned by the four tribes living in four local villages, with a proportion leased to the Government as nature/forest reserve. The NLTB, the Department of Forestry and the Naituku Clans have drawn up a memorandum of agreement to ensure lasting protection of the forests and their resources, thus safeguarding the tourism values of the forests. The memorandum is based on the cultural precedent of the "Vakavanua" Agreement. It strongly commits all parties to abide by the agreement as it involves the precious commodities of land and the people's word. It is not a lease, but it is considered as equally binding as any legal court agreement. This memorandum of agreement was signed at Nakorovou village on 21 August 1990 and is effective for 99 years.

This type of agreement can be a precedent in Fiji for the voluntary establishment of a protected area on customary land with the landowners receiving development assistance to create village-based income earning opportunities.

Table 2. Project phases for ecotourism development of Bouma Forest Park


Attraction type

Area (ha)


Proposed establishment date


Forest-based, waterfalls, natural attractions





Coastal-based, coastal walk, marine attractions, trekking





Forest- & culture-based, cultural sites, lodges etc.


Vidawa Waitabu



Forest-based, inland hiking, bird watching


Lavena, Vidawa, Nakorovou & Waitabu


Establishment costs

The establishment of the first and second phases of the Bouma Forest Park was generously funded by the New Zealand Government. A total of $60,000 was allocated for Tavoro Falls Amenity and Recreation Area in 1991 and $48,000 for the Lavena Coastal Walk and Recreation Area in 1994. In addition, villagers supplied voluntary labor valued at more than $8,600 at Tavoro and $22,000 at Lavena. Facilities include walking tracks, visitor facilities, pools and river improvements, notices and signboards. The major components and costs of development are shown in table 3.

An additional $20,000 was granted to NLTB by the Government of New Zealand for the design and printing of the Tavoro Falls Amenity and Recreation Area pamphlet and posters.

Preliminary preparation is currently being undertaken, for the third phase, the Navuga Cultural Attraction and Recreation Park.

Table 3. Summary of establishment costs of Bouma Forest Park

Phase 1 ($)

Phase 2 ($)

Voluntary labour provided by villagers

(4,450 hrs at $1.95/hr)

(8,900 hrs at $2.48/hr)










Allowance & subsistence






It is hoped that the New Zealand Government will also fund this project. The estimated cost for the third phase is $105,000.

Project management

Since its opening in April 1991, the Tavoro Falls Amenity and Recreation Area (Phase 1) has been managed by the landowners on a commercial basis. The Lavena Coastal Walk and Recreation Area (Phase 2) has also been operating on a commercial basis from June 1994. Each phase is administered and managed by a park manager who is also responsible for park wardens, tour guides and a receptionist. These park employees are paid not more than $50.00/week.

The Park Project Committee directs, evaluates and controls the running of the park. It meets four times a year. It is chaired by the Roko Tui Cakaudrove, the chief provincial administrator. The District Officer and the paramount chief of the region are also members, along with representatives of the land owning unit. This committee reports directly to the Vanua Bouma Council and to the NLTB's National Steering Committee.

The Vanua Bouma Council must be periodically advised, as a matter of protocol, on the park operation. Its views on the overall management of the park are sought when important decisions are needed. The Council is represented by the four tribal leaders of Vanua Bouma.

The National Steering Committee, or the NLTB preservation and conservation steering committee, is an advisory and planning body based in Suva. It was activated during the implementation phase to advise and monitor progress of the project. The Committee is made up of all organisations that are involved in forest-based tourism. It includes the NLTB, the Departments of Forestry, Tourism, Lands, Fijian Affairs, Co-operatives, and Economic Planning, the Environment Unit, the Development Bank, and the National Trust of Fiji. This Committee meets four times a year.

Visitor numbers and income

The number of visitors to the Tavoro Falls Amenity and Recreation Park for the period July 1992 to June 1993 showed a decline of 459, or 16 percent, from the previous year. This could be attributed to the general decline in tourist arrivals to the country, and to Taveuni in particular, during that period. Lack of promotion and bad management could also be factors contributing to the decline. The income derived from park fees of $5.00 per person (tourists) and $2.00 per person (locals) showed a proportional decline during the period. The income and expenditures for 1992- 1993 are summarised in Table 4.

Table 4 is an unaudited account of the Tavoro Falls Amenity and Recreation Area. Moves to standardise accounting for the project were initiated in 1993 and the project will soon become a co-operative. The Department of Cooperatives has already made by-laws to this effect and is preparing the registration of the project as a co-operative. That Department has been advising park managers on the concept and checking their accounts since July 1993.


The Tavoro Falls Amenity & Recreation Area is a pilot project. Its success so far can be attributed to the foresight of the landowners in initiating the development and the support of responsible Departments and statutory bodies. In addition, the funding agency, the New Zealand Government, played an important role in making the project a reality. It is perhaps too soon to predict the long term success of the venture, but the landowners and the Government are hopeful that the venture will succeed.

Table 4. Summary of income and expenditures at Tavoro Falls Park, 1/7/92 to 30/6/93

Income source

Visitor numbers




















Tourism is already big business in Fiji, but most of it is coastally oriented. There is considerable potential for developing inland, forest-based tourism in areas such as Bouma. Bouma is also an area of great cultural significance. The fact that visitors find the cultural and natural sites fascinating (and are prepared to go out of their way to see them) indicates the potential for the development of a large new market of visitors to these areas. The project has not only provided economic viability to the district of Bouma, but also employment for villagers. Of importance is the provision for landowners to run and manage the park as a self-supporting venture.

The Bouma forest park has enjoyed some success as an ecotourism project due to several factors. A critical factor has been that the initiative came from the landowners themselves and this has continued to be a strength in the project. There have been problems but they were solved with improved awareness, open communication and interaction among all stakeholders.

For landowners, forest protection was a secondary consideration rather than a central motivating force. The main motivation was the need to earn a living from their protected forest, which they are now able to do through nature-based tourism. Bouma is now slowly gaining an international reputation of its own. Continued success will depend on the willingness of outside parties to allow the landowners to express and implement their own visions for the future of their land without compromising the environmental integrity of the area.

Recently, there has been a drive for development in Fiji, led by villagers'desire for change. Landowners must retain control and have a sense of ownership over that development, however. Outside parties must be mindful of the long-term implications of their involvement. Recognition of customarily land ownership is important. Forest conservation can only succeed if the initiatives of village landowners are supported. To ensure continued success, there should be continued landowner consultation and support and practical community benefits from protecting nature.


1. The initiative to develop an area for ecotourism should come from the landowners, and their involvement in implementation and management is crucial to a project's success.

2. Environmental awareness and education is important to ensure landowner understanding and support.

3. Training of landowners to manage their own project should be provided.

4. Objectives of the project must be made clear from the beginning and must take into account the needs of landowners and the surrounding community.

5. Regular advisory meetings of stakeholders, and regular monitoring of the project, are necessary. Continued liaison with landowners should be encouraged so that landowners continue to take an active part in all decisions made.

6. The landowners must receive some practical gain from the project.

7. Women should be involved as they play a major role in village life. Their contributions should be recognised and included in the social-economic aspects of the project.

8. Use of existing resources should be maximized and projects should start small. Activities should be planned in a way that minimizes the disruption of normal community life.

9. Each project area is unique, so planning should be based on each community's needs and aspirations.

10. Care must be taken to avoid confusion regarding outside funding and what it is to be used to support. Outside partners must be carefully chosen. Outside parties should be mindful of the long-term implications of their involvement.

Ecotourism emphasizes natural resource protection and socially sound development.

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