The decision by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi’s government to revoke Virgin Australia’s license to fly between Auckland and Samoa is not only “dictatorial” it will hurt the tourism industry in a big way.
A small tourist accommodation operator on Upolu who only wants to be identified as “Seli” tells the Sunday Samoan that the silence from the tourism industry is deafening, which is indicative of the one-party state nature of Samoa today.
Seli said she is afraid due to fear of repercussions on her business but someone needs to tell the government they have got this wrong. She said the government’s decision has taken tourism development backwards and could even possibly scare off potential investors who had eyes on Samoa.
“The decision is bad for Samoa and I’m not just talking about the passengers who have been affected,” she said.
“I'm certain every hotelier in Samoa will put on a smiling face to keep up with the appearances but deep down, everyone is hurting. They will be saying to the government ‘you have just taken tourism back and foreign investment'."
“I’m pretty sure even New Zealand, Australia, China, U.S.A. will all be saying ‘what's going on here’?”
This week, Prime Minister Tuilaepa defended his government’s decision. He accused Virgin Australia of misleading their customers when they continued to sell tickets knowing they did not have a license.
“We had written to them informing them that what they are doing is illegal, and there was no response,” Tuilaepa said.
“However, the airline was hiding behind officials of a ministry with the Australian Government who came here and made threats, noting that we (Samoa Airways) are flying to Australia as well."
“And that is why we have told them they can fly directly from Australia to Samoa and we will do the same. They (Virgin Australia) don’t want that.”
Seli admits that the government is correct about Virgin selling tickets without prior approval. But she said the bigger picture is that Samoa needs more airlines to fly to Faleolo to lower airfares and provide more seats to fill up the local hotels.
“In the short term, there are already many cancelled bookings because of this as people scramble to find a way of getting to Samoa. This is the last thing we need."
“Tourism is down in a big way. A lot of the hoteliers I know are struggling to fill their rooms’ year in year out.
Some can't pay the banks back on top of being hit by high E.P.C. prices, high cost of imports for food and drinks, high water charges."
“Then you’ve got taxes after taxes with are very high and so forth. What the government should do is create an atmosphere to help these businesses. This is not the way to do that.”
Seli added that if Samoa wants to be competitive with other Pacific destinations like Fiji, Cook Islands, Hawaii and Tahiti, the government has got to do a better job portraying the image that it would welcome foreign investments and multi-national companies.
“What the government has done is a total 360 on how a government can develop tourism and attract investors. What kind of serious investor will come to Samoa knowing that the government can turn around today and kick them out? This is dictatorial. The world is paying attention.”
Told that the government is tired of Virgin Australia using Samoa as a cash cow and that their attitude towards Samoa was condescending, Seli said people need to separate emotions from the issues.
“No serious airline will want to come when they look at the government has just done to Virgin. These guys have just kicked tourism too touch sending it backwards just like what they’ve done to rugby and everything else they touch.”
She also drew comparisons of Virgin Australia’s treatment with other airlines.
“At least Virgin has returned millions of dividends back to the Samoan government in the past ten years,” she said. “What has Polynesian done for us? What about Air NZ and Fiji Airways? They have done nothing except rejoice with the high cost of fares.
“Why didn't the P.M. do anything when Air NZ pulled the plug on the Los Angeles flights? He did nothing and tourism in Samoa has gone down badly since then. Again, Samoa Tourism Authority has been deadly silent on all this.”
Seli also shared other fears.
“We are supposed to have an open sky policy and yet it seems like now it is Stui’s open sky policy,” he said. “Even the wholesalers will look twice about selling Samoa as it is too unpredictable."
"Tourism has a bad wrap now as all wholesalers will be skeptical to sell us and this reflects badly on anyone wanting to invest in Samoa.”