Will it be the dawn of a new day in Samoa’s tourism sector? The ball is in the court of the new C.E.O.

Will it be the dawn of a new day in Samoa’s struggling tourism sector following Cabinet’s appointment of a new Chief Executive Officer?

The appointment of Fa’amatuainu Lenatai Suifua as the new C.E.O. of the Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) follows the exit of his predecessor, Papali’i Sonja Hunter, who chose not to reapply for the position she has held for over a decade.

Fa’amatuainu, who was manager (planning and development division) within the S.T.A. prior to his promotion, does not need a crash course on the challenges facing the tourism sector. Acknowledging his impressive academic background, Samoans will expect him to step into the role running, mindful of the long-term impact that a struggling tourism sector could ultimately have on Government revenue.

In March this year, the Samoa Observer reported on figures released by the S.T.A. that showed the tourism sector generated $493.8 million in earnings that went into the public purse. The bonus from that story was that tourism sector earnings grew by 16.4 per cent, compared to 2017 and was a net increase of $69.4 million. Visitor numbers also jumped from 157,515 in 2017 to 172,496 last year. 

The numbers are impressive for a small island economy that is still recovering from Cyclone Gita, a major natural disaster in February 2018 which had a major impact on the local economy.

Fa’amatuainu will walk into the office on the back of what the S.T.A. has described as strong growth, in both revenue generated and visitor numbers in the last financial year.

But what is the true state of the tourism sector in Samoa? In March this year, the owners of the Moanalisa Hotel located at Vaitele in Apia announced that it is on sale for $14.4 million. The hotel opened for business in 2009 and has 22 rooms, six villas, a swimming pool and a restaurant. It is owned by the family of the Minister of Revenue, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt.

The Minister told this newspaper that his family-owned hotel could only host conferences and meetings, but not tourists. 

“The hotel caters to different sets of clientele — we only have customers when the hotel plays host to conferences and meetings — but the tourists, they opt for resorts in the rural areas,” he said. 

Low occupancy rates in locally-owned hotels, guest-houses and lodges is a major problem facing the tourism sector. There are concerns that the big players in the tourism sector are getting the lion’s share of tourists visiting Samoa, thanks to bigger marketing budgets and access to Government-provided capital to expand their operations, a case in point being the Taumeasina Island Resort whose owners got a $22 million convertible loan from the Samoa National Provident Fund.

It is time for the Government through the S.T.A. to create a level playing field for all tourism stakeholders, to ensure everyone benefits from gradual growth in the sector.

Samoa Hotels Association President, Tupa’i Saleimoa Va’ai, made reference to finding a balance between the big and small players of Samoa’s tourism sector after his election in September last year.

“Our industry is at the point where we are on the verge of breaking through and we are at that critical position now, where we have to find the balance between the bigger brands and smaller hotels.

“We are such emerging destination and have been talking about this for a long time — tourism is growing. We want to ensure our local operators are not left behind, as our industry and our clientele develops and grows, we also need to grow with them and we can't expect to stay the same,” he said. 

Fa’amatuainu is in the box seat to ensure there is balance and his first port of call should be the S.H.A. President and all his Association members. They should be privy to the plans of the newly appointed C.E.O. and how he intends to reinvigorate Samoa’s tourism sector.

The formulation of a marketing strategy should be one of the first agenda items in the proposed meeting between the new STA chief and the industry representatives. 

There should be more visibility of Samoa’s natural beauty and its people in the tourism global market, and it cannot be done without a carefully formulated  marketing strategy and providing the funding to make it happen.

The marketing of Samoa as a global tourism destination appears to be in the doldrums, if feedback early this month from the International China Investment Forum President Marcus Lee is any indication. 

He said Pacific neighbours Fiji is one step ahead of Samoa in terms of marketing. 

“Samoa has been trying for many years to improve on the Chinese arrival. This doesn't happen overnight. We had the Samoa Tourism Exchange and we invited one of the largest tour operators (from China) here. One of them told me that Chinese tourists don't just fall from the sky. That means we have to work on it,” he said. 

It appears Fa’amatuainu already has his work cut out. Change doesn't happen overnight, but there is a lot of expectations within and outside the industry on him turning around the fortunes of both the small and big players by assisting them to realise the benefits of their investments. 

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