New Year opportunities
Samoa made savvy use of its natural gifts to grow tourism revenue in 2019.
But our New Year’s resolution should be to make more of one of our man-made distinctions to drive tourism and our economy.
Since the 2011 dateline switch, Samoa has been the first country in the world to welcome the dawn of a new day.
On December 31st this takes on particular international importance.
Other countries in our region have been capitalising their position on the international dateline to generate tourism promotion every New Year’s Eve.
Sydney, for example, invests heavily in its fireworks display. The city has figured out that the world's media in North America and Europe, many hours behind on the timeline, are eager for footage and images to fill their year-end news bulletins.
Sydney’s Mayor claims that, for this reason, the city's fireworks display is seen by some one billion people around the world.
But Sydney, of course, lies three hours behind us on the international dateline; more international spotlight deserves to shine on Samoa as the first place to celebrate every new year.
Outlets ranging from CNN, the German broadcasting service Deutsche Welle and BBC all noted Samoa in their New Year's Eve coverage.
The Samoa Observer, with photojournalists, a videographer and reporters on the ground, covered New Year's Eve comprehensively.
But we are a newspaper and never the Government's marketers, who missed an opportunity to promote the nation to the globe when the clock struck midnight.
Well produced footage and shots of New Year’s Eve celebrations would have been scooped up by the world's media and been an international public relations coup.
The Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) has made a significant contribution to the nation’s economy this year. Visitor arrivals for the third quarter of this year were up 15 per cent.
Tourism was the single biggest factor responsible for a rise in our Gross Domestic Product of 5.7 per cent last Financial Year after two years of sluggish growth. For the third quarter of 2019 visitor arrivals were up by 15.2 per cent, while spending by tourists increased even more at a rate of 18.4 per cent.
This reflects how well the S.T.A. has done well to establish a foothold in new markets, not just the traditional sources of Samoan tourism: Australia and New Zealand. They should be applauded for a successful campaign last year which significantly grew the number of tourists arriving from Europe.
A story on page three of Thursday’s edition (“American Samoa shuts door on tourists”) provides another example of how we could be promoting Samoa to the world in new ways.
Dozens of international tourists, including several from as far afield as Canada and Europe were denied the opportunity to board January 1 flights to Pago Pago in an attempt to celebrate New Year’s Eve twice.
They were seeking what some described as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity: The chance to celebrate New Year’s Eve twice in 24 hours by crossing the dateline to American Samoa, the last place to see in the new year.
That they could not do so owed to bureaucratic confusion and mixed messages from the American Samoa Government after it lifted a measles travel ban but left international visitors without an option to apply for travel permits.
But in this lost opportunity lies a lesson.
That visitors are already travelling so far of their own accord to make this trip shows the potential of a joint advertising campaign between our Government and American Samoa’s to pitch us both as a New Year's holiday destination.
The sharp rise in Google searches worldwide for “Samoa” on the last day of the year is further proof of latent interest we could be encouraging actively and converting into visits.
Samoa’s exceptional recent tourism growth has been under a cloud since the measles crisis. This has always, as it must be, a secondary issue to the health of the nation.
In early December, the Chief Executive Officer of the Samoa Tourism Authority, Fa'amatuainu Lenata’i Suifua, rightly noted that it was not an appropriate time to focus on numbers but said losses would run to several millions.
Several hotels around the nation reported they may struggle to stay open amid the sudden drop-off in bookings.
But with the national state of emergency lifted, experts agreeing the crisis appears waning and some normality returning to the hospital system it is perhaps time to talk about this aspect of the measles’ aftermath.
Samoa’s tourism strategy was also challenged by the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max in March, which hit our national carrier, intended as a tourism driver, Samoa Airways.
(We hope that the release of a transparent accounting of its financial statements will reveal the extent of the financial impact on our state-owned carrier in due course.)
That we managed to achieve tourism growth of such magnitude is a credit to the S.T.A.
But sustaining and expanding it in this challenging climate is going to require some creative thinking.