A walk to the other side of Samoan tourism

In a tribute to a work by our most famous adopted literary son, Robert Louis Stevenson, Samoa has long been known to the outside world as “Treasure Island”.

Of course, it is one of those ironies that those of us who live here and spend much of our day-to-day lives travelling along the same routes find ourselves immune to the natural charms that so entrance our visitors. 

The opening this Wednesday of the Uafato Bird Hide Trail was a perfect reminder of the many corners of our country’s natural wonder about which even locals remain uninformed.  

We offer our congratulations to the Uafato village, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Samoa Conservation Society for their joint role in the project’s establishment.

The awe-inspiring views offered to those who walk the 800 metre trail are something spellbinding.

The project is also the latest representative of a new kind of tourism destination: one that combines natural beauty with those other overlooked attractions to our country: its ancient history and rich wildlife. 

The Uafato conservation area is one of the oldest geological areas in Samoa. It contains more than 380 species of plants and is a haven for six native reptiles, two flying fox species and more than 19 native birds including the Manumea.

Last month’s launch of the Palauli Heritage project, which hopes to consolidate the villages which some researchers believe form the basis of Polynesian civilisation reflects a similar ethos. 

It may seem the least appropriate of times to be discussing the future of travel and tourism in Samoa.

Internationally, the sector has been experiencing a collapse in demand not seen since the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001.

The effects on our own sector have been equally disastrous and will only get worse. 

In reality there could be no better time to reflect on and even reform the industry as we await the restoration of normal international conditions, however far away they may be. 

For one thing, now is an occasion to reflect on the potential power of our domestic tourism market, something that has only become evident as international arrivals have dried up.

The Fagaloa district is an area the vast majority of Samoans are unlikely to have ever had reason to visit. 

The tourism sector’s recent pivot to marketing to local travelers has been borne out of necessity at a time of international contraction but it is a perfect time to refine and test the depth of our domestic market. 

We have lamented in these pages before the large degree to which state support of tourism projects has gravitated towards larger tourism operators. 

With the Bird Trail, by contrast, we have a project that was completed within nine months and promises to bring jobs and tourists to a new part of Upolu. 

Some 65 per cent of the $100 million tala loan portfolio of the Government-owned Development Bankof Samoa sits with tourism projects; 82 per cent of it to large corporations. 

The arguments against the Bank’s approach to business have been well rehearsed in these pages and do not bear repeating here. 

But the Uafato case is instructive as an example of what a completely different state-sponsored tourism strategy might look like. 

Investing in projects that can be brought to completion within nine months and much more cheaply allow us to diversify our tourism attractions much more quickly than backing a few centrepiece projects.

That would represent an experimental approach to developing the tourism sector. Many initiatives may fail to take hold; some may take root as genuine visitor attractions; but whatever the case the risk to the taxpayer’s capital is much lessened.

But the Uafato project brings something else to mind - and that is how we think of tourism in Samoa. 

Until recent interventions the future of the broader tourism market in Samoa appeared bright. In the long-term it still does.

But we have to ask what Samoa’s lure to tourists is, as a country that is comparatively difficult to access from many overseas markets and is unlikely to anytime soon compete with Fiji’s dominant position as the place to which people travel for a week in a resort. 

Our comparative advantage lies elsewhere. 

Perhaps one of its Bird Hide Trail’s chief virtues is the way in which it challenges the orthodoxy that Samoa must ‘develop’ a new tourism sector. 

It suggests that we might conserve our way to one. 

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