Pandemic an opportunity to diversify economy away from tourism

Samoa needs to use the pandemic crisis as an opportunity to look at other ways to sustain its economy.

That's the opinion of prominent Samoan and New Zealand's Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio.

With tourism, which typically accounts for 30 per cent of Samoa’s gross domestic product (G.D.P.), indefinitely on hold, the small island nation needs to look at its human resources and land for income instead of waiting for borders to reopen.

“It’s not just about tourism,” said Aupito, who also holds the Su'a matai title

“There are a number of other assets people need to look at. Local food production is one opportunity, rather than depending on imported goods, and fishing is a vital contributor to the local G.D.P.s. of Pacific nations.

“I think COVID-19 gives us as opportunity to be exploring all options, to be looking outside the norm. Obviously tourism has been an important sector but are there other options?”

The Government’s new financial year budget and second COVID-19 stimulus package has gone some way towards diversifying the country’s money makers.

There is a proposed $2 million package for the agriculture sector, partly to get the newly unemployed workers who lost their jobs to the pandemic’s effects into the lucrative field of farming and exporting.

It is a programme which would be led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (M.A.F.) to get the coconut, cocoa, taro and vegetable industries revitalised, in part to ensure Samoa’s own food security is safe.

The 2020/21 MAF allocation has some indications Government is serious about this agriculture push, with $15.5 million total set aside for this critical ministry.  

There is $500,000 set aside for the rhinoceros beetle elimination programme to end the plague on an already fragile coconut industry and a further $300,000 for Women in Business Development, which focuses on getting female-led farms and food products into the market.

The annual Agriculture Show, which for the last few years has taken place around October, also has a budget of $500,000. 

The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour, which could be mobilised to help manage the employment crisis, has been given a budget of $7.5 million tala, with no major new initiatives tabled so far. 

Samoa Worker’s Congress Director Gatoloai Tili Afamasaga said investment into the agriculture sector was actually in her organisation’s submission to Government while it was writing the budget.

She wants Government to invest in retraining and helping increase capacity of Samoans to monetise their readily available resources and take care of their families.

“Instead of looking for paid jobs, enable [people] to get back into agriculture,” Gatoloai said. 

The businesses that have shuttered or reduced to get through the economic downturn will take time to recover, and there is no clear date on when the tourism industry may begin to revive, although estimates have reached six years. 

“We know everyone in Samoa has land, and we don’t know just how long the current status will be. We should be looking at something really, really sustainable.”

Aupito said as well as diversifying the economic drivers in Samoa, people need every opportunity to get higher education and greater tools have access to jobs no matter where they are.

“Of all the resources that we have our human resource is number one in the Pacific region. I think we need to look at finding ways that we can fully develop that human resource,” he said.

“I am referring obviously to the possibility of tertiary education and making sure that the Pacific population have all of the upskilling opportunities, educational opportunities so that if in the event that local jobs aren’t available that jobs around the region would make sure they have those opportunities and that will enable their flow of remittances to be stronger.”

The latest Central Bank of Samoa figures show $46.3 million worth of remittances arrived in Samoa this March, or 24.7 per cent of G.D.P, majority of which came from New Zealand. 

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