In downturn, Savai'i looks to domestic tourism, optimism

The Savaii Samoa Tourism Association is optimistic visitors will return to the big island’s shores and revitalise a weakened economy struggling in the global coronavirus pandemic’s grip.

But if it doesn’t, Savaiians will do what they have always done: return to their land and survive, says Association President Vaaelua Faapoipoituuloa Gidlow.

“There is literally nothing we can do if we can’t get the overseas market. It’s not anyone’s fault,” he told the Samoa Observer.

“[We will] go back to the land. A lot of us are already doing that. Being Savaiians, we persist and we survive.”

As well as the Association President, Vaaelua is also the owner of The Savaiian Hotel and Adria’s Cafe in Lalomalava. 

He said the tourism sector and business community in general are unanimous in that they would rather Samoa’s borders remained closed and the coronavirus COVID-19 kept out, even if it means their economy suffers. 

“As much as we want the foreign tourists to come we have the responsibility to our people as well,” he said.

“We are not all about our finances, but also the welfare of the island as a whole.”

Vaaelua said the association, which has been going for ten years, has a close working relationship with the Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) and was partly established to be its eyes and ears on Savaii.

That relationship has resulted in grant funding to develop tourism sites, a functional tourism office near the wharf for visitors to stop at and even one salary for a paid S.S.T.A. executive.

Bringing a group of Samoan media outlets to Savaii to promote the island as a destination for its own people was one of the many requests the association made to the S.T.A. in the wake of not only COVID-19 but the 2019 measles epidemic.

He said until the borders reopen – and he is optimistic it will happen by early 2021 – Savaii just needs a little bit of help to keep the money flowing and ensure businesses stay open.

“As long as we are still around at the end of all this and we can get back our feet, that is probably what is most important.

“We will survive. And I don’t just say that without meaning it. Probably by the beginning of next year, we’ll start again, this can’t go on forever.”

He and his family are making ends meet with the establishment of their new café Adria’s where they have managed to employ some of their hotel staff. They are making good money from local consumers in the area.

And the hotel is still taking in guests, but largely from government groups on surveys or consultation tours.

“Government departments don’t mean cash flow,” Vaaelua said.

“They don’t pay straight away, it’s just how the system is with Government.”

Association member and owner of the Lata Plantation Richard Wetzell said without tourism, Savaii will struggle. 

His plantation’s main business is the spring water bottled into Samoa H20 and sold in the now iconic slender tall bottles. Water sales to the tourism sector account for 80 per cent of his sales income, he said.

“We are down about 10 per cent on water sales, to the end of May and that is mainly because the hotels closed down. April was our worst month but now hotels are starting to open again, we are getting trade from Upolu and hopefully that continues.

“We’ve taken a hit, business-wise with COVID but we’re not as bad as hoteliers and the guys dealing directly in tourism. We are fortunate our business is a bit diverse.”

Several years ago, Lata Plantation grew from a spring to a cattle ranch, salad greens and herbs farm and honey production site. Each of the long term projects, their rise came right in time.

The plantation has 200 cows today, not far from their goal of 300, and their honey product has begun making steady sales. Vegetables stopped selling with the hotel closures but are picking up again slowly, with Adria’s Café a new client.

“We were fortunate when COVID hit that our numbers in livestock had increased to the point where we were starting slaughter,” Mr. Wetzell said.

“We increased our hives last year and that is proving popular as well, so both cattle and honey sales have managed to prop us up during this difficult period.”

But Savaii’s entire economy depends on tourism, from the tiny over-the-counter stores to the taxis and buses. Tourism puts money directly into families’ hands, which they spend on their local seamstresses, bakers and farmhands.

As Australia continues to have new cases of community infections of the coronavirus, and New Zealand waiting for it to open up a ‘travel bubble’, international tourism in Samoa surely won’t be restarting soon.

“Long term it will be an issue. If this trend continues into next year, it’s going to be very difficult,” Mr. Wetzell said.

But at least the S.S.T.A. is an organisation of friends, who are ready to lend a hand and look after one another.

“The beautiful thing about the properties over here is that we are all friends. We can get together, have a chat, we can yarn, throw ideas around and give each other a hard time,” he said.

“There is no animosity or anything like that. They are all in it for the betterment of Savaii as a whole.”

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