Taufua's expansion hit by COVID-19
With business booming and bookings secured a year in advance, the family behind Taufua Beach Fales could be forgiven for feeling optimistic about their business’ future.
One of the busiest tourist attractions on the south coast, and even in Samoa, Taufua Beach Fales, invested one million tala into expanding their business in late 2017.
Business had been going from strength to strength, especially in the ten years since the 2009 tsunami.
In late 2017, the owners of Faafetai, Taufua Apelu and Taufua Sili Apelu, embarked on a plan to build 11 units into the hillside and far from rising tides.
They received a sizable grant from the United Nations Development Programme, but the end bill was just over a million tala.
They had paid off three-quarters of that sum back when COVID-19 struck and their revenue stream from international tourists dried up - and fast.
“Luckily the bank gave us three months of no repayments but that three months was over in June,” Taufua said.
They are now waiting for the bank to consider anther stay in payments.
It’s not just the bank they owe money too. Dozens of cancelled bookings are waiting for refunds, but there simply isn’t money to pay customers back as their bills and wages keep mounting up.
Taufua thinks they owe something like $300,000 in refunds, and count themselves lucky a lot of the guests have been visiting the fales for over a decade and are willing to wait to get their money back.
Like many other business owners, the couple closed nearly their entire operation at the beginning of the state of emergency, after saying goodbye to their last guests. They have only been open again for a month and are not making ends meet.
When it comes to help from the Government, they say they have heard nothing.
“We are still waiting if they are able to help us out, not much but a bit, whatever they can give to support,” Mrs. Apelu said.
Her husband said: “There is so much [talk about] that the Government is giving out money to the tourist sector but [after our] experience from the tsunami we have no faith in that.”
In September 2009, an 8.1 earthquake struck off the coast of Samoa and raised a tsunami over the island, predominately the south coast. Waves measured 14 metres at their highest; by the end there were no fales left at Taufua’s.
Rebuilding started at the end of December that year and by May they had finished eight new fales, with their bank’s help.
Finally, a year later, the Government came through with $150,000 in support money.
“I think it was easy for them to determine how much money to give to hotels when they can roughly estimate the cost of the fales we had before the tsunami,” Taufua said.
“That will be the hidden cost to the Government; I don’t know if they can determine what kind of assistance they can give beach fales or even hotels in terms of the money [they have] lost.”
At the beginning of the state of emergency in March, the business had barely finished repaying all the cancelled bookings that resulted from the measles epidemic. Still, they were looking at bookings all the way through June 2021, with near full occupancy the whole way through.
Just nine staff are still working at the property. Some 33 have lost their jobs and are waiting for the country’s international borders to open.
Though encouraged to, very few have actually found new jobs and have instead gone to their plantations to invest in their land.
“They are still around, they come here to check on us and how we are doing,” Taufua said.
He hopes the Government will be able to offer either a cash grant to help them pay their debts, or perhaps a stipend for their affected staff.
“Their families were depending on them, that’s why it’s so important to us to give priority to them,” Mrs. Apelu said.
Meanwhile, the pair are turning their attention to the Apia crowd, hoping to lure them over to the beach with discounts on accommodation, meals and events.
Rates are down to less than half their regular prices. An air-conditioned villa and en-suite costs just $200 for four people and $170 for two; beach fales are down to $160 for four or $140 for two, with breakfast and dinner included.
The resort accepts bookings via their Facebook page (Taufua Beach Fales) or tafuabeachfales.com.