Tourism Authority stands by arrivals reporting after criticism

The Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) is standing by the way it presents arrival figures in the wake of criticism from the industry, saying claims it has misled investors “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

In a letter to the Samoa Observer, Chief Executive Officer Faamatuainu Lenatai Suifua said the Authority’s practice of including Visiting Friends and Relatives (V.F.R.) arrivals data with the rest of Samoa’s tourists is in line with international reporting standards.

He defended the S.T.A. against claims the numbers were “fudged,” saying reports are transparent in order to best inform an industry to make good decisions.

His comments come following criticism by beach fale operator Taufua Sili Apelu, who said that lumping V.F.R. figures with other tourists is not a true representation of how many people stay in paid accommodation when they visit Samoa.

But Faamatuainu disagrees, saying more and more Samoans returning to their homeland for visits are less likely to have traditional village connections and do in fact opt to stay in resorts, hotels or beach fales.

“To say that its inclusion in our visitor numbers is to try and fudge the numbers and mislead people to invest in tourism is actually an insult to those investors as there are so many other factors to consider as part of their due diligence prior to making such investments.”

S.T.A. official figures for the 2018/19 financial state that of the 67,667 arrivals that stayed in some kind of accommodation just 8,278 (12 per cent) of them were in the V.F.R. category while 47,881 of them were holidaymakers. In both categories, majority stayed in deluxe accommodation.

Fa’amatuainu said this figure is not a full picture of the reality as it comes from “immigration travel cards” which are more often filled out by holiday and business travellers rather than V.F.R.s.

“This information highly favours the holiday and business travellers as they already know their accommodation status prior to travelling over,” he explained.

“The V.F.R.s on the other hand are usually undecided and may stay with family on the first few days before spending the rest of their holiday in paid accommodation.”

He did not clarify whether the data was from the arrival or the departure cards passengers are required to fill out at airports.

But in writing to the Samoa Observer, Faamatuainu took the opportunity to hit out at operators who might be tempted to voice their concerns about the S.T.A.

“We would also like to remind our operators about the great opportunities and benefits afforded to them in the past by the government through various fiscal measures and that now is not the time to be pointing fingers but rather to unite and offer viable solutions so we can get through this together."

He said the S.T.A. is looking to do more to take advantage of the unique and lucrative V.F.R. market, whose spend is typically “more well spread throughout the community” than other holidaymakers, adding the market contributed 46 per cent to tourism earnings in 2018/19 financial year.

Samoa Hotels Association, the private sector group representing much of the tourism industry, believes despite what official figures say, more Samoans do in fact stay in paid accommodation.

President Tupai Saleimoa Vaai said his observation is that V.F.R. travellers do stay with their families for the first part of their trip, and move into accommodation for a “holiday” before they return home.

“I think the new generation of New Zealand born Samoans say while you come to visit family, may as well enjoy a holiday as well,” he said.

“Traditionally Samoans overseas were able to travel to Samoa once every three or four years, now we find a lot of our people coming back more and more, so much that the amount of people coming in matches the population in Samoa.”

With the improvement of services in Samoa and the introduction of Samoa Airways and the more affordable flights it brought, more Samoans than ever are able to travel home frequently.

“That extra amount of people coming into the country is a huge boost to our economy,” Tupai said.

“They are an integral part of the industry and we make sure we look at our numbers to ensure we are catering to our V.F.R. market because it’s a completely different market compared to our holiday makers.”

Last week, the Samoa Observer reported that Taufua, who runs Taufua Beach Fales with his wife Faafetai Taufua, believes the two figures together encouraged too many people to invest in the tourism accommodation sector.

“The V.F.R.: that is the one that misled the people. They shouldn’t [include them] because they don’t stay in hotels, they stay with their families.”

Read Faamatuainu’s letter in response to questions from the Samoa Observer on page 13 of the Sunday Samoan.

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