Samoa's hotels still fighting for survival

With the arrival of November, the festive season is upon us, and with it the acute reminder that what is usually the happiest time in beautiful Samoa, is likely to be sombre one, unlike any other in the country’s history.

From November to January, the island is usually alive with family reunions, weddings, Christmas parties and other celebrations.

It is the busiest season for visiting friends and relatives, and was only getting busier before the global COVID-19 pandemic slammed the borders shut. 

A year ago, nearly 12,000 visitors arrived in Samoa in November alone, nearly four percent more than in 2018. This year the number of visitors will be zero.

But despite that, the hoteliers whose properties are typically humming with activity this season are refusing to be glum about the situation they are in. 

Luna Marsters-Paul runs the Le Manumea Hotel with her husband, Norman, and their daughter Tualagi. 

She told the Samoa Observer that she refuses to get upset about the border closure, the lack of tourists or the precarious finances her hotel is sometimes in. And she certainly won’t be dwelling on whether Le Manumea has to close its doors anytime soon.

“To me, if I start looking at the sad part of things, that will just take me down. I would rather stay positive and look up, literally look up to the heavens,” Ms. Marsters-Paul said with a laugh.

Instead, she takes comfort in her faith and in scripture. At the Samoa Hotel’s Association meeting on Tuesday evening, she tried to share that with the other hoteliers with a passage from the Book of Romans, which reads: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”

Ms. Marsters-Paul said she continued reading that book the next morning, and found confirmation in her approach in the very next verse: “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

“I started off saying yesterday that I am smiling, though I shouldn’t be, but I am smiling because I hope,” she said. “When I carried on reading this morning it was confirmation that we have to stay hopeful.”

Her sunny outlook comes from gratitude too. For Samoa’s COVID-19 free status, and for her daughter’s deft social media skills bringing crowds to special events several times a week at the hotel.

They have devised Margarita Mondays, Grill Wednesdays, and Poly Flavour Fridays which are slowly drawing larger and larger groups happy to spend and socialise, taking advantage of the relative freedoms here in Samoa. 

Some even take advantage of the hotel’s $100 room special, put in place to lure drivers off the roads if they have had too much to drink. 

Ms. Marsters-Paul said the rates are cheap, and so are the meals and drinks on offer. But Le Manumea is making just enough to pay their staff and keep the lights on, and they are even looking to hire more staff as their special nights get busier. 

“I am grateful to our Government and authorities for keeping things together and I pray for their strength and compassion towards the tourism industry,” she said.

“We need their compassion, we need them to feel what we are feeling. I know the tourism industry has made a big contribution to the revenue of the Government.

“We need their compassion towards us and I know they have been compassionate for many years. I can speak for myself. We need them at this time also.”

On the other side of Upolu, Joan Macfarlane and her husband Fogalepolo Lepou run the Ifiele'ele Plantation, a boutique accommodation for up to 12 people. 

Last year, Ifiele’ele was booked back to back all through the busy season with guests staying for weeks at a time as they travelled around enjoying Samoa. This year the property has had bookings on just three or four weekends.

For Ms. Macfarlane, Samoa’s border closure came with an extra burden: the couple was in Australia when Samoa shut its doors and while Mr. Lepou could fly home, Ms. Macfarlane couldn’t come back until just last month.

“That was really lucky because if neither of us had been here I hate to think what would have happened. 

“We are still so happy that I am finally back in Samoa and we are back together, and back as a team doing everything we do here,” she said.

The couple, finally reunited, are putting renewed energy into finding ways to stay on their property and keep it in mint condition for when tourists can return. 

Though unable, and somewhat unwilling to drop their accommodation prices to the floor like many other hotels, they have managed to keep their eight staff employed on reduced hours to help maintain the property. 

It still costs them around $1,200 a week to pay everyone and it is not always clear where all that will come from, and it’s probably the area they would need the most help with if help was to come. 

They also make and sell jams, chutneys and dried fruit, with more plans in the mix to repurpose the fruits of their abundant plantation. 

“The downturn in visitors to Samoa meant that there were fewer people buying those products, it is still going but a lot slower than it was previously,” she said.

“We still need to do the work to keep the plantation going, so the labour is still costing us the same but we are not making as much from what we produce, and we are not producing as much because there is less demand.” 

But there is only so much hustle left, Ms. Macfarlane said. 

“Other than that, if Paul or I were able to get a paid job, we are just about looking at that at this stage,” she said.

“If something was offered, which it is from time to time, then we would look at it seriously, because we don’t know how long this is going to go on for or how much of a bounce back there will be when it does bounce back.” 

It is not just November when visitors and family flock to Samoa. In December 2019, nearly 18,000 visitors arrived, despite a nationwide measles epidemic that by the end of the year at claimed at least 83 lives. 

Perhaps without that epidemic, December’s arrivals may have been as high as the year before: 24,021 people, 48 per cent of which were visiting friends and relatives.

Fasavalu Dave Parker of the iconic mountainside Dave Parker Eco Lodge said his accommodation has not been successful in attracting locals the way the larger, more coastal hotels have since the borders closed.

He has had two groups of repatriated citizens staying for their two-week quarantine period though, and he said the income from that booking has been a tremendous boost, and helped keep his eight staff employed and the electricity bills paid.

Fasavalu advertises his property under the auspices of the Samoa Tourism Authority’s campaign, which has drawn “one and a half” guests up to the misty tops of Tapatapao. 

“So far as locals are concerned, most of them seem to be going to the bigger places, like Taumeasina or Sheraton and the ones in kua (rural areas) because they are having sales, it’s hard to beat. 

“For some reason, the times we had quarantined guests here, those are the times people seem to want to come up… it makes me wonder if they have a relative staying here,” Fasavalu laughed.

His children in New Zealand have been his saving grace, paying off his bank loan so in one go to avoid the late fees, and helping him pay for maintenance of the large site.

“Without them, I wouldn’t know what to do at a time like this, and I am sure a lot of hotel owners are struggling and depending on their families, but unfortunately they are in the same boat as us.

“This can’t go on for ever, let’s hope in six months we are back to almost normal, by June next year hopefully flights will be back.”

But if not, it won’t mean the end of Dave Parker’s Eco Lodge. After all, it is where he and his family live, where their plantation has been sown and where his children expect their inheritance.

“But we might have to go back to the old kerosene lamp,” Fasavalu said.

“We have tons of firewood up there, if we can’t afford to pay for gas. But at least no bank will come and say they are taking our place.

“I’m not going to let the place go to bush, no way. And when my son Poetik (Ventry Parker) comes back, he’s going to take over the whole thing.”

Taumeasina Island Resort has been doing all it can to keep the doors open and encourage locals to dip their toes where the might not have thought to before.

Weekend guests get air conditioning, wifi and a beautiful toona’i on Sunday, which is proving an attractive proposition to Samoans living under state of emergency conditions. 

General Manager Tuiataga Nathan Bucknall said a growing tradition for families of coming for toonai at the resort means everyone has a great time, even though some still don’t realise they aren’t allowed to buy an alcohol drink on a Sunday. 

“A lot of people don’t want to get up at four in the morning to cook their toonai, they want the hotels to do it for them.

“People come after church, they are dressed up nicely and it’s a beautiful crowd on Sundays. People make it an outing on the weekend, which is nice.”

He has become extremely vigilant about turning off lights and unused power sockets in a bid to save whatever he can on the electricity bill.

“I turn off the mains for each room and take the keys out, it’s become a ritual just to make sure everything is turned off and unplugged, because every little bit helps at the moment.

“We have had to get really creative with putting on entertainment and doing specials, you have to do different specials every month, cocktails of the day, beverage specials, to try and keep people coming in.”

Room rates have been slashed and some customers have taken advantage to “holiday” on the weekend, and enjoy someone else’s cooking on a Sunday morning while the state of emergency has all restaurants closed until noon. 

But despite all these efforts, Tuiataga said the clock is still ticking and state of emergency conditions need to change. 

“I hear a lot that six days of trade is enough, but in the hospitality industry our clientele work Monday to Friday or Monday to Saturday, to Sunday is the only day they really have.

“It hasn’t been sustainable for some time. We’re lucky because we have investor support, but we can’t keep going on forever like this.

“We would ideally love to have trading hours extended for the bars, it would be nice.

“I am not having a go, I think they are doing [the Government are] best that they can, and I would ideally love for [the restrictions] to be removed but I understand if they are not, but back to normal would be amazing for everybody.

Tuiataga said the state of emergency order to close up the bar and restaurant at 10pm has resulted in heavier drinking.

“From a social point of view, having the bars close at ten – and it’s not just Taumeasina – people tend to want to drink quickly, because they know the bar is going to close.

“If it’s a bit later people drink a little more responsibly and take their time.” 

Last month, what should have been a boon of an evening fizzled out: Tuiataga said he watched the quietest ever Sunday Bledisloe Cup match between the All Blacks and the Wallabies with a crowd that disappeared as soon as the game finished.

“The crowd were all drinking soft drinks and vaitipolo and niu and it was probably the quietest rugby game I’ve ever seen,” he laughed.

“New Zealand won, but at soon as the game was over everyone left. They would normally stay, order some pupus, sit around.”

Keeping staff employed continues to be a priority. There are 90 staff on the roster but none are doing full hours, and the management team are on half their salary, including Tuiataga himself.

“No one is breaking even […] what we are doing, and everything we have done is to pay staff and utilities, and that is about it really.”

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