PEOPLE OF 2020: Faamatuaina Lenatai Suifua
Samoa's previously thriving tourism industry, which the Government had pinned its hopes upon to drive economic growth, has taken a major hit during the past two years.
Just when the sector thought it had overcome one of the worst setbacks from the measles epidemic last year, COVID19 arrived with its own sets of challenges and setbacks.
The closure of international borders due to the pandemic was only the beginning of constant battles faced by an industry that was going through uncertainty and doubt.
Operators were struggling to meet their repayments while on the other end their employers were going from door to door to find alternative work to help their families.
On the receiving end of all the problems that the operators and what the employers were going through was the Samoa Tourism Authority.
The authority was tasked with the difficult job of voicing the grievances from its multiple stakeholders making appeals to the Government to divert its attention to the once-booming industry.
The authority was faced with the challenge of convincing the Government to prioritise the sector's need over efforts to prevent the spread of COVID19 among many other mounting needs.
Led by a young and active Chief Executive Officer that had just boarded the ship months before the measles began, Fa’amatuainu Lenatai Suifua didn’t have much time to find his feet.
Nothing prepared the 38-year-old father from Moata’a, Lufilufi and Vaisala Savai'i as he began the peak of his career at a time when the industry was at its lowest.
But it was the downturn of the tourism industry that drove the authority’s chief to be daring and penned many cabinet proposals that were often rejected and ignored.
His main goal, regardless whether Cabinet Ministers took the time to read the proposals or not was to keep knocking on closed doors until the Government hears their plight.
The industry that was often touted by Government for driving the country’s economy was now in trouble and it was up to Fa’amatuainu to captain a stranded ship.
“There were a lot of S.O.E. restrictions and despite having our cabinet papers declined we were persistent and wrote some more proposals,” he said as he recalled the year that was.
“It has been hard because the time the hoteliers got hit it affected everyone from the fishermen that supplied the restaurants to staffs that were made redundant, they were breadwinners for their family.
“It was like watching a domino effect that impacted not only the tourism but other businesses, our people.”
At the time of the measles epidemic, Fa’amatuainu said they thought it was the worst thing that had happened to the tourism industry.
“There were a lot of cancellations during measles and although we didn’t have tourists we still had medical teams that occupied the facilities,” he said.
“Just when there were plans to recover from measles by January the unexpected happened with covid…we thought that will ease up soon after but everything suddenly stopped in March when borders closed and then the S.O.Es was another issue.”
In March this year the Government closed its borders to international flights and state of emergency orders for covid-19 was declared.
With no tourists and visiting families from New Zealand and Australia to fly in, the sector had to look at its domestic market to sustain business for the meantime.
The C.E.O. said while the authority’s budget focuses on promoting Samoa as a destination to overseas market that was re-diverted back to marketing tourism locally.
Part of the major assistance from Government through S.T.A. was running an extensive promotion programme fully paid by the authority to entice the domestic tourists.
The promotion package didn’t just target the big hoteliers and beach fales with paid for advertisement in the local media but there were also trainings for those made redundant.
Some of the events put together by S.T.A. include the Kuka – taste of beautiful Samoa promoting chefs and cuisine from restaurants, Tafaoga package a tour guiding programme, the Palolo Festival in Savaii amongst other incentives.
Even those that were made redundant in the industry were not neglected.
S.T.A. offered free short term trainings for them at the Australian Pacific Technical College and National University of Samoa tourism programme.
Not only did the authority paid for their fees and the benefit of getting a qualification after they were also given student allowance.
Fa’amatuainu added the authority took the initiative of going out to communities like Asau to carry out trainings considering the level of understanding of participants and at the same time there was stimulus package.
Another major relief for the struggling industry when the borders were closed is quarantining those from repatriation flights at the various accommodations.
The C.E.O. noted that the authority has gone overboard and beyond to help the tourism industry.
But he acknowledges that despite the many incentives and work the S.T.A. has done to stimulate the industry, it was never going to work had the people not come out to use the services.
“It wouldn’t matter if we did all of this but if our people did not come to the rescue and assist the industry by using these services that would’ve been the end of it,” said Fa’amatuainu.
“It was really the country that came out to assist our own people working in the industry and the operators.
“From here we know that there is a huge potential with our domestic market and its consistent throughout 12 months.
“The international market is seasonal but there is a huge potential for our local market and its future.”
Looking to the future, Fa’amatuainu said there are a lot of lessons from the epidemic and pandemic and more reasons to consider a reserve for such events in the future.
He said that the world has faced SARS, covid and there is no doubt that similar disease will strike again in the future.
But he hopes to create a conversation around a reserve for the tourism industry so that it is prepared to face future crisis and not run on an empty tank.
Furthermore, the C.E.O. forecasts a 5 year period for the industry to recover from covid and is optimistic with a lot of potential in the domestic market tourism is likely to get up on its feet quicker than expected.
Fa’amatuainu has been the C.E.O. for S.T.A. for a little over a year and has worked for S.T.A. for six years.
He is married to Ilovea Fa’amatuainu and has three children.
A former student of Avele College and a graduate of the N.U.S. Polytechnic he holds a Masters in Environmental Laws, Bachelor of Social Science and Post Graduate Certificate in Development planning.