Samoa 2040: Beating the dead horse of tourism

There has been a lot of talk about Samoa’s economic growth or, depending on which side of the table you’re on, lack thereof.

While the country enjoys a moment of respite from the frenzied party politics of the last month or so, this seems to be a good time to discuss government’s recently launched Samoa 2040 plan.

Hailed by its creators as a roadmap to navigate Samoa’s development over the next two decades, the plan sets out four broad focus areas – tourism, agriculture and fishing, digital economy and labour mobility – that will determine the future prosperity of our people.

The long-term plan lays out potentially transformational opportunities, which could offer a much-needed boost to income, employment and standards of living.

So far, so good.

In the plan, the message from the country’s leading economist, who also happens to be the Prime Minister, is that Samoa must continue to pursue reform initiatives to stimulate growth, enhance government’s economic management and promote social stability.

“We have weathered similar shocks in the last 20 years despite the cost in terms of human lives and economic loss,” says Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi.

“In many ways, our past experiences and expectations of what the future holds teach us a valuable lesson – to build economic resilience.”

He says moving Samoa to a higher growth trajectory is a central part of the resilience building agenda of his government.

Okay. But what does higher growth trajectory actually mean for the average person out there? And how do you inject resilience measures while also boosting growth? A higher trajectory would mean there would need to be greater risks taken (for greater reward).

Like many of these outlooks and plans, the intentions may be good but the realities are always a different story.

In Samoa 2040, tourism has been identified as the most important area in government’s aspirational model because of the potential for more jobs.

Okay. It stands to reason that the more jobs available and more people employed, the more we can expect to develop.

But does it have to be in tourism?

One critic has already slammed the plan as “misguided” and a case of “gross over optimism”.

Tauiliili Alise Stunnenberg, who spearheads political lobby group Friends4Fiame, has been involved in the tourism industry for almost 30 years and is dismissive of government’s 2040 aspirations.

“Tourism has changed completely.

“Do they [government] even know to what extent these properties and operators are in debt?

“Do we know how many more months these operators can last before they fold up completely?

“Then you’ve got the [Ministry of Customs and Revenue] calling up these businesses who have no guests or any clients coming in, and insisting on their reports from the [Tax Invoice Monitoring System], and they say we’re closed. But they still need their invoices.”

We think she has a point. There seems to be an inter-agency disconnect.

The Central Bank’s Visitor, Arrivals, Earnings breakdown confirms the bleak story of zero visitors, zero arrivals, zero earnings. That’s a given considering our borders are closed and the world has gone to the outhouse.

We suppose it’s the privilege of public service, where job security and salaries are guaranteed, that a Ministry would persist with the technicalities of an invoice monitoring system, when there have been no guests to issue invoices to.

General Manager for Taumeasina Island Resort Tuiataga Nathan Bucknell said government officials ran consultations with hoteliers last year.

“I felt sorry for them because they were out doing their questions and talking about in ten years’ time and 20 years’ time and to be honest, all the hoteliers in the room, we can’t have a focus ten years down the track, we are just trying to work out how to get through next week,” he said.

While it’s difficult to put a hotel general manger in the same box as a base-wage hotel worker, the point is that an even greater gap exists between those in the actual business and consultants.

In the 2040 plan, government has acknowledged that there is a need to allocate public funding to initiatives that will unlock much-needed private investment in the local tourist offering.

With Samoa’s market share in the region at about 8 per cent, having remained about the same for two decades, it does make you wonder if we’re just beating the same half-dead horse?

Government says visitor surveys show our environment, people and culture are what is most appealing for tourists, while lacking infrastructure, inadequate public services and facilities, poor service and food standards (despite relatively high prices) and social issues (prevalence of rubbish, child vendors) are the less appealing facets of life on our islands.

The reality of it is that if it’s not climate change or natural disasters, it will be a global pandemic or some other completely unforeseen threat that will decimate our tourism industry from time to time.

We believe climate change is going to reshape our coast lines, wreak havoc on our seasonal patterns and create more unpredictability for Samoa. This does not bode well for many of our tourist attractions, which are on Samoa’s coastlines.  

The other focus areas of agriculture and fisheries, digital economy and labour mobility deserve more attention.

The importance of agriculture and fisheries, for basic survival, has never been more apparent with the effects of Covid-19. Here in Samoa and everywhere else in the world, food is a necessity, not a luxury.

The possibilities for growth in our digital economy would not only offer new opportunities for local businesses, education providers, health and e-government applications; it closes, or reduces, apparent gaps due to our geographic isolation as a small island state.

We are already seeing the impacts of the internet on local businesses, with online markets providing a platform for locals to ply their trade and our diaspora to engage services on island for their families who live here.

It goes without saying that Labour Mobility has been a boon for many families. And while our arrangement with New Zealand has been in place for some time, the Australian market is still developing with potential for greater growth.

So why is government planning to pool major resources towards an industry that has struggled for two decades to climb out of its seat of mediocrity?

We can’t even get the most famous Samoan in the world to endorse our tourism campaigns.

Perhaps we’re a little cynical in this second year of a national state of emergency, but if we continue to push tourism as the mainstay of our economy, then every climactic weather event, global pandemic and natural disaster will throw our canoe off course. Then it will be Samoa 180.

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