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Thinking outside tourism. Seizing opportunities post-COVID-19

Samoa’s road to recovery from the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic is looking long and meandering with uncertainty.

The mainstay of the country’s economy that accounts for 20 per cent of our gross domestic product, tourism, is in tatters with thousands out of employment and close to 100 operators shut due to lack of business.

Over a week ago the Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) Chief Executive Officer, Fa'amatuainu Lenatai Suifua, went to great pains to share projections by his office that Samoa’s tourism industry will take seven years to recover.

“Tourism is regarded as the most hit sector in terms of the impacts from the COVID-19 global pandemic. Last month we did a forecast which will take us seven years to get back to the numbers we have achieved last year," the C.E.O. told the Samoa Observer in an interview. “It has been seven months since the industry has been impacted and it started from the measles epidemic in October 2019. Straight after that we entered into the coronavirus pandemic and it’s a big challenge for the industry to keep afloat.”

The S.T.A. estimates that the downturn resulted in the loss of 3,000 jobs and the closure of over 80 businesses.

It is why the views of prominent Samoan and New Zealand’s Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, makes sense in these challenging times.

“I think COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to be exploring all options, to be looking outside the norm. Obviously tourism has been an important sector but are there other options?” he told Samoa Observer in an interview.

Aupito has recommended the Government consider the agriculture and fisheries sectors as alternatives for tourism. 

The diversification of Samoa’s economy has always been on the agenda of successive Human Rights Protection Party (H.R.P.P.) governments over the years, but it has never been as important as it is today, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic felt far and wide globally including in Samoa.

Seven years is a long time to wait for the local tourism industry to get back on its feet, and with the global aviation sector in a conundrum due to uncertainty over travellers’ confidence in air travel post-COVID-19, it would be hard to pinpoint a start date for tourism.

Therefore, investments in the country’s agriculture and fisheries potential would be a step in the right direction. And we acknowledge the Government already making head way on this front, in collaboration with donor partners.

The Samoa Agriculture and Fisheries Productivity and Marketing Project, which was launched in Savai’i in March this year, is one such project in partnership with the World Bank Group and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (I.F.A.D.). It is worth US$23.55 million (T$62 million) with a project lifespan of five years.

But the welfare of our people is a Government responsibility, which is why it is important our leaders acknowledge the role of agriculture and fisheries in not only economically empowering our rural people, but also addressing their food security issues.

Consequently, giving the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (M.A.F.) an allocation of T$15.5 million in the Government’s 2020-2021 Budget, is likely to have a minimal impact in achieving the above outcomes. Out of the T$15.5 million allocation, T$11.9 million will go to ‘normal operations’ and T$3.49 million for ‘Transactions on behalf of the State’.

Normal operations can cover administration or even miscellaneous costs, which at the end of the day, could translate to zero outcomes for those out of jobs and aspiring to return to the land and the sea for their livelihood.

Ultimately, the Government’s T$15.5 million appropriation to the M.A.F. – who have been charged with the responsibility to work with our agriculture and fisheries sectors to begin the transition to becoming our top export earners – is hardly inspiring.

The need to move in that direction is critical now more than ever and the Government has – if this budgetary allocation in the 2020-21 Budget is any indication – again failed to walk the talk. Relying on donor partners to take the lead to reinvigorate our agriculture and fisheries sectors, are symptoms of a Government out of touch with the realities on the ground and belittling the welfare of its people.

With COVID-19 breaking global supply chains and forcing the redrawing of international trading systems, a window has opened for Samoa to explore the potential of exporting agricultural and fisheries produce and products to neighbouring island states.

There are island states that continue to be challenged by rising sea levels brought on by climate change and inadequate arable land for agriculture.

If the opportunity is there, we should seize it with both hands, but first we need our leaders and technocrats in Government to be proactive and think outside the box.

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