Domestic tourism a fine idea; but it must be realised
The spat between Samoa Airways and Savai’i’s tourism industry is emblematic of the failings of the Government’s attempt to resuscitate tourism in Samoa.
It is no secret that tourism is in freefall. The amount of money that it no longer contributes to the economy makes for eye watering reading.
We have written in these pages before about the inadequacies of the Government’s stimulus package measures.
Initiatives such as cutting resorts’ electricity bills do not now seem likely to stimulate the tourism sector when the vast majority of the nation’s hotels cannot afford to keep the lights on.
The thousands of employees who have lost their job amid this downturn have been offered the opportunity to raid their savings to the tune of 20 per cent or $4000.
But otherwise there is precious little being done to keep money flowing through the industry.
Until the development of a COVID-19 vaccine and the arrival of international tourists, domestic tourism is our only hope,
The Savai’i Samoa Tourism Association has been optimistic that domestic visitors can and will return to the big island’s shores.
And so is the Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.), which is banking on a domestic-focused strategy to re-energise the tourism market.
The S.T.A. recently took journalists on a tour of Savai’i to advertise the island’s natural beauty and attractions.
The campaign #TakeMeToSavaii encompasses local media, advertising, featuring Savaii in episodes across two television shows, and encouraging Savaii businesses to offer packages and deals to locals.
But when it came to the practicalities of actually getting tourists to Savai’i, the most important part of any strategy, we have seen the complete absence of promotion.
The opening of a new local route for Samoa Airways to Savai’i was supposed to be an answer to one of the biggest obstacles to weekends away: an uncongenial traveling schedule.
That began with the state of emergency ban on the Sunday ferry. Where once tourists could leave Upolu on a Friday and return on Sunday after a weekend in Savai’i they now have no option but catching a jam packed Monday morning ferry.
The ten minute flight was designed to maximise the amount of time local tourists could spend in Savai’i for a true weekend away, leaving early on Friday afternoon and departing in time to return to work on Monday.
When the new route was unveiled last month, we were told by the airline’s Chief Executive Officer Seiuli Alvin Tuala, that the national carrier was responding to public desires:
"The launch of Savai’i services is to support growing demand for a more convenient travel option to and from the market,” he said.
“It is also a way to build support for local corporate businesses and considering the current pandemic, a way to support local tourism operators with a quick weekend get away from 'Upolu' option.”
The service was styled as an example of the Government’s commitment to investing in transport for its own citizens.
And struggling tourism operators agreed.
“At the moment there are no guests, but when I heard about this quick [trip] back to Apia, I think they will love it,” said Penina Schmidt, the owner of the struggling Jane’s Beach Fales.
But twice now the flights have not only failed to live up to these promises but they have been abject failures of marketing and administration.
The first flights were scheduled to depart for the big island on Friday 28 August.
It was only on Thursday that officials from the national carrier confirmed that the flights would be postponed for two weeks.
No reason or comment was provided.
It was a similar story on 11 September. The airline had been running advertisements for the $89 - exclusive of flights - taxes up until the day of their scheduled departure.
The airline only announced the cancellation of the flights on the day of their scheduled departure.
On the second occasion a reason was provided. Apparently, the demand Seiuli had detected was not, in fact, growing for inter-island flights.
"Samoa Airways has regrettably had to postpone scheduled flight services to Savai’i from today, 11th September until Monday 5th October due to low customer demand for these flights at this time," the airline said in a statement.
The flights are now set to resume on 9 October for White Sunday. Let us hope they are executed successfully this time.
How could the airline have misread its customer base so badly?
According to the President of the Samoa Hotels Association, Tupa'i Saleimoa Vaai, a lack of demand for plane tickets does not explain the cancellations adequately.
“They went out and launched the flights without talking to the [tourism] industry [in Savaii] or even have a marketing strategy given it is a business," Tupa'i said.
“There is a need to have a strategy to gain the market. You can’t just offer and expect everyone to come running to the [airline]; you have to market it.”
Tupa'i said the airline had only approached tourism operators at the last minute about the flights and whether hoteliers would be interested in joint promotions.
The national carrier disputes that.
Seiuli said: “Through these meetings Samoa Airways have communicated the launch of its Savai’i services. There was never a lack of communication on any part from the airline.”
We are unlikely to get to the bottom of this dispute and doing so would be unproductive anyway.
But in every squandered opportunity there is a lesson.
For a tourism sector in freefall we should be attempting everything we can to breathe life back into what was the lynchpin of our economy, such as package deals between hoteliers and Samoa Airways. So far we have seen no such thing.
Public money has been spent renovating Savai’i’s Maota Airport. But a third cancellation could well spell the end to what has been a very short lived rescue plan.
The S.T.A. has also expended considerable resources on promoting domestic tourism as an idea. Now we must make it a reality.