Budget cut, lack of leadership adding to tourism industry woes

By The Editorial Board 22 June 2022, 6:00AM

Over three years ago visitor arrivals in Samoa in the first 10 months of 2019 totalled 151,024 to boost visitor earnings to WST$433 million.

The visitor earnings for that year (based on Samoa Tourism Authority data) confirmed the country’s tourism sector as the backbone of the economy – until the 2019-2020 measles epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic that followed literally decimated the once-thriving industry.

Since those glory days, the local tourism industry has been in freefall, following the closure of Samoa’s international borders as well as multiple COVID-19 driven state of emergency (S.O.E.) lockdowns and restrictions which strangled local tourism operators’ ability to grow the domestic market.

In September last year the then S.T.A. Chief Executive Officer, Fa’amatuainu Lenata’i Tuifua told the Samoa Observer that 52 out of 144 hotel operations in Samoa were forced to shut due to the impact of the pandemic.

The results of a tourism employment survey, which were released at around that time, also showed that 68.6 per cent of direct employment had been affected in some form with 48 per cent getting laid off since December 2019.

To cut the long story short – Samoa’s once venerated tourism sector is literally in the intensive care unit – and in desperate need of urgent cash injection and the Government’s full support, to enable the cash-strapped tourism operators to get back on their feet to prepare for the borders opening on 1 August.

So you can imagine the shock local tourism operators must have had on Tuesday morning when they read a front page article on the Government’s premier tourism body facing budget cuts (S.T.A. faces budget cut) in the 21 June 2022 edition of the Samoa Observer.

Analysis by this newspaper of the Government’s 2022-2023 Budget, which is currently being debated in the Legislative Assembly, is pointing to a $10.2 million cut for the S.T.A. in the new fiscal year.

The budget allocation for the S.T.A. in the next financial year has been reduced from $19.8 in the 2021-2022 fiscal year to $9.5 million for 2022-2023. 

But why should the Government cut the budget of the S.T.A. weeks away from Samoa’s borders opening? It does not make sense for an industry that three years ago literally propped up the national economy, and is now praying fervently for financial support, to rebuild and repair its dilapidated assets.

When questioned on the budget cut, the Minister for Tourism, Toeolesulusulu Cedric Schuster told this newspaper the $9.5 million funding earmarked for 2022-2023 is sufficient and funding was cut as there "was a lot of unused funding" in the last financial year.

But then what was there for the S.T.A. to prepare for last year – amid uncertainty over the reopening of the borders – as the COVID-19 cases detected at the Faleolo International Airport soared and our vaccination rates then remained low?

The irony about the Minister’s statement on funding being under utilised in last year’s budget is that tourism operators were already on their knees and desperate for financial support.

So why couldn’t the S.T.A. management at that time channel those unused funds to tourism operators to pay for their repairs and renovation when they couldn’t be used on marketing?

To justify the rationale behind the Government’s budget cuts for the STA Toeolesulusulu made reference to the $5 million recovery assistance for businesses.

But Toeolesulusulu forgets that this is not just any other kind of business sector, the tourism sector alone at its peak in 2019 brought in $500 million in visitor earnings. Sadly it appears the Government, through its 2022-2023 Budget, wants to get rid of the goose that laid the golden egg.

The calling out of the Minister by two tourism operators, Taleo Vaaiga and Koroseta Legalo – on his decision to abruptly exit a recent S.T.A. organised stakeholder conference after giving his speech – also raises questions about his commitment to the sector and the challenges they are facing. Both operators said they wanted Toeolesulusulu to stay on after his speech, so he could have heard their testimonies on the challenges that they were facing, and discuss potential Government assistance.

Six weeks out from the borders opening, the Government through its Minister and the S.T.A. management should take on their leadership responsibilities and step up efforts to reach out to a multimillion tala-generating industry, which currently is worse for wear and in urgent need of resuscitation, through direct cash injection and support.

By The Editorial Board 22 June 2022, 6:00AM
Samoa Observer

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