Help us, and help us soon, tourism sector says

By Sapeer Mayron 05 November 2020, 9:00AM

The President of the Samoa Hotels Association, Tupa'i Saleimoa Vaai, is concerned that if the Government doesn’t inject serious money into the tourism industry it will irretrievably collapse, despite creative efforts across the country to stay afloat.

Hotels of all shapes and sizes are stopping at nothing to keep their doors open but they are beginning to run out of options, he told the Samoa Observer.

Room prices are as low as they can go and no one is breaking even, he said. Eventually the financial institutions helping out with loan repayment holidays or interest-only payment schemes will run out of resources to keep assisting.

“We are encouraging our members to be creative, but we’re in the 11th month of the year and we are coming close to a breaking point.

“When I look at what all the different hotels have been putting on, we commend their perseverance. It is not easy anymore.

“Government really, seriously needs to look at some sort of assistance into the industry, and without it I don’t think the industry can last much longer.”

As to what “much longer” means, Tupai suspects that has more to do with how much longer the financial institutions are willing and able to help, considering their own depleting resources without income from the tourism industry. 

Hotels are in a bind. They are competing against each other for an audience with dwindling reserves of their own, Tupai said. And with no ‘Pacific travel bubble’ in sight, that looks to be the case for a lot longer than some expected.

“The [hotels] in the urban areas have been able to utilise fully the population in town. A lot of the business going out to the coastal areas and Savaii are mostly on the weekends but we are seeing a lot more local tourists using the hotels more.

“The industry has dropped their prices to make it attractive for our people, but there is really not much more they can do, especially when some of them are operating below breakeven point, and that is largely because they don’t want to let go of the workers.”

Many hotels have been granted something of a lifeline in the government-funded quarantine set up for returning citizens. Tupai said for the town area properties this has been very helpful, even as operational issues come up and get ironed out. 

But the edge of the cliff could be avoided a while longer if Samoa’s state of emergency rules were more sympathetic to hoteliers trying to make a living, the President said. 

Restrictions on alcohol sales, Sunday trading and activities, and a cap on 100 people for events means no matter how hard they try, property owners are stifled in their attempt to bring in cash.

“I think we are at that point where we are just trying to keep employment, and not doing much else in terms of financial obligations, government obligations… without any possibility of at least a bubble to New Zealand or financial assistance to the industry, the industry is near a breaking point.  

“We understand and of course we support why some of the restrictions are needed, but if there is minimal risk then we need to help the businesses help themselves.

“The only way to do that is to have a look at some of these restrictions and see if they can be reconsidered.”

Like many in the industry, summer in Samoa doesn’t just represent a visitor boom but also the advent of the cyclone season. And this year hoteliers are not going to be armed with the cash reserves or even the insurance policies they need to withstand the cost of any damage they face.

Samoa is predicted to experience between eight to ten cyclones this year, and at least three of them will be category three. 

Tupai is concerned the season could be the nail in the coffin for many properties.

“Our biggest worry is that all the investment into tourism, not only from the businesses but Government as well in its policies, its incentives, infrastructure, it will all go to waste if nothing is done in the near future.”

And if that happens, and Samoa’s entire industry falls to its needs, both the private sector and the Government will need to raise it from the ground up if the country is to have a tourism sector again. 

“It will cost a lot more to start from that breaking point than to assist in keeping it going at this point in time. 

“I think they have a prudent approach, ensuring they don’t overextend their hand, but that was the feeling we got right from the beginning,” Tupai said of the Government.

“It’s come to a point where it’s either we do something or we let it collapse, that is the focus now.”

For its part, the association has tried submitting detailed proposals on ways the Government might save its prized jewel, which last year accounted for 25 per cent of Samoa’s gross domestic product.

But none have been implemented, Tupai said, including requests for Samoa to turn to aid and development partners for industry-specific assistance. 

“We are sort of out of options. We have given Government a few options to have a look at which requires a lot of reinvestment into the sector, especially in trying to keep it maintained.

“We have done a lot of detailed plans, but nothing [is] viable to Government, or to the resources Samoa has.

“We will keep knocking, we won’t stop, we will keep asking Government where we can assist the industry at this point in time.”

Last week, the Chairman of the Banker’s Association Bernie Poort said Samoa appears to be unique in the region in its approach to the economic crisis and not spending much money.

His comments echoed Australian National University analysis from August that showed Samoa was decreasing expenditure while its neighbours increased theirs.

“We are doing what we can with the limited resources Samoa has, we understand that, but we depend on tourism heavily and we need some sort of assistance, it needs to go into the private sector,” Tupai said.

He said households and individuals have been the focus of Government support until now, but it is not as sustainable as supporting the private sector businesses, which need to maintain employment.

Without employment, social unrest and unhappiness are not far away, Tupai worries. Another risk on the horizon, but one that has yet to materialise, is that foreign investors come looking for cheap properties and cash in on the crisis. 

Tupai said as far as he knows it has not happened yet but it is not something he would like to see happen. 

“We’ve invested and put in a lot of our time and money into our businesses, so as much as it would be welcome you run the risk of losing the identity of Samoa, it’s the reason we have protection measures in place to ensure we are not overrun with foreign investment,” he said.

Massey University Professor of Development Studies Regina Scheyvens and Senior Lecturer in Development Studies Apisalome Movono recently published their qualitative study on how laid-off tourism workers are getting by across the Pacific.

And while they found respondents overwhelmingly coping with the distress of the pandemic and the economic impacts it is having on their countries, 

“For now, we understand people are taking care of themselves, they are planting what they know best and sustaining themselves,” Mr. Movono said.

“Perhaps Governments should provide the mechanisms that will allow them to reach this level of abundance where they have enough to sustain themselves and to build other health industries, or other products which they can earn money from.

“This should prompt Governments across the region to rethink priorities and rethink how we do things, and perhaps think more regeneratively with the strengths of their people.”

Their research included an online survey of 106 respondents and dozens of in-person interviews in Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, and Solomon Islands.

They found that over half the respondents have been growing food for their household, and 15 per cent fishing.

In interviews, people reported that “no one is going hungry,” but that money troubles do cause stress, fighting at home and anger amongst families.

Professor Scheyvens said while their survey size was not large, the trends in the responses across the Pacific validated their findings. 

“That was absolutely clear, that people talking are talking about returning to the land and the sea, gaining a greater sense of community support and people looking out for each other, these were core trends across all of the studies, and in very different contexts. 

“From a community that might be reliant on several cruise ships coming in a week previously, or having majority of its people employed at a resort, through to other places where tourism is supplementary income occasionally as they offer cultural tours.”

Danita Strickland was the Samoa based research associate and sat with several people to talk about their lives since COVID-19 shut Samoa’s borders.

She said she was struck by the way people are having to “relearn” old skills or trades that were once second nature, if not to them then to their parents, on their plantations, in the ocean, and even with ancient Samoan handicrafts. 

“It made me wonder how many more have lost skills that now, during COVID-19 are needed, do they have the opportunity to go back and relearn.

“I have nieces and nephews that I am sure don’t know those skills, which is sad but it’s the reality. If they were working I don’t think they would have been going back to relearn anything.”

She said people reported being more aware of their neighbours, and were sharing their produce with those whose family members had stopped working, knowing it will be reciprocated when needed.

“I think there was an expectation that they are going to be completely lost, I thought it was going to be a lot more negative than what I found,” Ms. Strickland said.

“It was eye-opening for me, it gave me a renewed perception that things are not as bad as I think we have been trying to convince ourselves, with regards to COVID-19 and its impact.

“Someone, for the most part, people were positive and finding ways to get through.”

One Samoan grocery store owner told Ms. Strickland that her business relied on tourism, and that other businesses relied on hers, like handicraft makers.

“No one is buying those things as much, so… I know they too are suffering with their income. So you know, our suppliers both from Apia and in our community have been affected because we too are affected,” she said.

Another woman, working in the tourism sector on reduced hours said even without as much income she and her family will not stop contributing to their church and wider community.

“We belong to this community, so despite a tight budget with reduced incomes, we are not letting these obligations slide,” she said.

“Our families overseas are also helping, and we are always grateful for that but we also know, this pandemic is everywhere and so even they are affected so we don’t ask too much.”

Apisalome Movono said the pandemic’s effect on tourism has brought into focus how communities stopped thinking about their traditional systems as they built up their tourism industries. 

“It’s important to consider as we make haste to return to pre-COVID-19 levels, the interest of building resilience, reducing vulnerabilities and getting people prepared for future uncertainties and shocks.

“If tourism could be tweaked to realise the aspirations and the need for local communities to determine for themselves what they want, I think that would be one takeaway from the findings.”

Professor Scheyvens said survey respondents called for more flexibility in their contracts to allow time at home, a more dispersed, less concentrated tourism industry, and maybe less intensity in the industry as their sector rebuilds from the pandemic. 

Many interview respondents highlight that the pandemic was in fact an opportunity to take another look at their industry, and make it more compatible with their lives.

“This break has given us a ‘new breath of life,’” one Fijian business owner said.

“Tourism is not bad, our people need tourism, but the manner in which it is conducted should compliment the traditional systems and the mana of the whenua,” Mr. Movono said. 

By Sapeer Mayron 05 November 2020, 9:00AM
Samoa Observer

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