Fan club: Paula Lipscombe, GTA; Flight Centre’s Rebecca Goodin and Wendy Graham, Lifestyle Holidays at the opening of Samoa Tourism Exchange Fan club: Paula Lipscombe, GTA; Flight Centre’s Rebecca Goodin and Wendy Graham, Lifestyle Holidays at the opening of Samoa Tourism Exchange

Talofa Samoa

We’re happier in Apia, the Samoan Minister of Tourism, Lautafi Fio Selafi Purcell, declared when opening the country’s annual tourism exchange in April. Lisa Bradley was on hand to discover the island nation certainly does have a lot to smile about

Samoa is gathering momentum in its endeavours to become a key tourism player in the South Pacific.

That was the message that came from the 9th Samoan Tourism Exchange, which was attended by almost 60 buyers from 12 to 15 April.

The contingency – from New Zealand, Australia, UK, Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea, USA, Fiji and American Samoa – met with about 45 exhibitors. While there they learnt more than 300 rooms are coming online this year, the airport and Port in Apia are being redeveloped and a commitment has been made to deliver a standardised high standard on housekeeping and food and beverage.

Bolstering the growing confidence in Samoa are the arrivals of Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Hotel and Bungalows on 27 May and Taumeasina Island Resort soon after on 8 June.

These developments significantly open up the high-end market. Sheraton’s hotel and bungalows brings with it 175 rooms, top facilities for business travellers and fine dining, while Taumeasina enters with 80 hotel rooms, 25 villas and conference amenities to cater for 800 people.

About a 40-minute drive away, Saletoga Sands Resort and Spa is on track to fully open the Saletoga Beach Bungalows and Hotel, delivering nine ‘more affordable’ bungalows and 17 hotel room options to the Kiwi market.

Dwayne Bentley, Samoa Tourism Authority marketing and promotion manager, says the developments show how the destination is progressing.

‘We’ve come such a long way in five years – in 2009 we had a tsunami and then we were struck by Cyclone Evan in 2012. We have been lucky the product has been able to rebound, build momentum and now be in a position where we can start to ride on a wave,’ Bentley says. 

Taumeasina general manager Nathan Bucknell agrees, saying Samoan tourism is on the precipice of success. ‘It has been rebuilding, and it is ready to leap forward. There’s also a lot of confidence in the government from visitors, unlike other Pacific islands.’

More beds means more people are needed, and a multi-million upgrade of Faleolo International Airport (being aided by China) will give the country the means to get them there.

Work is also earmarked for the port in Apia from May. Although the country is not seeing a growth in the cruise market because ‘New Zealanders and Australians like shorter hops,’ Bentley says the two-year revamp will allow the capital to handle bigger ships down the line.

Meanwhile, the clear message from the Samoan Hotel Association is that the Kiwi industry can be assured their clients will see a better level of service.

Says president Adele Kruse: ‘We’re moving to take Samoa to the next level. We want to be seen as a force to be reckoned with – sell not only Fiji, sell Samoa alongside the Cook Islands and our brothers American Samoa.

In fact, Kate Payne, a Volunteer Services Abroad tourism adviser funded by NZ Foreign Affairs and Trade, has been delivering food and beverage, kitchen, business and housekeeping skills to the Samoan industry.

‘I’ve been here a year. We have standardised housekeeping and are now working on food and beverage. They were unsure at first, but now they are calling me. They get it,’ Payne says. ‘Kiwi buyers can have confidence standards have improved. Come and you will notice the difference.’

Other changes include better roads from the airport to Apia around 40 minutes away and around the main island of Upolu. And a nagging concern for many visitors – the country’s sluggish internet – is also being addressed as Samoa works to get connected to an underwater cable by December 2017, bringing a much faster and cheaper service to the nation.

But the refinements are unlikely to mean the country will lose its island charm, says Wendy Booth, the managing director of boutique accommodation Seabreeze Resort. The face of Apia may start to look different but it will be a long time before changes happen in the colourful villages, she says.

Booth adds Samoan tourism has been limited by its budget, but the biggest stumbling block to tourism growth are Kiwis who are opting for destinations such as Bali and Hawaii.

Samoa received about 137,000 visitors last year – the vast majority (around 44%) are from New Zealand. Bentley says the tourism authority aims to increase the figures by at least five percent annually.

Presently there is much anticipation surrounding a Memorandum of Understanding between Polynesian Airlines and Air Tahiti Nui. The partnership has the potential to open up Samoa to the US and Asia.

Nonetheless, it is likely the Kiwi industry will remain in the forefront of the country’s mind for some time to come. At the STE closing ceremony, the Kiwis were given the most rousing cheer when they were thanked for their ongoing support as well as participation in the event.

Most New Zealand buyers were glad to have gone, agreeing Samoa is a country on the up.

 ‘It was definitely important coming here to see the forward planning that’s happening and the new resorts,’ says GTA’s Paula Lipscombe. ‘The properties are getting it right. It has picked up really well in service and food as well. I believe Samoa is going to get a lot more demand in the future.’