I am about to make a very strong statement but I firmly believe this: Samoa tourism must build their tourism sector on the backpacker economy. It makes more more sense to have a 1,000 backpackers in the country working with local tourism operations than than it does to have a dozen high end tourist at internationally owned resorts.
The truth of the matter is that professional tourists are going to go to the Fiji Islands, Hawaii and French Polynesia. Samoa is not in a place to compete with them in any way.
Where Samoa can find a niche is the backpackers. Many countries such as Thailand, India and the Philippines have found great success is having many people visiting on less than having the few big spenders. It is about producing a value that would encourage volume at the end of the day.
Backpackers come ready!
There is not alot of need to build for them. They like to use the local bus system, stay in cheap places for the night, and eat at the local restaurants that cater to the locals. They are more interested in the experience of a local than having a tourist’s point of view. There is little need to for building facilities for a ready made backpacker sector.
The economical benefits are in favor of local Samoans as well. While tourist tend to eat at restaurants that local could not own, (Upscale restaurants inside the resorts) backpackers tend to like the mom and pops eateries on the side of the road. This benefits the people of Samoa as that owner is putting their kids through school using the revenue of their little restaurant.
It is not just the restaurant owners that benefits. The bus drivers, the owner of the little store in the villages, and fruit vendors on the roadside get in on the action as well.
When a five star resort makes money, the investor are the main people to benefit with a little bit making its way to the pockets of the local politicians. However, little of the profits from the resort actually benefit the people who live around the resort. This is why many of these tourist operation have “Corporate Social Responsibility” events designed to keep the locals from getting angry at its’ core.
A micro-economy of backpackers coming is very different. The bulk of the profits is in the hands of local Samoans that are just trying to provide for their families. The investor of the bus company is also the driver. The money made goes to feed his children and educate them. The politicians do not have the ability to make backroom deals. They have to settle for the profits from the Value Added Tax (VAT). This is currently set at 15%.
In the end, it is better for Samoa to build for the backpackers.
Samoa Tourism Authority should change focus
Having hundreds of backpackers spending less per person but bringing millions every year collective just makes sense for the local Samoans to host them. Courting angel investors that are primarily concerned with returns does not make logical sense for the people of Samoa.
This is what Thailand, India and the Philippines found out. Many other nations have also started to move away from big tourism and invest in the backpacker economy. They have saw the power of collective dollars. It truly is better to have many spenders than have just a few big ones. It also means a healthier Samoa tourism sector.
They should be focusing on how to build a network of places for hostels across the country and home stay options in the villages. I am not talking about that scam operation of one New Zealander who claim to Samoa and tries to do it where he made all the money and they made none. I am talking where the lion share of the profit is in the hands of the local Samoans.
This would encourage Samoans to get directly involved in the success of their own tourism sector. It would not just be the “palagi” coming and making money. The economy of the backpacker tourism sector is about helping people at the ground level.
While I understand the focus of the Samoa Tourism Authority, I believe it is a major mistake to try and think that little Samoa can compete with Hawaii and Bora Bora. It is not considering the challenges at hand. I just can’t see Samoa prepared for large scale tourism.
What is needed in Samoa tourism?
The main thing would be to help families on the south coast of Upolu and in Savaii build more beach fales. Many people, especially those who consider themselves backpackers, are drawn to the iconic image of the beach fales. They have read that they can live on the beach for as little as $250 a week on Bokeh Travel (and other places).
There is a need for bus service from Lalomanu beach to the Siumu/Maninoa area. In order to get from one area of the south coast to another requires one to backtrack to Apia on the other side of the island. The only other option is a taxi ride that can be very expensive.
However, the biggest hindrance is not in Samoa. It is the airlines. Currently, there is no such thing as cheap flights to Samoa. It is hard to attract backpackers when flights cost as much as their Samoa holidays cost. This is and remains the biggest challenge at hand.
The government should work hands on with airlines (and possible competitors) to get airfare down to the $100 USD each way from Auckland and $130 from Sydney. Currently, they are almost triple that.
I firmly believe that with more beach fales, a connection between Lalomanu and Siumu and affordable air fares; that Samoa can compete for all the college students traveling the world on their gap year. This is a huge niche of the tourism market that is largely untapped.