23 Jul 2021

Samoa readies for New Zealand travel bubble

5:53 pm on 23 July 2021

Samoa is ramping up its tourism sector in preparation for a safe border opening with New Zealand in the lead-up to Christmas.

They're using the Cook Islands' successful two-way safe-travel-bubble with Aotearoa as a template.

But not all are convinced.

Taufua Sili Apelu, co-owner of Taufua Beach Fales, Lalomanu, Samoa.

Taufua Sili Apelu, co-owner of Taufua Beach Fales, Lalomanu, Samoa. Photo: Dominic Godfrey / RNZ Pacific

Taufua Sili Apelu would love to see his regular New Zealand guests returning to his beach fale accommodation on Upolu's stunning southcoast at Lalomanu.

It's been a tough few years for Taufua Beach Fales - tourism took a hit with the measles epidemic in late 2019 before being finished off by covid the following year.

There is no domestic market for their once flourishing business.

But he doesn't want the borders open if there is a risk to people's health.

"Just look at the example in Fiji. This thing is destroying like crazy given the small population, and Samoa has an even smaller one," observed Taufua.

"Once we get infected, and if our medical services is not up to standard (so to speak) well they will kill a lot of people."

The hotelier is among 14 percent of those elligible who has had both doses of the AstraZeneca jab and and he's making sure his family and staff are on track too.

Health authorities have reached 46 percent with a first dose.

Taufua has seen more than his share of disaster having lost 14 family members in the 2009 tsunami.

He would like to see a critical mass of people immunised before the borders open and then only to fully vaccinated visitors.

Samoa's Tourism Authority (STA) says this is exactly what's planned.

CEO of Samoa Tourism Authority, Fa'amatuainu Lenata'i Suifua.

CEO of Samoa Tourism Authority, Fa'amatuainu Lenata'i Suifua. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia

The Cook Islands has provided hope according to STA chief executive Fa'amatuainu Lenata'i Suifua who is pushing for a rapid vaccine rollout.

"Opening up the borders is the main call for us but we have to be really mindful in terms of the pros and cons for that, given the rates of the vaccine roll-out," said Fa'amatuainu.

"The Ministry of Health and the prime minister are looking towards 90 percent coverage."

But he noted there has been vaccine hesitancy.

Samoa has seen a tsunami of disinformation about the injections which authorities are trying to overcome.

"There's a lot of social media awareness. A lot of programmes going out to communities" said Fa'amatuainu of the channels they're communicating with.

"A lot of TV programmes, a lot of print media in terms of pushing out the importance of actually coming to vaccinate.

"Not only for a safer Samoa but if you really want to travel, have the borders open and re-start the economy, now's the time to do the vaccine and get as much coverage as we can."

The Ministry of Health, he added, is expecting to reach the 90 percent target before the peak Christmas holiday period when the tourism authority expects the country to be open for business.

The details are being worked out with New Zealand officials, he said, and only vaccinated visitors will be allowed into Samoa.

Samoa's own contact tracer app will be up and running by then and the STA has run seminars on managing safe and sterile business.

"A lot of training in terms of cleaning, hygiene in the hotels. We actually provided them with free cleaning materials, the chemicals, everything," Fa'amatuainu confirmed.

But the owner of Taufua Beach Fales said what's needed most is for the borders to open.

"We've had seminars for many years and" laughed Taufua "I don't think seminars is the solution to help the hotel operators create any income."

His is one of many businesses struggling to stay afloat as covid has bitten the economy.

Their bank had been very supportive at the start of the pandemic, noted Taufua, suspending repayments for their business loan.

"But then recently, I think in the last six months, we have to pay only the interest of what we owe the bank. But even that, it's very difficult for us to earn money to pay for the interest."

In Apia, the border opening plan hasn't gone down well with Samoa's FAST party prime minister elect.

Fiame Naomi Mata'afa, who hails from nearby Lotofaga, said it's premature given Samoa's electoral crisis and political stalemate.

"Our government hasn't made any moves towards having those discussions about travel bubbles so it's quite interesting that the STA would be making those declarations," added Fiame.

"STA is a tourism authority whose purpose is to do marketing, so it's a bit of a surprise that that might come from that source."

Whenever the bubble opens Samoa is likely to quickly become a popular destination again for New Zealand visitors.

Before covid, Air New Zealand flew 150,000 passengers there a year and its Chief Customer & Sales Officer Leanne Geraghty said it is keen for travel to start again.

"Once a safe bubble is opened, we look forward to reuniting families and reconnecting customers with the turquoise lagoons and the welcoming culture that Samoa offers."

Sua Ocean Trench in Lotofaga

Sua Ocean Trench in Lotofaga Photo: STA