The tourism sector (Samoa’s primary source of foreign exchange that contributes around 30% of GDP) could be prospering and thriving and, in just a few years, could become a destination envied by many in the developing and developed world.
The fact that tourism IS struggling is not due to lack of hard work, a big enough airport run way, lack of investment, aid or even commercial attractions and shopping malls. The deeper problem is a lack of a unified vision, focus and confidence – in short, a lack of a shared clarity of purpose, combined perhaps with a rather naïve belief that if you build it they will come. This article is NOT about pointing blame, or finding cause. The causes stem from a pace of change that resembles a new kind of tsunami and one for which there are few coping handbooks or preparedness committees. It’s about creating awareness of the challenges and choices facing all idyllic, small and vulnerable islands in the sun.
Let’s start by looking at the way things really are.
Tourism is under performing because the dynamics controlling demand out of source markets along with the profile, needs and wants of visitors are changing. Samoan tourism sits at a crossroads and decisions made individually and collectively over the next year or two will determine whether Samoa realizes the full net benefit of this pervasive economic force.
Mass Industrial Tourism
Across the globe, tourism demand is splitting. The majority of consumers see places and resorts as commodities and the objective is to get the best amenities at the lowest price. These guests buy through large wholesalers, show relatively little interest in the culture, landscape and economy outside the walls of the resort. Places are “to be done” and it doesn’t matter that one resort may look like another. They travel to escape, to be pampered, or to brag about their exploits, to party, gamble, golf, jet ski, soak up the sun, read cheap novels, snooze & schmooze etc. before taking home hundreds of digital memories and a few inexpensive souvenirs. They are courted by destinations because the channels to market – a relatively small number of international wholesalers and their network of retailers — can be identified and lured as partners. Marketing involves the development of mass media “campaigns” and participation in trade shows and exhibitions. But while all destinations count the numbers of arrivals, very few know what real net benefit accrues to the host community because the costs of entertaining these guests in terms of their production of waste (carbon and garbage), or use of scarce resources (land, water, fuel, food) have not been systematically measured. Nor has the leakage – i.e., the amount of income that leaves the country – been properly tracked. These consumers are the fuel that has grown a mass industrial tourism engine 1000 fold from one million to one billion international trips in just sixty years but which is now manifesting a range of social, environmental and economic problems.
The Conscious Traveller
The good news for Samoa is that another market is rising – the conscious traveler – people of all ages who live in every country in the world and whose travel patterns and preferences are not only different but are considerably more beneficial to a host community. We’ve identified ten general characteristics that can be listed as follows:
Characteristics of conscious travelers
They seek to experience what they consider to be authentic and want to meet and learn from locals
- They don’t like to be treated as “targets” but as individual persons and prefer customized experiences.
- They wish to step out the tour bus and immerse themselves in a place – they ask endless questions.
- They come from fast paced cultures but can be persuaded to slow down and savour their experiences – in Samoa every sense can be stimulated and satiated.
- They travel not to consume but to be transformed. They want to go home having seen the world through a different set of lenses. Samoans have much to share and teach.
- They are aware of the challenges facing humanity and the fragility of the planet’s ecosystems. They try to act responsibly and expect suppliers to show they care in similar ways by reducing pollution, waste and use of non-renewable resources etc. Samoan providers could show what it means to be truly green!
- Many want to give back and share their skills and resources through volunteering or supporting local causes.
- They tend to avoid the mass tourism wholesalers and use niche, “kindred spirit” intermediaries – most do their own research, book online and prefer to book direct. They are active and often purse an interest or activity while on holiday.
- Conscious travelers are connected and influential. They are three times more likely to tell friends and peers if they have a good experience and can become your advocates.
What are the benefits?
Destinations can benefit from this group because conscious travelers have the potential to stay longer, spend more, disperse themselves more widely, buy and interact with locals, and become very positive influences/advocates to their peers if their experience has engaged and delighted them. Because they are more aware, they do prefer to buy from providers that are minimizing their environmental impact, treating their staff fairly and contributing more to the local economy. Most important of all, these travelers value the uniqueness of each place in terms of its landscape, history and culture. They seek “authenticity” and the chance to be changed by experiencing another perspective. They are more willing to respect the values of the hosts and ensure their visit generates a positive net benefit.
The challenge in attracting the “conscious traveler” stems from the fact that the tactics needed to attract, engage and support this type of guest are quite different from the tactics deployed by mass tourism. It means learning new techniques and engaging a much broader spectrum of participants. A destination can only be successful pursuing this market
- it ensures that all aspects of the host community have had a say in the type and scale of tourism they wish to develop and are aware of their options. External developers can be welcomed on the understanding that they contribute to achievement of goals already established by the village and country.
- it has done its home work (i.e., really knows how to listen and converse with these curious but demanding visitors and reach them using the media of their choice);
- all hosts (tourism businesses & their suppliers) not only actively participate in that activity but have learned to work together and help one another.
The problem is that this task cannot be delegated to central agencies or farmed out to consultants. You cannot throw money at the problem (although some funds spent wisely could go a long way), but you do have to apply rigour & discipline laced with irrepressible curiosity, a willingness to experiment, possibly fail, learn and try again. It involves hard work and continuous learning and participation at the community level – that’s why sharing and collaboration are essential. As the appropriately named “fautasi” race proves, Samoans can be good at ‘building as one’.
Choices to be made
For the current state of affairs in Samoa, no one in particular is to blame. Nothing will be gained by finger pointing, panic, or despair. The good news is that the situation can be turned around by waking up, stepping up and opening up.
By waking up I mean becoming conscious, aware and alert to reality as it is. By stepping up I mean for a larger cross section of the community to get directly involved in ensuring tourism generates the highest and best return on your invaluable resource of land (place) and culture (people) By opening up, I mean approaching the challenges with fresh, curious and open minds because, while change is sometimes frightening, hidden within it are huge opportunities to thrive.
So the good news is this. The people of Samoa do still have a choice. Do you want to follow in the footsteps of another island – Bali – that now admits they have become overrun by inappropriate development and their traditional way of life is at risk? If you are not sure, then watch this ABC report:
Do you want to share the fate of the citizens of Venice who declared their community now “dead” largely as a result of becoming a world heritage tourism “site”. Or might you follow the lead of Bhutan – a land island in a sea of mountains – who valued their unique culture and way of life enough to impose a minimum tariff and initially even a quota. Two years ago, Bhutan had the same number of international visitors as Samoa but derived an economic benefit several times greater. By 2015 tourism will have grown to 100,000 visitors simply because its appeal and cachet reflects the way it has been valued and stewarded.
As I am a palagi visitor to your beautiful country, who has enjoyed some of the most generous hospitality ever over four long visits, I know it is not my place to tell you what to do. My purpose, based on 40 years of experience working in tourism and a knowledge of the marketplace outside Samoa, is simply to outline the choices as I see them, that you can make choices for yourselves and identify the questions that only you as Samoans should answer. I think the four key opening questions are:
•What kind of future do you wish to create?
•What will it take to thrive in times of turbulent change?
•Whom do you want to benefit from tourism?
•What kind of tourist do you wish to attract?
What Kind of Future Do You Wish to Create?
It’s a truism that the present we enjoy is a result of the choices made by our forefathers. The youth of Bali are protesting at the despoliation of their country now and in-debted Spanish citizens walk through fields of empty and decaying condos built for non-residents unable to turn them into homes for their citizens. The good news is you can still influence your future. But like your wayfinder ancestors, when you set sail towards the eastern horizon, you need to “see” in your mind’s eye the kinds of island you wish to find.
What Will It Take To Thrive In Times of Turbulent Change?
As Samoans you are all too aware of Mother Nature’s power. The winds of change are reaching cyclonic proportions. The deadliest aspect of tourism demand is its volatility and unpredictability. Yet every destination under the sun tends to expand capacity in good times and reduce prices in bad time – so no wonder we have turned paradise into a commodity. Again Samoans used to design fales that withstood nature’s violent excesses. In tourism, that means balancing supply to demand so that existing businesses are thriving and healthy before new developments are introduced.
Whom Do You Want to Benefit from Tourism?
There are a host of interests outside Samoa who see your country as a piece of real estate to exploit: international developers, financiers (public & private), realtors, marketing agencies. They tend to leave once projects are finished and the profit is banked. They have a vested interest in “more” but not always better and tend to speak loquaciously about benefits but not the costs that will be born by tax payers for generations to come. Should Samoa’s precious yet stunning beauty and rich culture become nothing more than an asset on a foreigner’s balance sheet? Surely the real beneficiaries of tourism should be the people of Samoa and their grand children and, for that to happen, they need to be aware of the short and long run options.
What Kind of Visitor Do You Wish To Attract?
Because Samoa tourism is struggling right now with over capacity, there’s a tendency to grab any customer available and respond positively to any development proposal – as if building more rooms would mysteriously result in more occupants.
Contrary to perception there is not a shortage of customers out “there”, across the horizon. The water, in terms of visitor arrivals, is draining out the lagoon! And as wise mariners, you know why that could be. A market shift of tectonic proportions is already happening! Samoa sits mid way between two of the largest emerging outbound tourism markets in the world – Asia and Latin America – whose potential for growth is barely touched. A human tsunami could overrun Samoa in the same way that it has changed Bali’s human and physical landscape forever.
You can chose the relatively simple route – to allow the forces of mass industrial tourism to sweep in and drain the culture and distinctiveness of this sacred earth or you could welcome visitors whose values match those of yours and wish to enrich not despoil, tread lightly not storm through, and personally leave transformed and inspired to take better care of the only planet we all have to call home.
Fa’afetai and Fa soi fua to all my dear friends in Samoa who have shared your beautiful country and its lessons with me in so many kind and gracious ways. I have had the privilege of spending over 20 weeks in your island over the course of three years and made some of my deepest friendships there. I submit these ideas only out of a deep sense of gratitude and love for Fa’a Samoa.