Samoa has palm-fringed beaches, lagoons filled with wildly coloured fish and jungle-covered hills, but is only slowly coming out of the shade of better known South Pacific tourist destinations.
The number of visitors travelling to the Polynesian nation of 180 000 for holidays jumped 23,6% last year to nearly 41 000, still a fraction of the tourists who make a beeline for Fiji or Tahiti.
It has a particular appeal for those who shun the self-contained resorts that dot the Fijian coastline and it doesn’t hurt Samoa that Fiji’s popularity has declined since December’s military coup.
The golden beach that fringes the village of Manase on Savai’i — the largest of Samoa’s two main islands — is dotted with beach fales along the sand’s edge.
The fales are thatched huts on stilts, open-sided with palm blinds that can be lowered for privacy and to keep out the frequent tropical downpours. Most are furnished only with mattresses, bedding and mosquito nets.
Holidaymakers share communal dining areas and bathrooms, which often consist of little more than toilets and simple showers.
They aren’t for everyone, although you are getting a prime beach-front position at a budget price.
Middle-aged Australian travelling companions Sally Peltzer and Andrew Storrie say they enjoyed their fale stay but alternated with more upmarket accommodation during their 11-day holiday around Savai’i and the slightly smaller but more heavily populated island of Upolu.
“It’s been a great holiday, we’ve been to some fantastic places and people are so friendly,” said Peltzer.
“We saw six turtles swimming along the beach [in Manase],” she adds. “We thought about Fiji but from what our friends have told us it sounds like its pretty much like all resorts.”
“We didn’t want a resort holiday, we wanted a low key holiday. Maybe in 10 years Samoa will become too resorty,” added Storrie.
The pair said that being able to buy cheap air tickets from budget airline Polynesian Blue was crucial in their choice of Samoa.
The airline is a joint venture between Samoa’s government and Richard Branson’s Australian offshoot, Virgin Blue. Since late 2005 it has linked Samoa and the main tourist markets of Australia and New Zealand.
Previously, airfares to Samoa were expensive compared with fares to other holiday destinations in the region.
“The introduction of Polynesian Blue in 2005 was very positive for us,” says Matatamali’i Sonja Hunter, chief executive of the Samoa Tourism Authority.
Sense of pride
Fales account for about a third of tourist accommodation in Samoa and there are a number of small-scale hotels, resorts and a 140-room resort near the international airport on Upolu.
Samoa retains a strong culture, known as “fa’a Samoa,” and staying in family-run fales in villages gives visitors a chance to discover some of traditional village life.
Associate Professor Regina Scheyvens, head of development studies at Massey University in New Zealand, has studied fale tourism and says it produces more benefits for local people than large resorts.
“Fales are owned by local people and they use local infrastructure,” Scheyvens said. “Operators look to their own family and other villagers to provide services and goods, whereas large resorts rely more heavily on imports.”
The tourism industry has also given young people a reason to stay in their villages when they leave school.
“I talked to a pastor who had returned home after a long time in Hawaii and he said he couldn’t believe how the beach-fale business had revitalised his village,” Scheyvens said.
“It had created a real sense of pride that visitors wanted to come to their village.”
Chiefs, or matai, in some areas have been known to banish villagers caught stealing from tourists. Recently a whole family was banished from a village near Manase after one of their members was alleged to have sexually assaulted a tourist.
“A really big plus for Samoa is that you are not worried about security. You can leave your bags in your fale and not worry about them,” says Peltzer.
On the downside, tourists sometimes complain they can’t get the variety and standard of food they are used, and often there is little to do except swim and read.
Swiss couple Rene Achermann and Zita Jerg set up a business providing internet access, beach and snorkelling equipment and a beachside bar in Manase two years ago.
“We wanted a change in lifestyle, to get away from the material life we had,” says Jerg.
She says the village is successfully dealing with the tensions between traditional Samoan village life and tourism.
“The tourist life is on the beach and the village life is on the other side of the road,” says Jerg.
The village has banned dogs, which wander everywhere in most Samoan villages, along with pigs. In Manase the pigs have been restricted to plantations behind the village.
Jerg credits the leadership of high chief, Taito Muese Tanu, whose family runs one of the best known fale businesses in Manase, for the harmonious balance.
“Here is not as restrictive as some places, you can swim on Sunday and don’t have to swim in a lavava [a Samoan wraparound worn by women and men].
The strongly Christian culture means many activities are discouraged on Sundays and Samoans believe in modest dress but the village has learned to adjust.
The growth in tourist numbers and the desire for more upmarket facilities is likely to lead to some new development.
But Scheyvens says the strong traditional culture and communal ownership of about 85% of the land is likely to ensure Samoa doesn’t become another Fiji. — AFP