After 865 days, Samoa reopens to tourists

Samoa will reopen to international tourists on Monday, 865 days after borders were closed due to COVID-19.

For Tuitaga Nathan Bucknall, the Western Australian, the manager of Taumeasina Island Resort near Apia, it’s a day that’s been a long time coming.

“We were the first to close and the last to open,” he told AAP.

“But it’s here. And we’re ready. It’s time.”

It seems many would agree, with the limited number of flights to Apia’s international airports operating close to capacity for the coming weeks.

New Zealand is Samoa’s biggest tourist market, but there is not a single seat available on any of Air New Zealand’s four weekly flights until August 23, with a one-way ticket from of the onerous sum of NZ$1083 (A$960).

Australians looking to get to the Pacific paradise will also have to pay through their noses on Qantas or via Fiji.

Early flights may be packed, but they’re not bringing in tourists, according to Mr. Bucknall, an Apia resident for seven years.

“Samoans are really family oriented. These are the Samoans who go home because they miss their family,” Mr Bucknall explained.

The Pacific nation has a population of around 200,000, but a huge overseas diaspora.

Estimates suggest that there are as many Samoans living in the United States and New Zealand as Samoans themselves, with another 100,000 in Australia.

The first flight to land at Faleolo International Airport will be a New Zealand Defense Force Boeing, carrying Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and an entourage of politicians, employees, community leaders and media.

The New Zealand delegation is on a two-day trip at the invitation of Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, celebrating 60 years of Samoan independence.

And Mr Bucknall marked the visiting Prime Minister as a high-profile guest – kicking off the resort’s reopening in style.

He hopes Ms Ardern won’t notice any faded furniture or slow service as hotel operations resume.

“It’s a bit tired after two years of near-closure,” he said of his hotel.

“We swapped, changing everything for domestic tourists.

“To do that, we lowered our rate, but we also lowered our headcount and supply. We had to find a way to keep paying the bills to keep 50% of our staff working.”

Samoa Tourism is also coming to life again, with a new advertising campaign led by NRL star turned social media sensation Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck, with the tagline ‘Beautiful is Back’.

Before the pandemic, tourism grew to contribute about a quarter of Samoa’s GDP.

Samoa isn’t quite the latest Pacific nation to pull the drawbridge, but it follows Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and the Cook Islands – all competing for the tourist dollar.

Samoa Airports Chief Silimana’i Ueta Solomona Jr told AAP he felt “excitement and joy” heading into Monday.

“After two years and five months of border restrictions, we are delighted to welcome our guests back to Samoa!” he said.

Mr Bucknall said the public mood had changed from anxiety over the threat of COVID-19.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction… the rollout of the vaccine has been great, we’ve got over 98% double vaxxed,” he said.

AAP

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