Responsible Travel in Samoa

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 1 October 2009

[Editorial note: Please read a post-tsunami update from Nynette in Samoa. If you would like to support relief efforts, follow the link to the Red Cross of New Zealand current appeals page.]

Nynette Sass shows all of the bold spirit, but none of the impudence, suggested by her surname. From her first talofa lava (greetings to you) of the day, her gusto is contagious, especially when she talks about her native Samoa. This is unabashedly a good thing for the CEO of the Samoa Hotels Association (SHA), a board member of the Samoan Umbrella of Non-Government Organizations and chairman of the Private Sector Support Facility. In a country where tourism represents approximately 25% of GDP and is expanding, she is very much the right person in the right place at the right time.

Nynette Sass in front of her Samoa Hotels Association office

Nynette Sass in front of her Samoa Hotels Association office

It hasn’t always been this way. One of the tools at the expansive heart of her ability to promote what she calls her ‘Polynesian paradise’ is quite new. Opportunity proverbially knocked in 2005, when SHA launched its new website, www.samoa-hotels.ws, now the premier online booking service for Samoa. The commendable results have had an impact on her life, the stability of SHA and, more importantly, all of Samoa, especially in terms of the sustainable development of community-based travel services.

Samoa Hotels Association

SHA is a membership-based non-governmental organisation formed in 1999 and composed of hotels and other accommodation providers in Samoa. “It was mainly set up to be a lobbying and advocacy body,” says Sass, its members united by common interests, goals and objectives for tourism and accommodation standards in Samoa.

Despite its organisational inertia in the early years, SHA was approached in 2004 by the International Finance Corporation–managed Pacific Enterprise Development Facility. (The IFC is the private-sector arm of the World Bank.) They were keen to trial a new accommodation e-marketplace program designed by Worldhotel-link.com (now whl.travel) and extensively piloted in Southeast Asia’s Mekong region for use in developing countries and emerging economies.

SHA hired Sass to pull together the content and images needed for the whl.travel Samoan website package, which includes a sophisticated but simple-to-use booking system that allows for the inclusion of local establishments with no other access to a broader e-market. On 10 March 2005, the website went live with a selection of 34 providers, “including many small-scale operators remote from Apia and without any Internet access,” SHA’s then-President Papali’i Steve Young said at the time.

Nynette Sass (right) with the Fiji Islands Hotel and Tourism Association president, Mr. Dixon Seeto. SHA and FIHTA may soon be exploring collaborative opportunities.

Nynette Sass (right) with the Fiji Islands Hotel and Tourism Association president, Mr. Dixon Seeto. SHA and FIHTA may soon be exploring collaborative opportunities.

A Growing Local Success

“It went sort of OK in the first year,” recalls Sass. “But one thing I could say is that I put online the traditional accommodation or fales on the beaches, who never had any opportunity to be promoted. This model was breaking ground for them. All of the sudden they started getting all these bookings that they never had before. From the start, that has been one of the success stories of this booking system – the opportunity to showcase the little guys internationally at the same level with the big boys.”

For most businesses, though, success isn’t immediate, but steady growth speaks of real financial promise. Thus it has been with SHA’s inclusion in the whl.travel international family of Web portals. “As the years have passed, I’ve seen the amount of traffic serve as proof that this system does work,” enthuses Sass. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve come a long way in the four years that SHA has used this system.”

The value of SHA’s accomplishment, however, is greater than the dollar value of its financial returns, something of which Sass is poignantly aware given her experience with both NZAid and AusAid and her country’s heavy dependence on development aid. “We’re actually reinvesting in our own country,” she emphasises, whereas accommodation “wholesalers take a big chunk out of the earnings and they’re keeping it overseas; it doesn’t come back into our country.”

Wholesalers overseas routinely ask for commissions of 25-40% of rack rates (the published full price). Travel agents can also sometimes charge sizable overhead. By contrast, the 15% collected by SHA, a local operator, is a bargain. This also puts a lot more spending money in the hands of travellers, which is very important to the greater Samoan community. “As far as I am concerned, we are delivering the services for our people, we are ensuring that we have up-to-date information about our properties and what’s happening in the country. And we’re not asking an arm and a leg for it. Plus, we provide a better service.”

In addition, the same smaller properties that got such an early boost are beginning to flex their own hitherto unknown muscles. “With the economic strengthening of little properties, they now feel more comfortable getting out there. They’re reinvesting their funds properly in the property and improving their facilities. The confidence that these little guys are getting now has really improved delivery of services and goods.”

Caring for the Destination

One of whl.travel’s strongest assets is the particular importance it places on sustainable tourism practices through its Caring for the Destination program. whl.travel seeks out local partners who show a commitment to caring about their country, their destination, the traveller’s experience and the overall stewardship of their native land to ensure preservation for generations to come. Sass too adheres to this belief, even though it has been difficult for her to secure broad and practical acceptance of these goals.

Looking back at part of Apia from across the bay. the Government Building is on the far right and the Catholic Cathedral in the center of town (Samoa has over 1000 church buildings for a population of 180,000).

Looking back at part of Apia from across the bay. the Government Building is on the far right and the Catholic Cathedral in the center of town (Samoa has over 1000 church buildings for a population of 180,000).

“The Caring for the Destination part of whl.travel really hasn’t taken off. It’s been pretty tough for me to get that message out to the little guys. But I know from site visits that a lot of them are doing all these environmentally friendly practices. It’s just that we don’t write about it; we tend to take it for granted. We’re used to doing it ourselves anyway and we don’t think it’s anything special. But that’s exactly what this Caring for the Destination is about.”

Still, “whl.travel is the best thing that ever happened to SHA,” Sass concludes. “SHA had no funds, no focus, nada. A few members were very sceptical at the beginning when the idea was floated. However, the association is really at a state now where it is generating all the funds to implement its activities, pay a CEO and assistant etc. Our traffic conversions doubled in one year and then doubled again the next year. We’re struggling to keep up with the demand. This is good.”

This glowing endorsement has resonated throughout whl.travel and Samoa. “Looking at the commissions likely due to SHA in 2008, it represents around US$400,000 in annual income to the (mostly) small accommodation providers,” said Len Cordiner, CEO of whl.travel. “I am looking forward to the day, not too far out there I think, when we have several hundred destinations live and this story is the norm. The impact we will be having at that point in the developing world will be significant.”

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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beaches, ecotours, islands, new local connections, Oceania, opinion, personal experience, Polynesia, responsible travel, responsible travel news, Samoa, WHL Group news, WHL Group newsletter, whl.travel, women,

2 Responses to “Responsible Travel in Samoa”

  1. Jim Leaney says:

    My wife,son & I have just had 10 days in Samoa – post tsunami. We attended at the SHA office, Apia & found a well run office – nothing was too much trouble for Caroline to sort out our existing booking & book alternative accommodation for us in the wake of the tsunami.

  2. John Nicholls says:

    Great story.
    Reading Nynette’s comments about overseas wholesaler fees reminded me of when I operated resorts. Not only did the resort have to provide hefty commissions to wholesalers, they had to pay for the wholesaler’s advertising of the resort. The National Tourism Office had to also contribute (very large sums of money) to the wholesaler, the national airline had to do the same, and the wholesaler still had the gall to demand exclusive room rates and room allocations!
    They were making a finantial killing, and to top it off the destination bent over backwards providing free flights, accommodation, tours, restaurants etc to all these people.

    As soon as another country would offer a better deal, the wholesaler would direct all its energy to where the most sales (best commissions) would be possible. So all efforts were in vain, the loyalty was only based on commissions. With people such as whl MPOs, there is no such ambiguity, the Samoan MPO is devoted to its Samoan hotels. Hotels dont have to carry the MPO with advertising or other subsidies as they do with wholesalers.

    Hooray for whl.travel! It has not only distributed the tourism revenue much more evenly, but due to its very transparent operating model it has really exposed the wholesaler abuses of past years.

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