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C of C questions candidates about govt support for the Visitors Bureau

American Samoa Visitors Bureau logo

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — “If elected, what plans and support would be given to the Visitors Bureau to grow the tourism industry in American Samoa?” was the side questions asked of the three gubernatorial teams who participated in the recent Chamber of Commerce forum last week during discussion of the issue of the Tourism Industry.

Funding for the Visitors Bureau and its work ever since it was established by law about 10-years ago as a semi-autonomous agency has been a critical point of argument by lawmakers every time they review the annual budget.

One major criticism that always surfaced during budget hearings was the $90,000 annual salary for the agency’s executive director and did not include other benefits such as housing. This is referring to hearings involving former director of the Visitors Bureau, David Vaeafe who left the post in Nov of last year, when his contract was not renewed by a new ASVB board of directors.

But the question posed during the forum with the candidates — as pointed out correctly by one of the three-moderators — is the importance of this question given the government’s involvement in tourism, which started in the past as a small division within the Commerce Department, later becoming the Office of Tourism and now a semi-autonomous agency, which is supposed to finance its own budget, but ASG continues to provide a budget for the agency.

The three teams who participated in the forum were: I’aulualo Fa’afetai Talia for governor and Tapaau Dan Mageo Aga as lieutenant governor; Sen. Nuanuaolefeagaiga Saoluaga Nua for governor and Tapumanaia Galu Satele Jr., for lieutenant governor; and Lt. Gov. Lemon Palepoi Sialega Mauga for governor and Talauega Eleasalo Va’alele Ale for lieutenant governor.

The question was first directed to the I’aulualo and Tapaau team, and I’aulualo responded, “We talk a lot about tourism, [but] the truth is, the government has not lived up to its obligation to the tourism industry.”

“I really think that the Visitors Bureau should be under the Chamber of Commerce [which] should be fully involved,” he said noting that funding infrastructure is most important and that’s the government’s responsibility in promoting tourism.

In his response, Talauega said,  “Lemanu and I strongly believe that the tourism business in American Samoa, is not just the government’s to control. It’s you. We are tourism.”

“We have a culture that is unique. People want to come here to see us live our life. I said this before and I’m so proud to say it, that our culture is a living culture,” he said.  “It’s not a museum culture that only shows up when special things happen. We live the fa’aSamoa and we are so proud to do it.”

He suggested to the private sector, “Don’t let government control what you do to grow your business. Don’t let government get in the way.”

That’s the problem that we have. Too much government,” he declared.  “We need government to get away and allow you the private sector to innovate, to do your thing, only you know how to make money.”

“Government doesn't make money. They take money from you,” he told the private sector. “And we need to remember that.”

Responding for the Nua and Satele team, Tapumnaia recalled when he was a lawmaker and an interesting issue which surface regarding the Visitors Bureau was the executive director’s salary of $90,000 - along with other benefits.

With a high salary, Tapumanaia said the “only results that I saw, is that we increased the level of cruise ships that came in. There was no infrastructure challenge to try to help local people maximize the dollars of the tourism industry.”

“We may have brought more people here, but in reality” only about 20% of the passengers disembarked to shore, and there were very limited places for them to go.

“The only thing they had was a bus ride — from one-side of the island to the other side of the island. But yet we have a rich culture. We need to promote our culture,” he said. (See yesterday’s edition on other facets of the tourism industry question.)