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Visiting friends and relatives in Samoa

21.08.13
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I’ve recently arrived in Samoa, a beautiful and very compact destination in the South Pacific. Mainly consisting of two islands, close to each other and connected by a one-hour car ferry, it seems like an ideal place for tourists looking for a destination a bit more off the beaten track than Fiji or Hawaii, but less remote than other islands like Niue or Kiribati. There were around 135,000 visitors to Samoa last year, with 83% of these coming from New Zealand, Australia or its neighbour, American Samoa.

But little is currently known about the tourists who come here, which is why the Samoa Tourism Authority has been undertaking an air visitor survey (the first for over 10 years) to find out all sorts of trip characteristics and visitor demographics, as well as what tourists like and dislike, and how much they spend.

It is these latter two aspects of visitor surveys that I enjoy analysing the most. The open questions asking tourists what they have enjoyed, what they didn’t like, or what they have been doing, are often very revealing, and sometimes amusing. Yesterday I noted one Samoan, now living in New Zealand, stating his activities as “Grandma’s Funeral” and “Clubbing”!

I’m often asked why “tourism” includes people travelling for business, to visit friends and relatives, for health or religious purposes, or even for transit visits en route to another destination. Surely these people are not tourists as commonly perceived? Well, these surveys really highlight why the World Tourism Organization made that definition over 20 years ago, which states that a tourist can be travelling for ANY purpose.

The average spend per day of a tourist visiting Samoa is £84. Holiday tourists spend £80 a day, just below the overall average. Business tourists spend £107 a day – this is typical, business tourists usually spend more than leisure tourists as they tend to stay in more up-market accommodation.

However, in Samoa, far away at the top of the spend league table are tourists travelling to visit friends and relatives, spending a massive £131 a day, over half of which is on “family remittances”. These travellers are predominantly Samoans living overseas, bringing money back into the country when they visit, and giving it to their families who in turn spend it on transport, in restaurants, at shops, and on other things they need.

So there are two lessons here. Firstly, VFR (visiting friends and relatives) tourists are not always the lowest spenders – a reputation they tend to have because they usually don’t spend any money in commercial accommodation, and get treated by their hosts.

Secondly, this is a good example of why tourism is not just about holidays – those travelling for VFR, business, and other purposes also matter, because they are also contributing (directly or indirectly) to the the same businesses that holiday tourists use: restaurants, car hire, attractions, even funeral parlours and nightclubs!