TONGA LODGE OPERATOR UNDETERRED BY RIOT

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NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Dec. 5) - German entrepreneurs Franz and Gudrun Strauss, and their family, who signed up the ownership of Nuku'alofa's Seaview Lodge on November 15, had a dramatic first day in their new venture when the Nuku'alofa business district went up in smoke on November 16.The couple who took over ownership from a German couple, Lothar and Martina Slabon, moved to Tonga from Germany with their teenage son and daughter.

The family was shaken by the unrest but, after much reassurance from Lothar and Martina, was confident about continuing to operate the lodge in spite of the crisis.

Franz, a professional chef originally from Austria, who bought the 21-year lease of the land and the seafront accommodation and restaurant, said that he was very confident that their business will thrive and he had no problem staying in Tonga.

Lothar said that after they heard about the looting in town they were shaking, but as they started talking he was surprised that Franz was still confident and really trustful, "I told him I have been in Tonga for 14 years and what happened is one off and very much not in the nature of the Tongan people".

"We on the other hand were not desperate to sell but we always thought they were the right people for the business, Franz is a professional chef like me and his wife has a lot of experience in the hospitality business back in Germany," Lothar added. "Business-wise they were very confident but the recent political circumstances left them a bit confused but I explained to them very quickly and Franz understood that this is not the nature of Tonga and it will change again."

Lothar, the fourth German owner of Seaview, said he first bought the old Seaview property, originally next door to the current lodge on Vuna Road in Sopu, for about 120,000 pa'anga [US$58,800] for a nine-year lease in the 1990's. Then when the old lease expired he was lucky enough to buy a new lease of an open yard right next door for 25 years where he invested just under $1 million pa'anga for the construction of the new lodge, adding accommodation to the established restaurant.

But to sell the property to another German was just a coincidence. "The story is funny because my sister in Germany went out for lunch and was telling her friend about her brother in Tonga who had this business he was selling, the chef, who was Franz, overheard the conversation and approached my sister, and the next day he rang me," he said.

"Franz and his family visited Tonga last November for four weeks and I told them the business is probably not the most important part of the whole deal, they had to figure out if they could live in the South Pacific and in this environment because it is very different to Germany. They made their minds quickly and finally four months ago they got the financing and they arrived in Tonga three weeks ago with their children Bianca and Marvin who will go to school here."

Lothar said that after the unrest, he and Franz made the decision to stay open and serve the public considering that so many restaurants had either gone or closed down.

"The business has been always successful and it will be more successful under the sad circumstances, so the new owners are very optimistic", said Lothar.

He said the accommodation place would also benefit "because there will be a lot people coming in to help rebuild the capital from overseas like consultants and engineers over the next two to three years."

Lothar and his wife will work with the new owners for a month, and after that they will remain in Tonga and offer their professional services to other tourist establishments.

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