Am. Samoa Works To Rebuild Relationship With Hawaiian Airlines

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Visitors Bureau hopes to bring down costs, attract more visitors

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Sept. 8, 2015) – American Samoa Visitors Bureau is working with Hawaiian Airlines on travel packages with the goal to bring in more visitors and thereby drive down the price of air travel between Pago Pago and Honolulu, said Visitors Bureau executive director David Vaeafe during his office’s fiscal year 2016 budget hearing last Thursday.

Vaeafe made the revelation when responding to Rep. Vesi T. Fautanu’s questions, asking if the Visitors Bureau is exploring other air transportation options for American Samoa. Vesi suggested having "our own airline" and "maybe investing in our own airline".

Vaeafe first pointed out that tourism revolves around air transportation and Pacific islands are all facing the same issue. He said airlines are a "huge investment" and other countries have worked with airlines to subsidize their air service.

For example, Samoa and Tonga used to pay Air New Zealand about $5 million a year for the airline’s service connecting the two countries on the Los Angeles route. (Samoa News notes that this route no longer exists, and was stopped more than three years ago, as both countries pulled out of the agreement with Air New Zealand.)

"It costs a lot of money to operate our own airline," said Vaeafe, who had previously worked in the airline industry for several years. He says Hawaiian Airlines’ past relations with American Samoa have not been good, and acknowledged that the airfares between Honolulu and Pago Pago are high.

"But there are ways to work with what we have — with the existing carriers — to bring in more [passenger] traffic and drive down the price [of air fares]," he said, adding that in the last six years, the Visitors Bureau has been working to rebuild the relationship with Hawaiian Airlines because that bridge had been burnt a long time ago.

"So we are now looking forward to early next year putting in place some incentive packages from Honolulu to here at a lower price, including accommodations — with the goal to increase traffic and bring prices down," he revealed.

He reiterated that it has taken time for the Visitors Bureau to get to this point with Hawaiian, saying that it’s all about partnership and negotiations. "And we cannot do this alone as an entity; we have to work with our partners. We now have in place international travel companies that sell American Samoa, as far away as Switzerland, Germany, and Austria," he said.

Additionally, there are some one million tourists a year to the South Pacific region and American Samoa needs to work closely with its international travel wholesalers to bring them to the territory. This includes working with Samoa, which gets over 130,000 tourists a year.

Vesi interjected, saying that Vaeafe has a huge salary — $85,000 annually — and that the executive director should do something to bring down airfares between Honolulu and Pago Pago. Additionally, "Manu’a is waiting as to what you will do for tourism" development. Another lawmaker also raised the issue of air transportation for Manu’a.

Vaeafe pointed out that the big problem for Manu’a is the lack of air transportation. He also says there are parties interested in setting up accommodations in Manu’a but air transportation issues need to be addressed first. However, Vesi pointed out that Polynesian Airlines currently operate flights to and from Manu’a.

Responding to a committee question on the $25,000 allocated for membership in international organizations, and the benefits for American Samoa, Vaeafe explained that Visitors Bureau’s memberships are with the Miss Pacific Organization, a regional cruise ship group and the South Pacific Tourism Organization (SPTO)which is funded by the European Union (EU).

American Samoa is not an EU member, and as a destination country, cannot survive and drive tourism on its own, he said, adding that partnership is needed. Under the SPTO, he says, there’s financial support available to carry out American Samoa’s cruise ship expenditure survey in the near future.

Other issues raised during the hearing dealt with Vaeafe’s salary (see separate story in today’s edition) and the call for the Visitors Bureau to work with Commerce Department to gather data on the benefits American Samoa is getting from cruise ships visiting the territory.

"What kind of revenue are these vessels bringing in? That data makes it easy for the Fono to get an idea on where we stand on benefits," Rep. Larry Sanitoa said.

Also questioned by lawmakers is the fact that Vaeafe and two other contract workers, according to the Visitors Bureau’s budget, are getting increments. Vaeafe said it’s part of his contract as approved by the board.

But Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli says that only career service employees are entitled to increments and this was supported by other lawmakers, who plan to discuss this matter further before the final FY 2016 budget is approved.

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