Visitors Bureau works at expanding air service to the territory

fili@samoanews.com

Several lawmakers questioned some specific expenditures for the American Samoa Visitors Bureau’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 during the agency’s scrutiny by the Fono Joint Budget Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Perhaps the harshest questions dealt with the high salary and benefits for Visitors Bureau executive director David Vaeafe, who was told by some lawmakers that they have nothing against him, but are very concerned with the way his contract was approved and who approved it. (See Friday’s edition for details.)

At the outset of the hearing some lawmakers questioned several expenditures in the budget such as $80,000 allocated for travel and $219,000 for the “All Others” budget section, which includes expenses for utilities. Rep. Vesi Talalelei Fautanu was the first to point out that the proposed $751,500 budget for FY 2017 “is a lot of money” for an agency with only six employees.

In his response, Vaeafe said that in terms of the budget itself, “if you compare our budget to the rest of the region and what they spent for tourism and what they invest in tourism — it’s the smallest.”

On the travel budget, he said, “If we do not promote ourselves overseas, we don’t get the visitors. And we have partnered with Hawaiian Airlines and others to do exactly that and that’s what has helped generate new visitors every year.” So the travel budget is allocated for overseas promotion.

For “All others” it covers expenses including overseas travel shows and supports local events, which “we support in our budget for [local] events that attract people — to [events] such as the Moso’oi festival and the fishing tournament,” he said.

He said the budget is very small, and according to the American Samoa Tourism Master Plan, “we’re getting a third of what we should be getting as a starting point. But we have to work within those limitations and look for other opportunities, other avenues to source funding to assist our work.”

He stressed that Visitors Bureau works with its international partners who then sell American Samoa. For example, he said one of the large travel companies in Australia and New Zealand, Flight Centre, will start selling American Samoa next year.  “I’ve ben negotiating for five years [with them]. They sell most of the tourists to Fiji, Samoa and the Cook islands,” he said, adding that these Pacific islands get a huge share of tourists from Australia and New Zealand.

Samoa News has reported in the last three weeks that the Lolo Administration is hoping to attract Fiji Airways to operate in and out of American Samoa, which has also proposed flights to Pago Pago through other Pacific countries such as Samoa and Tonga.

During the budget hearings, Vaeafe was asked about Fiji Airways this was the first time that lawmakers had heard directly from an ASG official on the Fiji Airways issue.

Vaeafe explained that he along with board chairman Tom Drabble met early this month in Fiji with the airline’s top executives including the chief executive officer. “They are wishing to expand into the region, adding more destinations to include American Samoa,” he said and that these are ongoing discussions with Fiji Airways.

And the outcome of the meeting was that the airline will prepare a proposal, which would be submitted to Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga for his consideration, he said.

Vaeafe emphasized to lawmakers that boosting visitors to American Samoa depends on transportation — whether it’s by sea or air.

“So we have to do everything we can to attract new airlines. And we started this discussion with Fiji Airways three years ago,” he said.

Vesi wanted to know if the Fono is going to be able to get a briefing from the airline, to which Vaeafe said it can be done and the Visitors Bureau will inquiry with Fiji Airways.

Meanwhile, Samoa News has learned that the governor has given the go-ahead for his senior staff to put together a plan, in which French Polynesia's national carrier Air Tahiti Nui’s top officials could visit American Samoa and meet with local leaders including lawmakers.

Such a meeting here follows those held in Pape’ete two months ago between Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga and the airline’s top officials. American Samoa is looking at flights between Pago Pago and Tahiti and flights to the US.

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