Flying the flag

by andrew.mcnulty / 17 October, 2009
Samoa faces a further disaster if tourists fail to keep the visiting parts of the country unaffected by the tsunami - or fail to return at all

The stories are harrowing, the pictures scarcely believable. More than a week after a tsunami destroyed almost every-thing in its path in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, the dead are still being buried.

For anyone who has followed the news since then, the once picture-postcard images of Samoa - white sandy beaches, palm trees and turquoise water - have been replaced by photos and footage of unimaginable ruin and despair. Debris lies everywhere the tsunami struck, and though miraculous stories have emerged of escape from the terrible churning sea, the death toll is grim and overwhelming.

Wellington woman Maria Blue, whose family holiday in Samoa was due to begin two days after the tsunami struck, faced a difficult 48 hours deciding whether to go ahead with her plans.

The family did not want to be in the way of recovery operations or insensitive to the suffering of Samoans. But their hotel booking was not in the affected area and friends living in Apia urged them not to cancel.

They went ahead, but Blue says she thought they'd made a mistake when, after arriving at Apia airport late at night and waiting to be processed through immigration, a TV3 reporter in the terminal loudly declaimed that she could not believe "all these people had arrived at a time like this, to sit on the beach". "I felt sick to the pit of my stomach," says Blue.

But four days later, speaking to the -Listener by phone from the Aggie Grey resort, she says she's glad the family didn't cancel. "We have been absolutely and genuinely welcomed. Most of the tourists here are New Zealand families, because it is school holidays, and people are very sensitive to what has happened."

Some hotel guests had been to the Red Cross to help with distribution of aid. Some, including the Blues, attended Mass on Sunday morning at the small chapel at the resort. "There was an old man on the door who had lost his four-year-old grandson in the tsunami. The reminders of the tragedy are everywhere. We can sympathise and really feel for these people, but that's all we can do, unless we know there is something useful we can help with."

The tourists were being told the recovery effort was now well organised, she says. Her family did not intend going down to the south coast to see the damage. "No. No way. If we could offer practical help, of course we would, but it would be completely inappropriate to go there just to look."

Although the Blues had holiday insurance and could have cancelled, resorts away from the tsunami-affected areas are hoping travellers stick to their plans. If there are mass cancellations, even areas unaffected by the tsunami directly would take an economic hit, and in a small-scale tourism industry, which has emerged in recent years as a significant contributor to the country's economy, that would merely deepen the disaster.

According to statistics from New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Samoa is one of the most dependent countries in the world on remittances. With only about one in eight Samoan residents in paid employment, communities rely on family members overseas - especially in New Zealand, American Samoa, Australia and the US - to send money home.

New Zealand's Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, which was instrumental in negotiating cheaper rates for remittances to be repatriated, says exact figures are hard to establish. World Bank figures show remittances to the Pacific region as a whole were worth US$425 million in 2006, but the true figure could be as much as 50% higher. New Zealand was among the top 10 source countries.

Remittances form about 25% of Samoa's economy. Tourism's contribution has picked up considerably in recent years and now accounts for about 20%, providing significant employment opportunities.

Samoa's tourism industry is much less developed than Fiji's, offering visitors quite a different experience. Unlike most international tourism destinations dominated by corporate hotel chains, Samoa's tourism sector is mostly small indigenous family-owned and -operated businesses, meaning profits are more likely to stay in the country.

In recent years, the Samoan Government has brought in reforms to help the sector, including reducing duty on items being imported for the hospitality industry. And the country appears to have become a beneficiary of Fiji's political turmoil, which has caused visitor numbers there to fall 30%. After Fiji and Tahiti, Samoa is now the third-most popular tourist destination in the South Pacific - until the September 30 tsunami, that is.

Many of the tourism businesses operating on the main island of Upolu were based on the south coast and so bore the full brunt of the tsunami. Some were totally destroyed. After the loss of life and loss of housing, loss of income is yet another facet of the disaster, and another reason Samoa wants visitors to keep coming.

Tony Everitt is chief executive of south-pacific.travel, the not-for-profit umbrella organisation for South Pacific tourism. Based in Suva, he has not been to Samoa since the tsunami struck but three of the larger resorts that were ruined were members of his organisation.

Although the initial focus is on helping people through their loss and ensuring people have accommodation and the necessities of life, he thinks the longer-term damage may not be done by the tsunami alone.

"Television is like a telephoto lens. It zooms in on one hectare of land, then makes some generic statement like 'South Pacific'. There are probably people on the far side of the world who think New -Zealand has been impacted by the tsunami, because the further away you get, the harder it is to understand the vastness of what we have here.

"The invention of global media like CNN is a twin-edged sword. While it helps spread information around the planet quickly, there is often an issue about the comprehensiveness of the information and the accuracy of it. It's hard for some editor sitting in London or New York to get all the bits together.

"For example, I've been following the coverage on the TV channels, and all of them will continuously be showing footage of American Samoa's capital, Pago Pago, which received the surge waters, but as they are showing it they are talking about "Samoa ... Samoa ... Samoa ..." Well the capital of Samoa is not Pago Pago, it's Apia, and Apia fortunately has taken no damage. So it's very misleading coverage, and someone sitting in another country planning a holiday will think, 'That's Apia, it's under water.' But it's not Apia. It's a different country."

He thinks New Zealanders, being closer, probably have a better understanding of the geography and know that although the impact of the tsunami has been severe, it is localised.

"We would urge that as we mourn and grieve for the people affected by this tragedy, we keep it in context. We strongly put out the message that the majority of Samoa's tourism infrastructure, including the airport and Apia itself, is fully operational. We sincerely hope that people who were already planning a holiday in Samoa will continue, because going ahead with their plans in the next three, six, or 12 months will be one of the single- most useful things they can do to help the people of Samoa."

New Zealand is the single largest source of visitors to Samoa. About half that traffic is Samoans going home for holidays, who usually stay with friends and family. Australia is the second-biggest source.

Everitt, who was based in Singapore with Tourism New Zealand at the time of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, says the experience in the countries affected by that tsunami was initially one of terrible shock and confusion, followed by three weeks of deep depression as the clean-up took hold and the scale of the tragedy became clear.

But only a few months later, some resorts were again ready to receive guests. "And guess what? No tourists. No one had remembered to tell the tourists it was okay to come back. The potential visitors had changed their plans to other destinations, so there was a second wave of economic impact because it took 12 months to get business back to normal.

"It is analogous to Samoa which depends on tourism for its livelihood. Obviously, with very heavy hearts, people have to get up in the morning and go to work and will depend on New Zealanders understanding that continuing to come for holidays is an important part of the reconstruction process."

Not everyone is convinced the recovery of Samoa's tourism industry will be quite that straightforward, or quick.

Samoa Observer editor-in-chief Sano Malifa lost four family members in the tsunami. As soon as he heard about the tsunami, he drove to the south coast where it had struck. People were wandering dazed and speechless when he arrived.

"Cyclones in 1990 and 91 did a lot of damage to infrastructure and the whole country was affected. With the tsunami, only two districts have been hit, but one has been utterly destroyed from one end to the other. A few people have said it is almost as though the tsunami focused on tourist accommodation. It struck exactly where the accommodation was.

"The Government had made tourism a priority and has put a lot of effort in. Now it's been shattered and will take a long time to recover. Right now, I don't think there will be enough accommodation for tourists to come. Except for Aggie Grey's in Apia, and near the airport - there are limited rooms. I think the Government will have to look to something else for foreign exchange rather than depending on tourism, unless they come up with some makeshift accommodation."

Both Everitt and Malifa say it is too soon to say whether devastated hotel operators will rebuild on the south coast. Malifa says he could perfectly understand if some who survived the tsunami never went back to their former villages. And even if they did, there's another problem: in the worst-hit areas, the beach itself has gone.

"Even assuming those people wanted to go back and start over, they may not want to return there, because where those hotels used to stand, from one end to the other, there is no beach. It has been removed. The tsunami came from the seabed, it swept the bottom and took the whole beach away."

However, like Everitt, Malifa stresses the rest of Upolu and the bigger, beautiful but less-developed island of Savai'i largely remain unscathed.

Everitt says even without the -"overwhelmingly comprehensive" response to the tragedy from New Zealand, visiting Kiwis arriving in the next three, six or 12 months would not be seen as taking an inappropriate holiday. "They'll be welcomed with a big talofa and open arms."

Malifa says the New Zealand Government "has been very helpful and very kind. There has been a lot of help coming through from you guys and the people are very appreciative of the generosity and kindness."

Everitt says "all the physical stuff" will be dealt with relatively quickly, "but what can't be dealt with quickly is those images that are burned onto the retinas of people around the world. They will remember those images for six to 12 months, and if you're running a small tourism business - which most of the tourism industry in Samoa is anyway - you can't wait 12 months for the next pay cheque."

Malifa, talking from his home on a hill above Apia, said after-shocks were still being felt. "But right now I'm sitting on the porch of my house, enjoying the sun. I am far from where the tsunami took place. The trees and green are everywhere. It is very, very beautiful."

==Shakey science==

===Sarah Barnett===

The earthquakes in Samoa and Sumatra, coming so close together and causing such widespread devastation, were shocking - but seismologically speaking, "they were not unexpected", according to Harley Benz. The chief scientist at the US Geological Survey said in a podcast last week that both areas are extremely seismically active - so much so that the Sumatra region has experienced at least one quake of around a magnitude of 7.5 each year since 2000.

But there's a huge leap from "not unexpected" earthquakes to predicting when they will occur, which still remains an elusive scientific goal. In fact, Benz said, even establishing whether the two were linked would be tricky, especially given the frequency of Sumatran earthquakes.

This area of research is particularly hot for those countries, such as New Zealand, perched on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where 80% of the world's largest earthquakes occur. But there is also a growing body of research internationally into how climate can affect, or even trigger, earthquakes.

In the same few days that brought those quakes, typhoon Ketsana hit the Philippines, leaving a death toll of around 300 before moving on to Cambodia and Vietnam. Medical News Today's editorial noted that "it is almost unprecedented for any region to experience so many disasters over such a short period of time". And although natural disasters like typhoons are increasingly taken as harbingers of the increased, and increasingly severe, weather events brought about by global warming, climate change is rarely linked to geological disasters like earthquakes.

However, at a conference in London last month, researchers discussing "Climate forcing of geological and geomorphological hazards" sounded the alarm on how finely tuned the ground beneath our feet is to the climate.

A link between earthquakes and climate has been known for some time. A study of the Easter microplate (a small tectonic plate off the coast of Easter Island) has shown that, since 1973, it has experienced more big quakes during the years of an El Niño weather pattern than in non-El Niño years. Oxford University's Simon Day, one of the researchers, told New Scientist they believe the sea-level rise that comes with El Niño increases the weight of the water on the plate and, therefore, the pressure on the rock below. "The changes in sea level are tiny. A small additional perturbation can have a substantial effect."

Sea-level rise is also thought to affect coastal volcanoes around the world - though there are currently more eruptions during the northern hemisphere's winter, when the sea level drops and more water is frozen on land. Melting ice sheets have also been identified as potential triggers, as a reduction in the weight of the land could affect the crust below.

The researchers at the conference identified several areas for concern:

-Volcanic eruptions caused by melting ice in Alaska, Iceland, Chile and western Antarctica;

-Eruptions caused by increased rainfall, which could destabilise craters, in central America and Indonesia;

-Eruptions caused by changing sea levels in Alaska, eastern Russia and Indonesia;

-Melting glaciers causing tsunami-triggering landslides in Greenland and west Antarctica; and

- Earthquakes caused by melting ice in Alaska.

Predicting such events, of course, remains as tricky as predicting "ordinary" quakes, especially as it's still unknown exactly how sensitive the Earth will be to increased climate change. But, said conference organiser Bill Maguire, of University College London, we already know it doesn't take great changes in weather to produce a reaction. "It's serious science, not scaremongering."

===Tsunami survival skills==

New Zealand has been affected by tsunamis generated by earthquakes as far away as South America in the past. So what should you do when the next one strikes?

Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences geophysicist William Power says if you are on the coast, you should move to higher ground when you feel an earthquake, see the sea recede or hear strange noises emanating from the sea:

People should move up and away from the sea immediately if they feel a strong or unusually long earthquake. Although they will not know immediately whether the quake has been centred at sea, causing a tsunami risk, it pays to be cautious.

Another sign, but again one that does not precede every tsunami, is the sea going out. "If it retreats you can be pretty confident something bad is going to happen and you need to get out of there. What you definitely don't want to do is feel an earthquake, then wait to see if the sea retreats, because that does not always happen."

"It has been recorded that sometimes a noise - it has been suggested it's like a jet engine or bomb exploding - precedes the tsunami arriving. It's one of those things to be aware of but be mindful that it does not always happen."

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