Samoa’s plan for Chinese visitors stumbles on minister’s ties to tour company


Samoa’s prime minister says the government has cut ties to a Hong Kong company that chartered flights

Samoa’s plan for Chinese visitors stumbles on minister’s ties to tour company

This screengrab from a Chinanews.com video shows passengers at Hainan’s Haikou Meilan International Airport checking in for an inaugural direct flight to Apia, Samoa on May 28, 2023.

Samoa has severed ties with a Hong Kong tour company contracted to market the Pacific island country in China after criticism of a cabinet minister’s links to the business – the latest transparency scandal for the government of Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa.

Fiame acknowledged in Samoa’s parliament on Tuesday that Samoa Royal Tours, which has been operating as the local agent for Travel Focus Hong Kong Ltd. despite lack of experience in the tourism industry, is owned by children of agriculture and fisheries minister Laauli Leuatea Schmidt (also known as Laauli Leuatea Polataivao Fosi).

“It was evident from a statement released by Travel Focus Hong Kong Limited that Minister Laauli Leuatea Schmidt was involved with this company,” she said, calling for cabinet ministers to abide by principles of good governance and transparency.

In May, Minister for Communications and Information Technology Toelupe Poumulinuku Onesemo was criticized for attempting to get customs clearance for a relative’s vessel that arrived in Samoa from neighboring American Samoa without the necessary approvals. Samoa’s media association said he had attempted to intimidate a reporter who investigated the issue.

Separately, Samoa’s government last week released a statement denying any endorsement of a reportedly Hong Kong-based initiative to launch a Samoa stock exchange, a Samoa cryptocurrency exchange and a special economic zone.

The tourism industry in Samoa, home to some 200,000 people, has mainly relied on visitors from Australia and New Zealand and the country’s tourism authority has been keen to tap the vast China market. 

Samoa Tourism Authority said in March that it had appointed Travel Focus Hong Kong to market Samoa as a destination in mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong, according to travel industry trade journal TTG Asia. 

The Hong Kong company organized weekly direct charter flights to Samoa’s capital Apia from Haikou in China’s Hainan province, starting last month, bringing dozens of Chinese tourists to the island country. However the attempt to boost the number of Chinese visitors was beset by problems. 

Established tour agents in Samoa complained that Royal Samoa Tours, as a new company, lacked the capacity to carry out tours. 

Fiame told parliament that the venture also appeared ignorant of aviation rules. Charter flights from China were postponed because necessary permits weren’t secured far enough in advance including for a return flight to China, she said.

A passenger ferry service between Samoa’s two largest islands also was disrupted, Fiame said, with passengers forced to wait four hours until a Chinese tour group arrived. 

Fiame became Samoa’s first female prime minister in 2021 after voters narrowly rejected a ruling party in power for nearly three decades. She is the only woman head of government in the Pacific.

The statement issued by Fiame’s office last week about Samoa Stock Exchange, a Samoa Digital Asset Exchange and an Oceania Special Economic Zone said the government had received proposals and was reviewing them but “has not given any endorsement or approval” despite speculation on social media to the contrary.

The Samoa Observer newspaper reported that the three ventures have been registered as private companies with Samoa’s business registry. 

The government said it welcomed new investments that would improve Samoa’s economy and benefit its people but it must ensure such initiatives are “safe, sound and feasible.”

“Proposals of this nature require proper frameworks to regulate the exchange platform and protect market users and investors,” the statement said.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news organization.

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