Elephant’s Leg

Ofu beach, American Samoa

Ofu beach, American Samoa

Again, a part of the world that is dear to me has been devastated by a tsunami.

Last time was the 2004 Boxing Day disaster which wreaked havoc on several Indian Ocean countries, most famously Thailand. This time the Samoan islands have borne the brunt of killer waves resonating from a huge earthquake in Indonesia – also the epicentre of the 2004 catastrophe.

Phuket was worst-hit in 2004, while Krabi also suffered extensive damage, and scenes of the damage there were poignant for me at the time, as I had only two months earlier enjoyed my first trip to Thailand, spending half of it in Krabi, a dramatically beautiful province which remains my favourite place in the kingdom.

Last week the Samoan islands – both independent Samoa and the US territory of American Samoa – were hit by a tsunami of a similar ferocity, with reports of waves of anything between three and seven metres high washing up to a mile inland, devastating the southern coastlines and in some cases destroying entire villages. Tonga, too, was hit.

The South Pacific tsunami death toll – nearly 200 as of today, but continuing to rise – pales in comparison the 150,000 who perished in 2004, but the damage to the countries and communities could be just as pronounced. Consider that these are nations with populations in their thousands, not millions, and with land areas that would constitute mere provinces in the bigger countries that were hit in 2004. Further, the majority of the inhabited areas are on the coast. The impact of this disaster in national terms cannot be overstated.

Furthermore, in economic terms, the Samoas will almost certainly face a longer and more difficult road to recovery than the 2004 victims. Thailand is one of the world’s foremost holiday destinations, while the likes of Indonesia, the Maldives, India and Sri Lanka, also affected, likewise enjoy a healthy tourism industry. And, with the exception of the Maldives, these are much bigger, vastly more populous nations with a myriad different industries from which their people can make a living.

Not so the Samoas. Offering the South Pacific ideal of pristine tropical beaches and rainforests, a relatively unspoilt native culture, and a largely subsistence-level lifestyle of which generosity and hospitality are the backbone, they do draw tourists, whether in search of a world class beach break or an authentic adventure. But the numbers are small. 125,000 holidaymakers arrived in independent Samoa in 2008. Compare that to Thailand’s 17 million last year, even during a time of recession and political instability.

Of course the Samoas are much smaller so would not be able to cope with tourist arrivals in their millions. But the point is, for small countries that do nevertheless rely on the tourist dollar, the loss of visitors in their thousands will be felt that much more keenly.

Which is a terrible shame. I visited all three nations – independent and US Samoa, and Tonga – in 2006 and was charmed. Over the course of nearly six weeks, I enjoyed jungle treks, coral reefs, delicious food, the vibrancy of the capital and the tranquility of the countryside in independent Samoa, and then ventured to American Samoa, with its towering, dark green peaks and the best beach I have ever seen, Ofu, where powder-white sand met sea with the clarity of bottled water, inhabited by marine life coloured like cartoons, while enormous flying foxes took the skies above me in the early evening. On top of this, the Samoan people were among the most charming I had met anywhere in the world. I also spent a week in Tonga, and while a much shorter experience, similar impressions were gained there.

I have talked glowingly about these experiences ever since, and recommended them to all as travel destinations. In fact, before I moved to Thailand last year, I had identified both Thailand and Samoa as the two places I’d visited where I’d most like to live and work. Ironic, then, that both have now become tsunami victims.

Presumably most people who have upcoming holidays in the Samoas and Tonga booked will cancel, and those who were thinking of visiting will now look elsewhere. With the infrastructure badly weakened and several resorts badly damaged or even destroyed, this is understandable. But recovery will take years, and a dip in tourism will compound this. Tourists will stay away because of the damage, but the damage cannot be quickly fixed without the tourist dollar. A vicious cycle.

Furthermore, while global news outlets have covered the story in the past week, inevitably it will fade from international consciousness sooner rather than later. That’s the way it is with natural disasters, especially when the countries affected are so far away, both in terms of geography and personal relevance, to the average First World citizen. The Indian Ocean tsunami was different, partly because of its unprecendented scale, and partly because Thailand, in particular, is so firmly on the tourist map and has such a large expat community.

But Samoa? Relatively speaking, very few people outside Oceania will have any connection these islands, let alone will have visited them. So they will look at the images on the BBC or CNN and spare a thought for the dead and the stricken, and then forget about it. I’m not criticising these people; it is natural and I have been guilty of the same when watching footage of crises in places which have no relevance to me. But it does mean that outside of those who do have an existing stake in the Samoas, there will be two kinds of people:

1) Those who have considered a holiday there, who will now choose to go elsewhere, thus depriving the islands of much-needed income; and

2) Those who had never previously thought about Samoa, and likely never will again.

The latter will, unfortunately, make up the majority of the international community, and this means donations and aid will be in short supply. The Indian Ocean tsunami generated an enormous global response, but again this due to the countries involved meaning something to so many people. Thailand as one of the most-visited holiday destinations, India and Indonesia as among the world’s most populous nations, and so on.

So, the effect on tourism, coupled with lesser international aid, looks to be economically devastating, beyond the physical chaos which has already been wreaked.

But what can you do? As for me, I just hope that this article raises awareness of a very special part of the world, and that in turn that might encourage some people to visit. Because that is the best thing you can do – visit the Samoas. Your money will make a difference. By all means wait a while until the worst of this disaster has passed, but please do go in future. Spend your money in independent hotels and restaurants – the American and Australian chains will be fine without you, but to the smaller businesses you can make a very real and immediate difference. And beyond that, Samoa will have a very real and immediate effect on you. The rewards to both sides are obvious – I say that as someone who has been to the islands and continues to cherish my memories of them.

My thoughts and prayers go to the islands and their people .


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Oliver – small correction to your blog regarding the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the Samoa/Tonga tsunamis -I think you will find the epicentre was between Samoa and American Samoa.
Agree with your main comment though.All of us that live here know people who died and the ratio of those killed by this disaster more than 1:1000
Faofao beach fales and all Lalomanu and Saleapaga are totally wiped out and even if some houses left standing all belongings gone

Comment by Rob Metzger

Thanks for the feedback, Rob. There was an earthquake in Indonesia on the very same day, though, wasn’t there? Which is why I thought it must have been the reason.

What you said about the death ratio is very sad and, as you said, my point – the death toll in numbers is low compared to 2004, but the effect on such tightly-knit communities is enormous.

Thanks for reading and my thoughts stay with you and yours in Samoa.

Comment by elephantsleg

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