Samoa fears “second tsunami” of vacation cancellations


APIA, Samoa — Samoa’s tourism industry said it fears a “second tsunami” of vacation cancellations after deadly earthquake-triggered waves wiped out some of the South Pacific country’s most idyllic white-sand beaches and resorts.

Tourism is Samoa’s largest industry, and travel industry representatives visiting the main island’s wrecked southeast coast said Friday about one-quarter of the tourist accommodations had been destroyed.

Nynette Sass, chief executive of the Samoa Hotel Association, said the industry was alarmed by anecdotal reports of mass vacation cancellations since Tuesday’s disaster.

“If substantial numbers of tourists start canceling, that will be like having a second tsunami on us,” Sass said. The industry accounts for 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, she said.

The death toll rose to 170, including 129 in Samoa, 32 in the nearby U.S. territory of American Samoa and nine in Tonga.

Electricity and water services were restored in about half of the affected villages in Samoa and American Samoa, and residents tried to return to what was left of their lives.

Samoan tourist industry representatives said the damage on the southeast coastline of the main island of Upolu included four resorts and more than 20 family operations that rented simple traditional huts, known as fale.

Sass said many travelers did not realize the tsunami devastated a relatively small part of the coast, though the worst-hit beach area, between the villages of Saleapaga and Lalomanu, was widely regarded by tourists as the most beautiful.

“It’s sad that we’ve had to try to convince people that it’s not the whole country that’s flooded, infrastructure is still in place and the cleanup is going really fast,” she said.

Sass said government assistance would be vital to rebuilding a tourism industry that is worth 300 million Samoan tala ($130 million) a year.

More pressing, however, was residents’ survival.

American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said the Federal Emergency Management Agency would establish an office where displaced residents can get housing assistance.

Officials said the focus is shifting from rescuing lives to providing survivors with food, water and power.

Ken Tingman, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer, said that doesn’t mean the missing are being given up for dead.

“You never lose hope,” he said.

Tingman expected almost all of the territory to have power from generators within three to five days.

Taule’alea Laavasa, chairman of the Samoan government’s National Disaster Advisory Committee, said relief work was going well with the help of neighbors including New Zealand and Australia.

But many survivors refused to return to their villages.

“They’re scared; a lot of them have been psychologically affected by seeing their relations die in huge numbers,” Laavasa said.

Some Samoans have been forced to forgo burial rituals because their villages are gone. Other families have had to speed up the burial process because loved ones’ bodies were found in such decomposed states.

In Samoa, the government has proposed a mass funeral and burial next week.

The village of Leone, the center of Christianity on the island, was a bleak landscape of rubble. The beach meeting houses that had been the center of cultural rituals and family meetings were destroyed. An overturned van was jammed into the roof of one beach house.

Leone residents estimate the tsunami destroyed about one-third of the village, which has a population of 3,000. The victims were mostly elderly or toddlers. Four villagers were killed while making crafts on the shore.

About two dozen soldiers and airmen from the Hawaii National Guard had the heart-wrenching task Friday of searching through the village’s muddy debris for a missing 6-year-old boy named Columbus Sulivai.

Bill Hopkinson, a village chief, said the boy had been on the way to school with his sisters. “When the earthquake hit, instead of seeking higher ground, they came running back home,” Hopkinson said. Both girls died.