Halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand lies the southernmost bit of American soil: American Samoa. The string of islands in the South Pacific has been a U.S. territory since 1900, but most Americans don't know it's there, and don't think about visiting. Tourism is NOT a big industry in this tropical paradise, and many of American Samoa's residents are hoping it stays that way.
Just walking on a dirt road through the jungles of the main island of Tutuila is a spectacular experience for the visitor from temperate climates. Everywhere there are palm trees, bananas, breadfruit and an array of vivid and sweet smelling tropical flowers -- plumeria, gardenia, ginger. At any point you can leave the road and head toward the shore. There the waves from across the Pacific smash against the dark volcanic rock of this only U.S. territory south of the equator, spraying high into the air? and - if the angle is right - creating miniature rainbows.
Of course, there's more to see as you wander about: American Samoa's manicured villages, the traditional very open living quarters called fale to catch the breeze, well-tended graves close to nearly every home to honor departed family members, and villagers performing timeless music.
But visitors aren't knocking down the door to get here. Unlike the territory's neighbors, such as the Cook Islands, Tonga and independent Samoa, officials in the capital city, Pago Pago, generally have given tourism development little more than lip service. "When you talk to the government leaders, they don't see (tourism) the way the other islands do," says Samoan journalist Monica Miller. "But I basically believe that's because they've got the Federal funding. I think if they were pushed to the wall, they'd have to look at tourism."
Ms. Miller says ongoing financial support from Washington, the creation of sought after local government jobs, and a thriving tuna canning industry reduces the incentive to start risky tourism enterprises. And the director of the government's Department of Commerce, , Junior, agrees that most places develop tourism as a matter of economic need, and that's not the case in American Samoa "Unemployment is virtually non-existent (here)," he says. "In fact, we have to import labor."
Another factor affecting tourism development is that many local people reject it, fearing its impact on the Samoan culture and lifestyle, pointing to the enormous changes tourism has brought to Hawaii and its native people. But outsiders are coming. The most sophisticated American Samoa hotel - the Quality Inn Tradewinds with 104 rooms and suites - opened a year ago near Pago Pago International Airport.
Alieneta Lavanawasa, who trains the staff at the hotel, says most of their guests are business people and U.S. government workers. She sees very few vacationers. "Maybe because there's not a lot of hotels here," she surmises. "That's why we don't have a lot of tourists here. It's only business people." But, in addition to the Tradewinds, a number of small business hotels and lodge accommodations for the ecotourist have now opened.
Once they've arrived, vacationers can enjoy the beaches and jungles. Ms. Lavanawasa suggests tourists might also be interested in visiting the tuna canneries along Pago Pago harbor. "[They can see] how they clean the fish. They cut the stomach. They take out the innards." The canneries employ about a third of American Samoa's workers, and supply about half of all the canned tuna entering the U.S. mainland. Ms. Lavanawasa adds, "If they want to see how they pack (the tinned fish), they can go to see that."
The independent traveler also can ride a mini-bus around Tutuila, the main island. The busses provide views of the ocean, mountains and everyday life, the sounds of Samoan music, and the opportunity to make new friends.
The National Park of American Samoa, established in 1993, offers hiking trails, coral reefs with 900 species of fish and 200 species of coral to explore, 35 species of birds and such exotic creatures as flying foxes or fruit bats. The park also offers home stay opportunities on Tutuila, and - 100 kilometers to the east - the remote Manu'a Islands, where the traditional Samoan culture remains strongest.
Virginia Samuelu is manager of American Samoa's Tourism Office. She and her small staff work hard to encourage this gentle kind of tourism. "If you want a four or five star hotel, this definitely is not the place to come," she says. "But if you're looking at perhaps stepping back, looking at your life, enjoying a quiet environment, a very safe one, I think you ought to consider coming to the Pacific Islands."