Localising Agri-tourism; bringing home Tourism
March 4, 2021: The outlook for Samoa’s tourism sector remains bleak and uncertain, leaving the Hospitality and Tourism providers scrambling for the domestic dollar, to soften a devastating blow dealt by the COVID19 global Pandemic.
Agritourism, on the other hand, is making an unlikely debut on this troubled scene, and could hold the key to rebuilding a more resilient and sustainable tourism model for the future of Samoa and the Pacific.
At least that’s what one cacao farmer and agritourism entrepreneur believes. Owner and operator of Ms Sunshine Organic Farms, Floris Niu says;
“Agritourism is a very simple idea, service or product. It is about taking your farm, plantation or garden along with your produce, and the everyday activities of life on the farm, and putting it on display.”
“Since its debut in the Pacific less than 10 years ago, agritourism has been mostly associated with the farm-to-table concept, where pacific food was gaining more attention and demand from the tourism sector. It was not showcased as a farm/food experience on-site. The media focused on the use of local produce in the revamped menus of hotels, cafes and restaurants.”, explains Ms Niu.
Ms Niu has been operating her brand of Agritourism Experiences out of her cacao plantation in the village of Tuanai, for the past six years and they have been steadily growing in popularity via word of mouth and through her own marketing efforts online.
“It’s been difficult to market agritourism under the current model. But the beauty of anything new means that it is still experimental, experiential and open to interpretation. If you are approaching agritourism for the first time…you are already becoming a pioneer for this remarkable concept.”
The odds of such a concept becoming popular during the height of a global pandemic are not unlikely. Ms Niu noticed an increase in online followers and engagement from around the world particularly on her Facebook, where vibrant images of her unique cacao tours found a captivated audience in social media users during lockdowns. It would seem that the world is craving authentic experiences with purpose, combining back-to-basics ambience, with a stunning backdrop of an organic cacao plantation setting.
To take part in one of Ms Niu’s cacao and chocolate inspired tours is to embark on a journey that awakens the senses, beginning at the minute you set foot in her plantation. Keeping her tours intimate with a maximum of 20 people, Ms Niu gives her visitors an exclusive look into how she plants, maintains and harvests her cacao to produce a highly sought after premium quality bean. She puts extra emphasis on demonstrating the art of fermenting the beans – a crucial step in bringing out the unique chocolate flavours of the cacao. After almost 20 years of working with award winning artisan Chocolatiers from around the world, Ms Niu insists that;
“There is no chocolate flavour without proper fermentation of the beans. It’s just like wine…if you try to make it with unfermented grapes then it’s not wine, but grape juice.”
Under a humble shelter that serves as a kitchen and dining area, guests are invited to partake in a vegan umu preparing their own coconut bowls of goodness choosing from an array of fresh, colourful ingredients sourced from the very land they stand on. From wild flowers, fruit, root crops, vegetables and herbs; guests are introduced, or (in the case of local visitors) reconnected to forgotten traditional foods they would not normally consume but are readily available in every garden or plantation.
Since 2016 Ms Sunshine Organic Farms has hosted 42, three-hour tours on her cacao plantation. Up until 2020, 95% of Ms Sunshine’s agritourism business came from abroad but last year 100% of the business was local. Ms Niu asserts that given their ability to stay afloat during a global crisis, agritourism has proven to be a flexible activity which can be diversified into whatever direction one chooses.
In a three-year New Zealand government (MFAT) funded Project led by partners SPS Biosecurity Ltd and Savaii Koko, Ms Sunshine Organic Farms is leading the Agritourism component by sharing her hands-on skills and knowledge. She operates educational and famil tours with for locals, farmers and students who are eager to learn how their farms could incorporate agritourism into their existing farming ventures.
While the rise in popularity of her agritours both locally and internationally is a case study demonstrating enormous potential for economic empowerment, particularly for boutique growers in Samoa, Ms Niu is more excited about using it “as a powerful tool to promote and revolutionise how locals view and consume their own crops.”
“Our people are dying young from easily preventable diseases or NCDs such as diabetes, cancer…agritourism could be a mechanism we use to revive our traditional and healthier diet. Agritourism is not just for foreign visitors. It’s like that old belief that we should get out our best possessions to serve our guests; No way, we should get out our best china for ourselves!”, says Ms Niu.
With borders still closed to foreign visitors preventing a full recovery for the tourism sector in Samoa, Ms Niu believes another “border” has re-opened and presents locals with an opportunity to reconnect to their land and food, while farmers should use this time to trial and develop some agritourism experiences within their own farms.
Last year in November Ms Sunshine Organic Farms formalised its involvement with the Project by holding a meet and greet with more than fifty cocoa Farmers in Upolu. The aim of this meeting was to introduce cocoa farmers to Agritourism.
Ms Niu is confident that; “There is an opportunity here for our communities…through agritourism we can create stronger markets and economies by reviving the artistry of our traditional food. We can also do this sustainably through boutique style operations that promote a planet conscious approach to the Land.”
As part of the “Improved livelihoods through increased protection of the premium cocoa value chain” Project, Ms Niu classifies Agritourism as part of the “premium cocoa value chain”. Although it is a new concept which few people understand, Ms Niu says;
“People are always afraid to try new things…I’ve been doing this for 6-7 years now and I never expected to make a living out of it, but slowly, it has supported and sustained me. Today I can call myself a Cocoa Grower & Chocolate Entrepreneur.”