Visitors in search of authentic experiences
When Samoa officially opened its borders to international visitors on August 1st, American-Filipino traveller, Riza Rasco, was one of the first visitors who disembarked off the first flight into Samoa after an almost 3 year hiatus due to the global pandemic.
An avid traveller and founder of several travel organizations including the Philippine Global Explorers and Explore Africa, Riza has been travelling non-stop since April 2019, not long after Samoa and many other countries closed their borders to help stop the spread of Covid-19.
“Before the pandemic happened I took a personal sabbatical and I haven’t stopped since, it wasn’t my plan to travel through the pandemic period but it just happened and I was still able to” said Riza.
“During the pandemic, I would travel alone because everyone was indoors and I’d sleep in my car because hotels were closed. I’d be the only one on the road and it got to the point I was able to see absolutely everything because I was the only tourist around.”
“In many countries that eventually opened their borders at different times – I was one of the first tourists there and I managed to be one of the first foreign visitors to enter Samoa when borders re-opened.”
Under the most extraordinary conditions, Riza managed to continue her mission to visit 193 United Nation Members states. This year she was able to mark Samoa as her 185th country and has her sights on exploring the rest of the Pacific; a region she describes as “the final frontier”.
“Before Samoa I visited the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I’ve completed travelling to all the countries in Africa and Europe. The last region I want to explore is Oceania because it’s the least explored region in my list.”
For avid travelers like Riza who have travelled over 100 countries, white sandy beaches and flashy resorts are far from their mind instead they are driven by experiences found off the beaten path, believing that cultural immersion is the best way to experience the essence of any country.
“My favorite county in the Pacific so far is Samoa” she said. “I told my partner that over the phone and it’s because of the culture. Samoa is the heart of the Polynesia. I loved going into the villages I have never seen anything like it anywhere in the world especially the unique architecture of the traditional fale with its open walls and I found them to be very clean.”
“I am more interested in the connection with the people that’s why I like to visit the villages because I believe the heart of Samoa is the village life. For me, it’s not about sight-seeing and resorts. Every island in the world has all these it but not every island is the heart of Polynesia, like Samoa”.
The highlight of Riza’s whirlwind road trip around Upolu and Savaii was meeting the locals and taking in the sights and sounds of village life.
“I hired a car and drove around Savaii and Upolu for the first couple of days. I count myself lucky to be here while the country is celebrating its 60th Independence Anniversary and seeing all the beautiful decorations and gardens. Everything is freshly painted and for me it was a plus that there were not that many tourists so I still got to see Samoa and how it has been while the borders were closed.”
“I caught a cricket (kilikiti) match in Savaii while I was there so I pulled over and walked over to watch the game. Before I walked to my car I saw a fale full of women and one of the women came out and welcomed me in. I greeted all the ladies and it started conversations and I saw all the weaving going on, I made sure that I had their permission before I joined them and all it took was a smile and a kind gesture to give me the green light.”
“Samoans are friendly, warm and inviting people. How the people live their lives is far more educational and far more rewarding. I really thinks that’s the best way to promote tourism from the rural side to the country side and the attractions that are already there – it’s the best of both worlds.”
Although Samoa is re-building its tourism industry following the devastating economic impact of the pandemic, Riza found the country’s “business as usual” approach made it easier for her to enjoy her experience.
“Samoa seems like a safe place and I did not at all feel like there was a safety risk here. It’s just so easy to travel here, it’s wonderful that your ferry works and it was so easy to travel between islands. My experience in other Pacific Islands was very difficult with flights between islands being cancelled at the last minute and there were no ferries.”
“The only difficulty I experienced was finding a rental car! I believe in the next 2 months Samoa needs to update its inventory on rental cars. I feel that Savaii was more traditional. Upolu seems to be more busy and commercial. If I was able to obtain information about living in a home-stay it would have been awesome. The idea of living in a fale within the village is my kind of vacation and I think it should be done more often. “
With just 8 more countries in the Pacific to tick off her list to reach her goal of visiting 193 United Nations states, Riza is looking forward to updating her large travel networks about her experience in Samoa,
“I founded the Philippine Global Explorers in 2019 and it has a membership of 750 people based in 6 continents. It’s a nonprofit organization that brings together the most traveled Filipinos not only in the Philippines but all over the world. They meet on zoom call and help each other travel by sharing tips, we try to inspire each other to travel.”
“I also belong to the Travelers Century Club, the Every Passport Stamp Club, the Nomad Mania and other organizations as well. They are all communities that link travelers in the world and are a good resource for information about countries like Samoa. So I’m looking forward to sharing tips and my experience with all of them to help inspire their future travels to the heart of Polynesia.”