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Tai’s Native Experience: Where culture meets adventure

When it comes to exploring Samoa, it’s easy to assume that a map would suffice.

However owner and operator of Tai’s Native Experience, Taioaliiseu Taimalelagi Fiti Aimaasu (Tai), believes that having a map doesn’t replace the need for a guide, just as having Google doesn’t replace the need for a doctor.

Since its establishment in 2017, Tai’s Native Experience has earned itself a reputation as one of the most popular tour guides on island, setting itself apart by providing an experience that is engaging and interactive.

 With his expansive knowledge and passion in Samoa’s cultural history, Tai delves beneath the surface and skilfully weaves stories of samoan myths and legends into his tours, sharing insights on the origins of villages around the country.

Like many in the Samoa Tourism industry, Tai’s Native Tours suffered major financial losses during the Covid Pandemic when Samoa was forced to close her borders to foreign visitors in 2020.

“I had a scheduled tour on the day the Government imposed the nationwide lockdown in March 2020. I stood to earn a lot of money that day from the cruise ship that was waiting outside the harbour, but they made the call for it not to come to shore, so I lost a lot of money.

“At the time, no one knew how long the lockdown would be. I thought maybe it would be another two months like the measles which happened a few months before.”

Around the same time his parents left Samoa to travel to India where his mother would receive cancer treatment. It was expected that she would return after her treatments in June of the same year.

“While they were away, I oversaw our farm, we had a piggery as well. As time passed by, June, July went by, and my parents were still stuck overseas.”

“By the time the Government arranged for a repatriation flight it was on November 2020, my mother was already a flight risk yet we were looking forward to have her home for Christmas. We knew the doctors said that there was nothing to be done, so we wanted to be part of her final moments.”

Sadly, that reunion never happened and his mother lost her battle to cancer on March 19, 2021. To make matters worse, his father was unable to travel back because of the lockdown and spent a year in India under lockdown. His father was finally able to return home last year with their beloved mother’s ashes.

“I lost a lot during COVID, I mean everything. After going through all this, you can imagine how hard it is to try and restart the business, because it’s quite painful how at one moment it’s like you have the whole world and you can do whatever you want.”

“Then, the next day you’re sitting there with your head in your hands trying to think what’s going to happen tomorrow. But with the grace of God, He has pulled me through.”

The road to recovery has been a bitter uphill battle these last few years but Tai’s hard work and determination to persevere through heartbreaking loss paid off when earlier this year, he was awarded the Cultural Tour Company of the year by the Travel and Hospitality Awards.

“I managed to get back up and so having this award means a lot to me. It gives me certainty, a boost in my own way of seeing things considering my morale had been completely wiped out.”

Born and raised in Samoa, the 40-year-old chief from the villages of Maagiagi, Safune, Laulii and Sapapalii wasn’t always a tour guide.

Taioaliiseu’s passion for sharing Samoa’s natural beauty and history started when he travelled around the Pacific islands for 6 years as a FIFA referee. He was fueled by his curiosity to know more about the islands he visited after he noticed tour guides provided basic information and were unable to answer questions.

“It was from there that I had that sense of curiosity – like you see things and want to know what it’s about,” he said.

“All the while we have these tour guides just telling us what’s basically on that piece of paper given to us which does not answer the questions.”

The key to providing a first class cultural tour experience is all in the details according to Tai who goes the extra mile to share his knowledge and add a personal touch to all his tours.

“Born and raised here, there’s a lot more to be told other than repeating the same things researched online. Tourists always do a little research on the place especially to see what’s on offer. It would be boring to go on a tour and hear about the same stuff you read online.”

Before starting his business, the father of one, also worked as a public servant for 12 years at Samoa’s Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration. In his formative years he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History from the National University of Samoa (NUS) but he credits his passion for Samoan history and culture to a classroom much closer to home.

“I owe a lot of the person I am to my cultural upbringing; it meant waking up every Sunday to do the umu. I was raised in an environment where we get up before the sun rises to go work the plantation on Saturdays or even during a school day especially after school to get the bananas for the market.”

Tai’s Native Experience officially started in 2017 when Tai was running a taxi cab business. He would hand out cards to his passengers, encouraging them to call him for a tour and eventually the word got out through positive reviews and recommendations from his clientel.

 “I was handing out little flyers to everyone who hopped in my cab and say give me a call next time. That’s how I ended up with a bunch of followers.”

“During a tour, I tell myths and legends, where these villages originated from. I guess this is why people find it intriguing. My commentary revolves around the different aspects of the Samoan culture. At one of the stops I would demonstrate how to weave a basket or hat.” 

“My clients appreciate that because they didn’t know they can get this performance from their tour guide. My tours cover around all the main islands of Samoa (Upolu, Savaii, Manono, Apolima, Namu’a). The average price is SAT $260 per person (minimum 2 people per booking) for an eight-hour tour in Upolu.”

Tai offers different tours all across Samoa and caters to suit the client’s interests whether it be an overnight stay on Namu’a island, a hiking trip around the south coast or chasing waterfalls around Upolu. According to Tai the most common destination for tours is the southeast of Upolu where there is a large cluster of natural sites.

“I’ve taken a family on five different tours, and I asked them which one they preferred. They loved each one because there is always a unique element that differs one from the other.”

Recently Tai was honoured to have been selected to guide one of the world’s richest men around Upolu.

“A lot of people are making a lot of noises about Jack Ma, maybe because Samoa was the only Pacific Island he has been to where people only found out about him visiting after he left. I think it speaks volume about what I do and what I represent because I am a man of my word. I promised anonymity for my services, I try to provide what the client wants.”

“We are entitled to our privacy and Jack Ma is no one different. He did travel with a lot of people, and they just wanted to lay low and keep away from the public.”

Tai hopes to put Samoa on the map as one of the best travel destinations in the Pacific by promoting the unique culture of Samoa. He believes that emphasizing Samoa’s culture in marketing campaigns will set Samoa apart from other Pacific Island destinations.

“Ultimately, I just want to put Samoa on the map as one of the best travel destinations in the Pacific. I want to encourage people who feel like they’ve been left behind or have no way forward for them there are so many ways culture can provide for our families this is the linkage I am trying to do with my business. Remain true to our culture, remain authentic as people who are very respectful.”

Despite the tragic losses of years past, the award winning tour guide is looking ahead with optimism and feeling grateful that he found his true north again. Refusing to be defined by his losses, Tai has chosen to adopt a resilient mind-set seeing every challenge as an opportunity for growth.

“Everything that happens can be an opportunity or a threat but if you dwell on it as a threat then you won’t get anywhere. I try to challenge myself to be a better man tomorrow and that’s how I continue to put my best foot forward.”

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