Picture this; you exit the airport terminal on a lovely tropical island to get your international flight to another tropical island. Once you step foot on the tarmac, you realise that the only plane that can be seen is not even big enough for ten people. In fact, you can only see 4 windows! This is just the first of many things that make American Samoa an oddity in Oceania.
American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – Smallest International Flight Ever
This tiny plane, the inside of which is about the size of a minivan, only runs once a week between Tonga and American Samoa. At US$374 for a flight that takes less than 2 hours, it was the exact opposite of cheap. But that’s not even the strangest part. On the way to the American Samoan capital of Pago Pago the plane made a scheduled stop in Samoa. Although they are in the same island chain, American Samoa and Samoa are separate states.
Upon landing in Samoa, all seven people in the plane were required to alight and pass through immigration. Just to get back on the plane again straight away. Our plane was so small that our pilot also doubled as the cabin crew. He didn’t even need a microphone to do the safety announcement. As you could guess, there was no cabin service, but everyone got a window seat. As the flight duration was too short to reach cruising altitude, we all had a pretty awesome view for the whole flight.
American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – Entrance Fee
As I was the first person from our plane to make it across the tarmac to the arrivals area, there was no line at the immigration window. To tell the truth, it didn’t even feel like immigration. The officer welcomed me in a cool and casual way. That’s not normally something you expect when going through immigration! He then looked at my passport and told me that I needed to pay an entry tax to visit American Samoa.
For a moment I thought that he might have been talking about the Electronic System Travel Authorisation (ESTA) used in the US. American Samoa is a US territory, after all. So I said, “Oh, I have ESTA”. He then informed me that even though it’s an US territory, ESTA is not required. American Samoa instead required visitors to obtain an entry permit if they are staying in the territory for more than one day.
Seeing as I had a flight out the next day, I thought I’d check if I would be exempt from the fee. The lovely officer asked what flight I was leaving on, without asking for any proof. He must’ve memorised the flight schedules. That wouldn’t be particularly hard considering that there are only 3 airlines running international flights from that airport. He then handed back my passport and said, “Okay, have a good time in American Samoa”
As of 2019, people from the countries that could previously get the entry permit on arrival must now apply online for the Entry Permit Wavier Program (EPWP). The country list is the same as that for the US Visa Waiver Program. The processing fee for the EPWP just happens to be the exact same price as the old entry tax.
America in the South Pacific
After exiting the small airport, it was immediately obvious that this was a little bit of America in the South Pacific. Everyone was driving ‘trucks’, which don’t exist on other Pacific islands. Anything that wasn’t a truck, was a minivan from one of the many resorts in Pago Pago, or an old-style US school bus. Who knows how they got transported all that way.
Having visited the US on several occasions, Pago Pago really felt like it could be a small continental US town. The roads and infrastructure were almost identical to those I saw in the US. The island also had its fair share of American chains, like McDonalds as well as American style malls. All the people I spoke to had very strong American accents. Even they said they felt that they are a lot more Americanised that other South Pacific Islands. It’s actually something they are proud of.
The Beauty of American Samoa
Pago Pago, pronounced Pango Pango in Samoan is located on one of the two main American Samoan Islands, Tutuila. There is one major highway on Tutuila that runs from the airport in the southwest to the east of the island. The highway runs along the coast for almost it’s entire length, which makes for some mesmerising views on the way to your accommodation.
The Flower Pot rocks are a prominent feature on the righthand side as you drive away from the airport. Just after them, you’ll see the Pago Pago Harbour, which is one of the deepest harbours in the world. The harbour is flanked on the opposite side by Mount Pioa, which is also known as Rainmaker Mountain. It is a big part of local folklore and is said to trap clouds, giving the harbour some of the highest amounts of rainfall in the area.
American Samoa: An Oddity in Oceania – American Traditions
While American Samoans have passed down a lot of their traditions and folklore through the generations, they have also whole-heartedly embraced American customs. I got to see this first hand because I was there around Christmas time. While Christmas is celebrated around the world, there are certain things that I’ve only seen in the US during the festive season. That includes people going out of their way to decorate their houses with colourful displays of lights.
One final thing of note about American Samoa is that despite being in the same chain of islands as Samoa, it’s on the opposite side of the International Date Line. That means that it’s 25 hours, or more than a whole day behind it’s nearest neighbour. That definitely causes a few headaches when trying to book flights. In fact, when flying from Tonga or Samoa, you will land in American Samoa the day before you left. Then when it’s time to go, you’ll land two days after you left. That essentially means you’ll be flying back to the future!