Getting more tourists to Vanuatu’s outer islands

Sleeping Mountain Tour, Motalava, Vanuatu (Credit: David Kirkland Photography)
Sleeping Mountain Tour, Motalava, Vanuatu (Credit: David Kirkland Photography)

In Vanuatu we have a saying, ‘tourism hemi bisnis blo yumi evriwan’, or ‘tourism is everybody’s business’. This is due to the wide-reaching nature of the tourism sector value chain in Vanuatu. Our communities and businesses, including both direct service providers such as tours and accommodation, and indirect services and complementary businesses such as farmers, taxi drivers and furniture makers, all benefit from tourism. Over 18% of our GDP and 14.4% of formal employment is gained directly from tourism.

Historically, tourism in Vanuatu has been focused on the ‘rest and relaxation’ market – those who stay in larger hotels or resorts and lie by the pool sipping cocktails. However, the 2016 International Visitors’ Survey suggests that there is an opportunity to increase growth in niche markets such as soft adventure, eco-tourism and cultural experiences, which are run by smaller local operators, based mainly in villages and towns in our outer islands.

Last month, our national carrier announced its fleet expansion plans for 2020, with an agreement of four new Airbus A220s. Stronger links to long-haul markets and more regular flights to core markets in our region will provide Vanuatu with greater opportunity to grow our tourism industry. This is a critical driver for inclusive and sustainable development in Vanuatu, as the move to decentralise a portion of our tourism industry will see more direct outcomes for communities that run smaller tourism businesses – on their own terms. This is directly in line with both our customer demand for authentic and unique experiences, and Vanuatu government policy.

A challenge facing this progression is that, unlike Vanuatu’s other productive sectors (such as agriculture or handicrafts), tourism is not a cultural practice for us. While good hospitality is something we have engrained within our society, understanding of the different expectations of international and domestic tourism markets differs dramatically. A lack of comprehension and access to relevant skills and knowledge to address this gap is a major barrier for our outer island destination development and for the sustainable growth of our micro and small local operators.

Collaboratively, the Department of Tourism and the Vanuatu Tourism Office have identified a range of skills and training needs along the growth path of tourism businesses. These include business planning and set-up skills, physical product development areas (such as bungalow design and itinerary development), operational skills (such as book-keeping and marketing), as well as basics such as understanding visitor expectations and customer service.

The Department of Tourism and the Vanuatu Tourism Office have been working closely through a co-investment arrangement with the Australian Government-supported Vanuatu Skills Partnership to ensure access to quality, demand-driven training and business development opportunities for over 140 local tourism businesses and their employees.

While the Department of Tourism and Vanuatu Tourism Office identify emerging businesses, skills gaps and market demands, the Vanuatu Skills Partnership, through the Skills Centres under the Ministry of Education and Training, play the role of a broker, facilitating skills delivery for inclusive local private sector growth.

Through the work of this skills-for-tourism initiative, we have seen higher numbers of quality local businesses become available. In 2018, 63% of the local tourism businesses supported had managed to obtain tourism operator permits, compared with 43% in 2017.  Through the initiative, for the first time, a higher quality of locally-operated cruise tours and activity offering has also been noted by travellers, with Mystery Island winning the Top Cruise Destination in the South Pacific category in Cruise Critic’s 2018 Choice Destination Awards.  Skills development support has also led to increased representation of locally-owned business finalists at our National Tourism Awards.

An example of this is Chez Maureen Bungalow in Torba province. Through targeted skills development support, the business owner – a local Gaua woman – has been able to grow her business from a dream in 2015 into a thriving business employing three local staff in 2017. The high quality of her accommodation, food and hospitality gained her national recognition in 2018 when she won the Vanuatu Tourism Award – Best Island Style Category.

Chez Maureen Bungalows (before building)

Chez Maureen Bungalows (before building)

Chez Maureen Bungalows (after completion)

Chez Maureen Bungalows (after completion)

Through the combined efforts of skills development, destination marketing and market access, Vanuatu has seen more tourists travelling by air to our outer islands in recent years. Available data shows that annual international arrivals who have travelled to outer islands have grown in the past two years, despite the impact of Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015 and the temporary closure of Bauerfield Airport in 2016.

International arrivals to Vanuatu’s outer islands 2014-2018

Source: Vanuatu National Statistic Office.

We have worked in partnership to support an enabling environment through identification of demand from the local private sector and supply from local training providers and local industry mentors.

This is done through an integrated methodology encompassing five inter-related activities:

  1. The delivery of blended on-site skills development activities that are contextualised to suit the needs of the small local tourism businesses and entrepreneurs, for example short courses and one-on-one business coaching where required.
  2. Mainstreaming gender equality, disability inclusion and climate change action through all activity in line with Vanuatu’s National Sustainable Development Plan.
  3. Support for existing local training providers, provincial governance structures and industry advocacy groups to ensure skills delivery reaches tourism businesses in a locally-led and sustainable way.
  4. Strengthening market access to provincial travel and booking centres, online travel agents and international wholesalers, as well as links to entrepreneurs in complementary sectors such as handicrafts and agribusiness.
  5. Collaboration with larger private sector representatives and interested partner donors. (An example of this collaboration in action post-Cyclone Pam can be found here.)

We navigate the diverse interests and agendas of industry partners and stakeholders through ongoing dialogue with local business representatives and partners in addition to a long-term (three to four year) commitment to supporting them and their development aspirations.

In our experience, it is in this way that donors and government departments can be most useful in driving changes that encourage inclusive and sustainable tourism growth. Not by doing, but by bringing together demand and supply and fostering collaboration and coordination between operators, partners and communities.

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Adela Issachar Aru

Adela Issachar Aru is the Chief Executive Officer of Vanuatu Tourism Office.

Warren Gama

Warren Gama is the Productive Sector Manager within the Vanuatu Skills Partnership.

4 Comments

  • I made a comment on the FB post looking for guidance as to where to get local short course training for my friends who run a bungalow business on Tanna.
    To date no one has provided a response telling me who I might contact or even whether what I requested is available. I would really appreciate some feedback.

    • Thank you very much Cherylle for your comment. I am sorry that we did not provide any guidance to you following your comment on FB.

      We will be more than happy to assist you and your friend on Tanna and we can provide this assistance through our Tafea Skills Centre office located on Tanna. Could you please contact us on the following email addresses so we can discuss the short course training need you requested:

      Erinah Kalo – erinah@vanuatutvet.org.vu (Skills for Tourism Officer)
      Jacqueline Jerry – Jacqueline@vanuatutvet.org.vu (Tafea Provincial Training Coordinator)
      Warren Gama – warren@vanuatutvet.org.vu (Productive Sector Manager)

      Please see below link to our website for your perusal :
      http://www.vanuatutvet.org.vu/

  • Great post Adela and Warren, and really good to hear about these plans. As someone who just returned from a wonderful holiday to Vanuatu (spending time in Vila/Efate and on Santo), I was really impressed with the ease of travelling in Vanuatu, the high level of safety (especially as a single female traveller on my own), the friendliness and welcoming nature of Ni-Vanuatu people, and the accessibility of beautiful natural attractions. On Santo in particular, I was also really impressed with the commitment of local communities (Port Olry being one example) to environmentalism and keeping the natural environment clean and pristine. So everyone in my circles is hearing about how great Vanuatu is for a holiday!

    One thing that as a development-conscious traveller that I would have liked to have been able to do more of would be to support locally-owned and operated accommodation providers. Having spent many years living and travelling throughout Indonesia, I was surprised that everywhere I stayed in Vanuatu was expatriate-owned, with all but one venue managed by an expatriate as well. No doubt this still creates jobs and supports the economy so these accommodation providers are still making a positive contribution. But there are travellers looking for ways to better support the communities they visit. So it would be good if there was a way for travellers to identify Ni-Vanuatu owned/operated accommodation options, tour providers or restaurants.

    I also noticed the demographic of travellers to Vanuatu from Australia was on the whole a lot older than Indonesia or SE Asia (just from observation not data). Cost might be one issue (a hard one to overcome) but I think some of these proposals around soft adventure and eco tourism would be of particular interest to the younger demographic — promoting these to the right groups in tourist-sending countries will also be really important.

    • Thanks so much for your comment Ashlee and for coming to visit our beautiful islands on your holiday. In response to your question on locally-owned accommodation you are right and more work is being done to ensure our local tourism operators are able to sustainably operate. In recent years we have been working with over 140 ni-Vanuatu run businesses to improve quality, and market visibility. You can check many of these out via the Travel Centre Network sites – Tanna Travel https://www.tanna.travel Malampa Travel http://www.malekula.travel and Santo Travel https://www.santo.travel. In the coming 12 months our focus will shift to ensure these business owners have the digital skills to promote themselves online to potential visitors.

      Your comment on soft adventure and eco-tourism has also come at a timely moment as we launched our new 2030 Market Development Plan last Friday, 05 April which features a statement regarding growth segments such as ‘Adventure Seekers’ and ‘Experience Collectors’. Watch this space for more. We hope to see you back in Vanuatu soon.

      NB: Link to 2030 Market Development Plan https://www.dropbox.com/s/9us6djp0aeu0xly/2030%20Vanuatu%20Tourism%20Market%20Development%20Plan.pdf?dl=0

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