The charms of island obscurity

Chris Pritchard

The peaceful Vanuatu archipelago may no longer be in the news, but its people are world leaders in happiness – as measured by contentment, consumption of non-renewable resources and respect for the environment.

‘Pandemonium’ is but a memory. Vanuatu has slipped into a somnolence South Pacific island nations often cite as an important component of their charm. The democratic, 83-island archipelago seldom makes the headlines these days – and when it does it’s because of something positive (such as rating highly on an international happiness index) or quirky (such as the country’s strange cargo cults).

Vanuatu – called the New Hebrides until independence in 1980 – was a colonial oddity. It was jointly ruled by Britain and France. The two European nations called this strange arrangement a ‘condominium’ – a term that was inevitably substituted by the word ‘pandemonium’, because being governed by two powers was nothing short of chaotic. Tales are told of confusing differences in health and education systems and, even now, both English and French are official languages, along with the local Bislama – but English is ascendant and has become the language of government.

The most common colonial stories concern traffic police. Each police force, it is said, dispatched a uniformed cop to an intersection in Port Vila, the capital. Each officer did his own thing. In order to be on their way, motorists had to obey one policeman’s instructions and defy the other’s. The result: pandemonium.

In recent years, Vanuatu has become a major holiday destination, mainly for Australians, who comprise 65 percent of visitors. New Zealand is another important market. Tourism, whether directly or indirectly, contributes well over 50 percent of GDP. Some visitors arrive on Air Vanuatu jet services; others come on an increasing number of cruise liners. Of the 10,729 visitors to the archipelago last July, 82 percent of them were holidaymakers.

A walk along Lini Highway, Port Vila’s main drag, is reminiscent of strolling along waterfronts in the Caribbean. Sunburned tourists seem more in evidence than local residents against a backdrop of mid-rise hotels, restaurants, banks, souvenir shops, duty-free emporia and boutiques selling brightly coloured beachwear, often with South Pacific motifs.

Aside from being a fine holiday resort (complete with casino), Vanuatu – having no income tax but a range of other taxes and levies – is also a tax haven, though it prefers to describe itself as an offshore banking centre. However, growth of this sector has slowed since Australia, a key source of aid, began insisting on less secrecy, greater transparency and tougher rules. The country also has an expanding flag-of-convenience shipping registry, run out of New York.

Most tourists confine themselves to Port Vila and other parts of the island of Efate, because this is where most of the resorts are located. But some go to Tanna, towards the southern end of the island chain – a place that is best known for its active Yasur volcano, cargo cults (based on the belief that the worshipped entity will one day return, bringing cargos of great wealth to the faithful), wild horses and a particularly strong form of kava – a soporific but non-alcoholic brew popular in the South Pacific. Other visitors like to spend their time in Espiritu Santo, where there is a popular diving industry and several upscale boutique resorts, perhaps taking a trip to Pentecost, where the young men leap from treetop platforms in annual initiation rites wearing non-elastic vines to break their fall. Only an intrepid few venture to other islands, some of which have small guest houses.

Economic growth averaged 6.5 percent a year between 2003 and 2008, before falling back to an annual 3 percent average in the wake of the global financial crisis. Small-scale subsistence agriculture anchors the economy, involving about 80 percent of Vanuatu’s 235,000 people. Exports include high-quality beef, coffee, copra and kava – all in fairly small quantities. Agriculture makes up almost three-quarters of the country’s exports.

Vanuatu’s first prime minister, the late Father Walter Lini, was an Anglican priest and independence activist. He remains revered as ‘Father of the Nation’. A contemporary of many African independence leaders, Lini helped to raise his country’s profile internationally, steering a non-aligned course during the Cold War. However, Vanuatu’s cordial links with communist Cuba strained relations with Australia.

Lini built a powerful political organisation, the Vanua’aku Party. It still exists but is no longer pivotal. Today, despite a dozen or so small parties, it appears that the steam has gone out of politics in Vanuatu. Prime Minister Sato Kilman of the People’s Progress Party currently heads the government with Iolu Abil holding the largely ceremonial post of president.

The country seems to revel in its obscurity. It wasn’t always this way. One of Lini’s first challenges was thwarting secessionists in Espiritu Santo immediately after independence. After a few skirmishes, the plot collapsed. Since then Vanuatu has been at peace – a fact that has greatly helped its growing tourism industry.

Promotion was also given a boost when, in 2006, Vanuatu topped the Happy Planet Index and was deemed the world’s happiest place in rankings determined by the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank. The list isn’t based on wealth (Vanuatu comes 207th out of 233 countries in GDP terms) but on factors such as contentment, consumption of non-renewable resources and respect for the environment.

About the author:

Chris Pritchard is a Sydney-based journalist who monitors the South Pacific.


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