Much More than Survivor: Vanuatu, Up Close and Personal

By Elinor Garely

The year is 2004. The show is a Mark Burnett creation called Survivor, and it’s ranked Number 4 in viewer ratings, beaten only by CSI, CSI Miami and Without a Trace. When I heard the Survivor promotion for Vanuatu on TV I thought I missed something in the voice-over, “Vanu “What two?” “Vanna” “White-Two?” The new Survivor series is being shot in “Vanuatu!” “Where?”

I was part of the millions of viewers making Vanuatu Number 4 in TV ratings and by listening very carefully discovered that Vanuatu was located in the South Pacific. I usually think of the “South Pacific” in terms of Broadway show tunes and James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” not people living in huts, eating grubs, fighting flies, and loosing weight. Vanuatu looked almost primordial; not even close to being ready for prime time tourism.

One evening, while researching Air Pacific for another destination, I noticed that Vanuatu was part of the airlines routing. I could not believe there were regularly scheduled stops in Vanuatu (via Air Pacific and Air Vanuatu), nor could I deal with the fact that it is a short flight from Australia and New Zealand. For east coasters the flight time to Vanuatu appears daunting (the route is New York to LA, to Fiji or Australia, and then Vanuatu). But I was not focusing on time; I was impressed there was an airport! An airport with international flights meant radar, and modern technology – which led me to believe there might be a few acceptable hotels – beyond the huts favored on Survivor. The show producers, technicians and crew had to stay somewhere and these folks don’t do huts and bugs. I was hooked. I wanted to see where the Survivor team hung out while doing the show. I wanted to go “behind the scenes.”

Where is Vanuatu?

Before confirming a reservation it is always advisable to research the destination. Finding a map in a geography textbook, I found that Vanuatu is a “Y” shaped archipelago that includes 80 islands. It is located 1,303 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia and 3,450 southwest of Honolulu. The Republic of Vanuatu is approximately the size of Connecticut, covering an area of 12,200 square kilometers. The country’s capital is Port Vila (on the island of Efate), which supports one-sixth of the 196,000 population (2002 est.). The two largest islands, Espiritu Santo and Malakula, account for nearly one-half of the total land area. The islands are volcanic, with sharp mountain peaks, plateaus, and lowlands and they also possess boundless natural resources – from pristine rain forests, and jungle waterfalls, to hot springs, incredible coral reefs, and crystal clear waters with abundant sea life, making it a beautiful tourism destination that attracts 40,000 – 50,000 international visitors each year who are mostly from Australia and New Zealand.

Religions

Most of the people living in Vanuatu are Christian; however, on the island of Tanna, many follow the John Frum religion, an outgrowth of an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) and promises Melanesian deliverance for following a good life. At one time, a villager claimed to have seen and spoken with Frum who gave him the following message: If the Tannese live an honest life, Americans would be summoned to build factories and show the Tannese how to become a rich nation. The sect believes that Frum himself will arrive in Tanna and his visit will be marked by the movement of mountains and great prosperity. He will give them all the schools, money, and fertile land they desire. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with two members in Parliament.

History

Vanuatu has a history that dates back some 4000 years; however, it was not until 1606 that the first island, Espiritu Santo, in the Vanuatu group was discovered by a Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez De Quiros, who spied what he thought was a southern continent. Europeans returned in 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence. At the beginning of the 19th century, Irishman Peter Dillon discovered sandalwood on the island and established trade with China. Despite clashes between immigrant Polynesian workers and indigenous Melanesians this trade flourished for over 40 years. As the sandalwood sources diminished, the traders turned to recruiting laborers for the sugar cane fields of Fiji, Queensland, and New Caledonia. This long-term indentured labor trade became known as “Blackbirding.” At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the Islands worked abroad.

From Missionaries to Farmers

The next waves to claim Vanuatu were the Catholic and Protestant missionaries as well as settlers looking for land on which to establish cotton plantations. When international cotton prices collapsed, they switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully, coconuts. Initially, British subjects from Australia made up a large portion of the population, but this changed as the French entered the market. By the turn of the century, the French outnumbered the British two to one.

French and British Governance

The jumbling of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory. In 1906, however, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly. Called the British-French Condominium, it was a unique form of government, with separate governmental systems that came together only in a joint court. Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power.

Addition of US Interests Encourages Nationalism

Challenges to this form of government began in the early 1940s with the arrival of Americans during World War II who established bases on Efate and Santo. In addition to building roads and airfields, they brought with them an informal attitude and relative wealth. The Americans inspired a sense of pride among the indigenous population, and motivated an increasingly significant sense of nationalism spurring the development of the first political party in the early 1970s which was originally called the New Hebrides National Party. One of the founders was Father Walter Lini who later became Prime Minister.

Tax Haven

Vanuatu is a tax haven which is enhanced by several unique features:

  1. No income tax
  2. No withholding tax
  3. No capital gains tax
  4. No death duties
  5. No exchange controls. Money is easily transferred in all major currencies
  6. No reporting requirements in relation to the movement of funds

With more than 30 years experience as a banking and financial center, Vanuatu has a solid infrastructure of lawyers, accountants, and trust companies. It also has telecommunications capabilities with its own satellite station, telephone, Internet and facsimile transmission capabilities.

2005: Vanuatu Year of Tourism

James Bule, Minister of Trade, Commerce and Tourism for Vanuatu knows the importance of tourism to Vanuatu’s economic development, and his office plans to open two new provincial tourism offices in Tanna and Luganville and upgrade the airport infrastructure in Malekula, Pentecost and Ambae enabling the landing of larger aircraft such as the Air Vanuatu ATR 42. Minister Bule is also working with the Vanuatu Investment Promotion Authority (VIPA) to attract major investors to develop and expand the tourism product.

In a recent interview with Minister Bule, he encouraged hotel and tourism developers with an interest in new projects, to meet with his office to discuss incentives that could include tax holidays and extensions on land-lease agreements. With the increase in residential and commercial development along the waterfronts of all the islands, there is a mounting challenge of keeping the water clean, clear and free of pollution. Minister Bule assured me that the Vanuatu environmental unit was addressing infrastructure and sewage issues.

Gaming Potential

In addition to assisting developers to identify land and construct new hotels, the government of Vanuatu allocates casino licenses. Currently, one of the larger operations is adjacent to Le Meridien Port Vila Resort. The casino facilities and ambiance are very low key – not nearly living up to the market potential. Minister Bule pointed out that additional gaming licenses could be issued, and prospective operators should contact his office for information. (I wonder when Donald Trump and Sol Kerzner will discover this potential goldmine).

Competitive Sports

Ture Kailo, the Vanuatu Director of Youth and Sports discussed the unique and very successful ocean swim that takes place every June. The swim around Port Vila takes around 30 minutes, and attracts amateur swimmers from Australia and New Zealand. Mr. Kailo invites swimmers from around the world to enter the 2006 challenge. The “Round Island Relay Race” is organized every July. This event is also open to world-wide runners, and corporate support is encouraged. Very competitive athletes are invited to enter the Vanuatu Olympics and sign-up for challenges in soccer, basketball, volley ball, sprinting, middle and long distance running. Admission requirements for all competitive sports are available by contacting the Director at Ture.Kailo@yahoo.com or calling 23766 in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Hotel Association

Patricia Gavotto, formerly a Director with Price Waterhouse and now a Vanuatu hotel owner and president of the Hotel Association has found her Vanuatu experience a very pleasant one, and is delighted to have selected this country for hotel development. Reviewing her experience from land acquisition through the construction phase, she determined that the process was very straight forward, and worked through the government paperwork process without legal assistance. Currently land-lease options run for 50-75 years, should a developer want a different arrangement, it would be part of the negotiation process. While there are no personal or business taxes in Vanuatu, there is a Value Added Tax and an import tax that can significantly increase the cost of construction; however, exceptions may be possible and negotiations are recommended. Gavotto sees real potential for tourism expansion in Vanuatu, and increasingly professional operations.

Part II
Vanuatu: Up Close and Personal

I arrived in Bauerfield International Airport in Vanuatu flying Air Vanuatu from Fiji. The small airport is delightfully informal and reminded me of an early development phase of the Caribbean. Luggage is quickly off-loaded, enabling a quick getaway.

I am now on my way to the Iririki Hotel. Remember, my only experience with Vanuatu was via Survivor – so I do not have high expectations as to my accommodations. I am anticipating primitive! Arriving in the downtown area of Port Vila, my luggage is stacked on a free 24/7 ferry and 5 minutes later I am off loaded at the Iririki dock. A short walk up a very steep hill and I stroll into the hotel lobby. I hold my breath. I am booked here for three nights – will it be ok?

OK does not begin to describe the Iririki Hotel which opened in 1986. A charming boutique property, tastefully designed to take advantage of a fabulous view from the swimming pool deck, this is a luxury-class experience that would be perfect anywhere on the planet. Individual cottages dot the hillside providing fabulous views of the water and town. Each spacious a/c unit has a large shower and bath, enormous king – sized bed facing the water, writing table, TV and large outdoor deck. Internet connectivity is available in the lobby – if you really want to know what is going on in the rest of the world.

The well designed lobby features a long bar, a stage for nightly entertainment, lots of open space for casual dining, a view of the pool, and the endless sun and stars that makes Vanuatu so very special. Everything at this property is terrific – the bartenders are friendly, the food is delicious, and the entertainment is excellent. I was such a happy camper that I thought it would be terrific to actually live here. After all, this location had been the seat for the British Commissary – so it had to be remarkable.

The good news is that it is possible to live on Iririki Island as the property owners are building condominiums, promising privacy, exclusivity, luxury and proximity to the town. The complex will include restaurants, a day-spa, gym and tennis courts, meeting and convention space, a medical center, plus a lagoon and beach pool with swim-up bar and waterfalls. The studios begin at 530 sq. ft with deluxe apartments expanding to 1600 sq. ft. I really wanted to sign up for the first finished unit! Why didn’t I do it? Internet access is charged-out a US$1.00 a minute – and with the amount of time I spend connected, I would be broke before the first mortgage payment was due.

Options

If Iririki does not have space available, there are lovely accommodations and fabulous food at Chantilly’s. More of a commercial hotel than a resort, it is a bright and airy property that is in town and popular with executives for meetings and corporate celebrations. For visitors with a brand preference, Le Meridien is a quality choice when reservations are made for the bungalow suites, which are built over the water. The hotel offers guests a large pool, and a choice of bars and dining options. The family-centered Erakor, located on its own island and reached by a quick ferry from the town edge is an agreeable choice. The rooms are huge and sparsely but tastefully furnished. All bungalows have private outdoor space for sunning and reading. Erakor has its own beach, but the water may not be the best for snorkeling or swimming; however, it does add a beautiful backdrop for dining, and the food can be excellent. You may want to skip buffet options and order “made-to-order” from the menu.

Necessities

If you do not do anything else in Port Vila you must stop at the shop cum art gallery run by Nicolai Michoutouchkine and his business/life partner Aloi Pilioko. I discovered these terrifically talented artists serendipitously. There I was, strolling along the streets of Port Vila looking for something uniquely Vanuatu. I can always buy French perfume and Prada, but I wanted a “find.” The goddess of writers was in my corner, and she directed me to the art gallery/ designer-studio owned and operated by this dynamic duo. The collection includes paintings, as well as t-shirts and dresses, jackets, pants and slacks, with bold colors and original lines that are so fabulous they belong in museums. The good news is that the art and clothes are affordable – by mere mortals. The Michoutouchkine – Pilioko shirts bear their distinctive signatures and incorporate astrological signs with the colors of the South Pacific. My visible delight with the selection was the door-opener to actually meeting Michoutouchkine and Pilioko. This “over-the-top” duet is noted for their creativity, imagination, strong personalities, and captivating charm. Trying to describe them is like trying to explain turquoise, amber and violet – to someone who has never seen color.

After buying dozens of shirts, jackets, and paintings, it is time to walk along the Vila streets, keeping a sharp eye for Pilioko’s works that can be found on the façade of the Post Office, the wall in front of La Tentation, and on his namesake building in the town center. Follow the road to Pango to the artists’ museum/work-room/home “village” the private space that defines the artists in their own milieu. What a treasure to be invited to lunch, to have a personal tour, to see works-in-progress. Totally overwhelmed with the works that are reminiscent of Matisse and Picasso – but so uniquely original, I wanted to grab the artists and their works and whisk them off for a museum tour of the United States, with stops at Bloomingdale’s and Bendels’ to arrange for the display and sale of their clothing line.

To understand the history of Vanuatu I made a visit to the Vanuatu Cultural Center and Museum, located opposite the Parliament House. The curator has carefully selected and placed the shells, stamps, photographs, and sculptures in a very clear and interesting display. Anxious to see the island made infamous by Survivor? Take a day voyage/snorkeling journey with Congoola Cruises and you can walk through the huts and the shower/toilet that were part of the experience. In reality, the participants spent very little time on this undeveloped slice of mid-ocean real estate. Mostly the Survivor stars and producers stayed at luxury hotels, dined lavishly, and had a very up-market holiday.

Part III

Tanno

A one-hour inter-island flight to Tanna is a popular flight for volcano sightseeing at Mount Yasur. The volcano is found in a Survivor-like setting. Forget Disney and think “au natural.” The climb to the top (no banisters or steps) is through volcanic ash, and once you get there – don’t look for guard rails, or boundaries – they don’t exist! Many of the volcano tours are run in the evening, so visitors can see the lava and fire erupting from the core. The view may be magnificent, but the trip has a significant level of risk and danger. An ounce of prevention means wearing sturdy shoes, washable pants, and t-shirts, and a jacket with a hood (it gets very windy and chilly). Rain is always a possibility – so bring a waterproof poncho. A personal flashlight will be helpful for descending the mountain after sunset. You cannot do this trip independently for two important reasons: The roads to and from the volcano are unpaved and unmapped and without a GPS there is no way a visitor could find their way to and from the mountain, and local government ordnances require visitors to attractions to be accompanied by local guides.

Sleep-Overs on Tanno

Accommodations on Tanna run from first class to economy. The hands down best property is the White Grass Ocean Resort that provides small but tastefully furnished fares (bungalows) with private baths. Guests staying here are delighted with the pool and the view, the lounging area, and excellent cuisine, as well as the availability of bike rentals and other sports activities. Modest budgeters often stay at the Evergreen Bungalows. The kitchen options at this property are very limited – so bring your own back-pack rations or make a dinner reservation at the nearby White Grass Ocean property. Evergreen rooms are simple and clean and do come with private baths, but electricity is rationed. It is lights-out around 10 PM. Reading is done by flashlight, as is finding the toilet and shower.

Santo

Located one hour by air from Port Vila, Santo is famous for wrecks and spectacular marine life. It is also the location for the greatest expanse of original rainforest, providing a fertile resting place for an array of birds and multiple species of orchids. During World War II, over 100,000 soldiers were based in Luganville, leaving Santo with paved roads, and airports, as well as wrecks that have developed into wonderful sites for SCUBA. Divers are particularly delighted with the SS President Calvin Coolidge and the Million Dollar site, so named because after the war, soldiers dumped millions of dollars of equipment into the sea.

The Hotel Santo is a logical place to stay in-between dives. The town-based property has very comfortable air conditioned rooms with private balconies, and a small pool for an early morning swim, or a cool place to relax with a drink.

Outer Island Adventure

A visit to Santo would be unfinished without a few nights spent at the Bokissa Eco Island Resort, located on the frontier of the Pacific. The boat ride that gets you to Bokissa is an integral part of the adventure. This 14-fare boutique hotel is located in the middle of the ocean, 5 nm from Santo, surrounded by – nothing!

I boarded the motor launch to the hotel from the middle of a desolate embankment at dusk on a very chilly grey day – and felt for a few moments that I was in a World War II movie, escaping from the bad guys on a partisan boat – on my way to friendly territory.

As soon as my luggage was stowed, and I was seated, the boat pulled away from the lands-edge, and quickly throttled to top speed moving through very dark, and very rough high waves. I could see nothing – except black water surrounding me in this very little boat! I could not imagine that a hotel was out here..Maybe I was being “boat-jacked!”

Just when I thought the trip would end in disaster, I heard the motor begin to slow, and saw the captain steer the boat toward what appeared in the moon-light, as a boat dock. Slowly lights from the shore became more than twinkles, the motor stopped, and the launch was tied to the dock.

In an instant I was moved from my fetal position in the back of the boat – and handed to a fellow on the dock, who steered me toward a very attractive young woman who – unbelievably – handed me a necklace of fresh flowers, and with a smile steered me to the hotel reception desk. Before I could figure out exactly where I was, the hotel general manager appeared with a flute of champagne in her hand and declared, “We wondered when you would arrive. Join us for dinner after you get settled.” With this limited greeting I was sent off to my cottage to unpack, shower, change for dinner, and join the other guests for cocktails. Bokissa rituals declare drinks before dinner, and then a group dining table for conversation. Here, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by tropical beauty and a sky full of stars, this ritual is perfect.

Bokissa is more than a hotel and more than a destination, it is an event! Plan at least five nights at this resort. I understand that many guests plan on shorter holidays, and beg to have their stay extended. I can understand it.

Vanuatu 101

Journeys end. It was now time for me to return to the USA. The routing is Vanuatu, Fiji, LA on Air Vanuatu and Air Pacific. The journey is a long one, but not complex, and the wait-times are not onerous.

What to know:

  1. Pack light. Vanuatu is a low-key destination. For the adventure side of the trip, include sturdy shoes, comfortable long cotton pants (leave the tight jeans for another day), short and long – sleeve t-shirts (layering is a good thing), a hooded jacket for chilly/rainy days and evenings, extra socks, and casual but stylish attire for evening dinners.
  2. Pack extra bathing suits. Things do not dry very quickly, and if the thought of putting on a damp bathing suit is not your idea of a good idea, pack 3.
  3. Take all your drugs. There is no opportunity to run out to the local drug store for Pepto Bismal, cough medicine, aspirin, sun screen, bug repellent or first aid gear, so take what you need with you.
  4. Electrical converter. If you plan to use a hair dryer, or other electrical equipment, you will need to change the electrical current from US to 220-230 volts. Most hotels require a 3-point plug.
  5. Technology. Don’t look for connectivity in hotel rooms. If you are able to hook up a computer, the per minute charges can be exorbitant. Cell phone networks can also add up to major dollars. If you need Internet access, the hotel usually has a public fee-based computer available for guests. Check with your cell phone provider before leaving home for signal strength. If they promise you 3-4 bands, ask for it in writing, and be sure to ask if extra-charges apply for calls to/from Vanuatu. This information is shared only when requested. (I learned this the hard and very expensive way from T-Mobile).
  6. Take duct tape. If you luggage rips, or something else breaks and it needs a quick repair, there is nothing better.
  7. Change money and carry cash. There are islands in Vanuatu where the US dollar, credit cards and travelers’ cheques are rare items, with local inn keepers and merchants not accepting them. Australian currency maybe ok in some locations.
  8. Carry water. The climate is very hot and there are very few opportunities to buy anything, including water – so take a few bottles with you.
  9. Patience and kindness is a virtue. There may be times when something does not happen as quickly as you may wish, or not delivered in the form requested. The aim of the people working in the industry is to please you – so, don’t get upset; recognize that the employees will do their best to make you happy.
  10. Select with care. Review all available information on your hotel before making a reservation, including brochures, online comments and testimonials, travel agents, and tour operators. Properties are often located very far from each other and it is not easy to move from one to another. While “word of mouth” recommendations are wonderful, make sure that the advice you accept is from someone who has the same life-style and holiday expectations that you do.
  11. Confirm all reservations (air, hotel, ground operators) before starting your trip, and at stops along the way. Being stranded on a remote island without a working cell phone can put a damper on a holiday.

For further information on Vanuatu, contact www.vanuatutourism.com and www.rocket-guide-vanuatu.com

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