Our Twin Otter gently fish tails down the long and wet grass of the airstrip. Just as I begin to brace myself, the sure-winged aircraft resumes its intended trajectory, coming to a gentle stop outside Lamap terminal, in South Malekula. The realities of being reliant on someone to mow the runway to ensure planes can land is one of the many endearing joys, and at times, frustrations, of living and working in rural Vanuatu. Nothing can ever be taken for granted.
It is my third VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad) assignment here in Vanuatu, this time I am based on Malekula Island. I am working as marketing advisor for the Malampa Department of Tourism Office and Malampa Travel – a locally-run information and booking agency. VSA assignments offer opportunities for skilled professionals to work at grass-roots-level and invariably projects lead to adventures. This time I am with my counterpart Edna Paolo, manager of the Malampa Tourism Office, and we are on a mission. Like the former French Catholic missionaries who settled in the area, we too have a fervent task at hand; to inspire and promote local tourism. Our four-day programme consists of a meeting with the regional tourism association, reviewing current accommodation and tours, and encouraging and supporting new local tourism businesses in South Malekula and the Maskelyne Islands.
People living in rural areas are defined as living in ‘subsistence affluence’ where family gardens provide a large percentage of food and some income. However the need for cash is an increasing reality. Tourism in rural areas offers a further opportunity for income. Although tourism numbers are low in Malekula, it does contribute to livelihoods in tangible ways, including school fees, transport, and healthcare. Tourism provides a way to supplement the costs of living without having to leave the land; this in turn allays urban drift. Environmentally, it encourages awareness and a duty of care; while culturally, tourism has also fueled a revival of kastom. The great turn-out to the meeting held at Lamap Ocean View Guesthouse indicates that many locals are keen to be involved; we even have an enthusiastic group from the very remote island of Akhamb, who have travelled for two hours by boat to attend. But, as Edna cautions, setting up a tourism business is not for the faint-hearted; to succeed you must be in for the long haul and work together.
In South Malekula many women are taking the lead in tourism. Mary is the owner of Levis Guesthouse in Port Sandwich. She and her family have run the business for over 20 years; it is the oldest guesthouse in Lamap. Self-assured and quietly spoken, with her granddaughter by her side, she discusses the struggles of making ends meet and supporting her husband who has diabetes. He has lost a leg and is rapidly losing his eyesight. The juggling of cash between investing in improvements on the guesthouse and day-to-day realities of paying for school fees and healthcare is an ongoing challenge. Recently retired from teaching, Mary aims to devote her time to the guesthouse while continuing to support her husband. Encouragingly, Edna praises her passion, resilience, and her commitment to the business while managing her family obligations as she notes improvements including new toilets and a kitchen for the guests to cook in. The rewards of her work are evident and the guesthouse is fully occupied with road workers. Their occupancy is not only positive for her business but for the island overall; the tourism industry relies on stakeholders such as the Public Works to develop and maintain infrastructure such as roads.
While Levis Guesthouse services mostly Ni-Vanuatu travellers,other businesses are being built with a focus on overseas tourists. Marcel, a former director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, is building his dream, Lamap Secret Bungalows. With breathtaking views of Ambrym, Paama and distant Lopevi, the three self-contained bungalows, a stone’s throw away from the water, have Edna excited. We have come just at the right time to ensure they meet the minimum standards developed by department of tourism. Edna gives Marcel advice on bungalow design and construction referring to what she calls ‘the bible’ – the accreditation booklet. She also commends him on carefully building around the mature trees that offer shade and privacy, and identifying other tourist attractions including WWII aircraft wrecks along the coral reef.
As we sit on the beach discussing Marcel’s plans, the descending twilight reveals the fiery glow of Ambrym’s twin volcanoes. The awe-inspiring sight reminds us of Vanuatu’s geological restlessness as it sits on the ‘Rim of Fire.’ Witnessing the volcanic activity adds to the exotic tropical environment we find ourselves in. In South Malekula, nature is omnipresent and bountiful, the coastline is covered in lush bush and its waters are abundant with wildlife.
The following day we head offshore in an outrigger canoe with our guide George on the Gaspard Bay Dugong Tour. After 20 minutes of paddling we are treated to over half a dozen sightings of these rare and gentle mammals as they surface for air. George expertly navigates the outrigger anticipating the dugongs’ next move. I lower my Go-Pro into the water and film two cows with their calves diving down to graze on the sea grass growing on the sea floor.
While George tells us business is slow, he acknowledges it is also the wet season. The tourism industry is still recovering from Cyclone Pam, a fluctuating global market, and the challenges of access to this remote area. However, there is a growing number of tourists who seek adventure and an authentic rural Vanuatu experience. Places like South Malekula and the Maskelyne Islands are just waiting to be discovered.
As we make our way to the Maskelynes, we notice a tiny man-made island on our left. This is RingiTeSuh – a giant clamshell marine reserve. The sanctuary, run by the Enrel family for the last 25 years, is one of the first marine conservation areas in Vanuatu. Conservation areas such as this not only offer sanctuary to many rare and unusual species of marine life but also provide tourism opportunities.
One of the biggest challenges to developing tourism products to an international standard is the lack of opportunities for small business owners to get experience in the tourism sector. Tourism per se is a foreign concept that most people in rural areas have never had the chance to experience for themselves, much less learn about it. There are different programs providing teaching and training in rural areas as well as the capital, and intrepid travellers who visit these remote areas also help overcome this gap.
Sethric, who owns Batis Bungalows on the Maskelynes, is fortunate; he has hospitality experience having worked in a resort in Port Vila and is eager to collect advice from tourists who visit his island. Simple things such as getting water hooked up into the guest’s bathroom is often a challenge because of limited water supply or poorly installed plumbing. Proudly, he guides us around the back of the shower to show us his plumbing system. With guidance from a visiting New Zealander, he was able to install a solar-powered water pump. Sethric sees the rewards of this transference of skills as business slowly builds together with his reputation as an excellent host.
Sethric works alongside his extended family in running Senelich Bungalows next door. We spend over an hour with Senelich Bungalows’ manager, Lindi, and the housekeeper Agnes, identifying areas that needed work and discuss training opportunities for them both. Edna is confident that with training, their capacity will eventually match the high-end accommodation. The quality of the Senelich Bungalows is providing a benchmark for other local operators to aspire to.
Malog Bungalows, owned and operated by Kalo, is the longest standing tourist accommodation on the Maskelynes but it is in much need of TLC and Kalo recognises this as he explains his three-year action plan to replace the bungalows. Meanwhile, he is busy organising the Maskelyne Outrigger Canoe Race and Cultural Festival in July. Festivals on the outer islands are scheduled to align with the South Pacific cruising season. A regular flotilla of yachts sail up through the archipelago, making their way from anchorage to anchorage visiting festivals along the way. These events have promoted tourism development in these remote islands as they become cultural hotspots and the word spreads.
As we watch the sun setting across the ocean over Ambrym, we reflect on our successful four-day mission. South Malekula and the Maskelyne islands are just waiting to be discovered, their marine life and stunning coastline are precious and unique. So while there are many challenges to overcome, all the vital ingredients are right here. We just have to keep working together to make it happen and ensure there is enough for all to reap the rewards. Indeed, as Edna summarises quoting the tourism department’s mantra, ‘Tourism… it is everyone’s business.’
Story and photography by VSA volunteer Ana Terry.