Vanuatu, like all countries in the Pacific region, is striving to attract foreign investment. What would you say are Vanuatu’s most significant competitive advantages generally and in terms of tourism compared to other Pacific Islands?
I would say that the people of the country, Vanuatu’s people are very friendly and it is one of the assets we have. Our people are genuine and we believe that this is one our advantages. When we invite foreign investors to come into the country, our people are skilled and able to work as their partners. We also have competitive advantages in terms of the products we offer. We have tourism accommodations that are now between four and five stars rating. Vanuatu is able to compete in the international marketplace in terms of offerings. We are providing experiences and Vanuatu is very casual and diverse. Vanuatu offers a lot of diversity in terms of cultural experience from Torba to Tafea. Vanuatu has six provinces in total, so as visitors moves around the destination, they have a different sense of cultural experience. Regionally speaking, we are different, we are quite unique. For example, there’s nowhere else in the region where you can climb up an active volcano. We also have the original home of punching jam. It is original made from here and there’s a story behind that.
In regard to infrastructure, in the last three years the Government of Vanuatu secured partnerships with the Government of New Zealand and also Europe that provide support for improving infrastructure projects in Port Vila, such us the development of the seafront area. Port Vila has one of the best harbors in the Pacific and this is an asset for the destination that we will use to for enters of foreigner investors coming to the destination. Moving up north in Santo you also have a support partnership with China in order to expand and build a new wharf, which is very important to the development of the cruise industry. At the moment you have over two hundred cruise passengers that come in annually. By 2020 the Government hopes to reach out the target of a million cruise passengers coming to the Pacific boarders and in Vanuatu we are looking at reaching the eight hundred thousand targets. So with this infrastructure projects done we will be able to say that we are ready for tourists and also ready for investors to come in and support the growth industry.
In the last three years we have noticed that tourism numbers started to grow and that tourism has become the entry for growth for the Vanuatu economy. Last week we just held the “Agritourism Festival” for example, and we were looking at improving the linkages between the productive sectors, the private sectors, the forestry sectors, the beef sector, and the coconut sector to provide support to the growth of the tourism industry in Vanuatu. We are promoting our destination as an organic experience and we are helping farmer on not putting a lot of fertilizers in the goods since they are supplying the Hotels and Resorts in the whole chain distribution. That is why we believe in the vision that the Hon. Prime Minister, Charlot Salwai and the Deputy Prime Minister about what tourism is suppose to be for the people for Vanuatu. That is why it is important to relook back to see where the people of Vanuatu can benefit from this growth.
Last October, the Government through the Ministry of Tourism welcomed the VTO Boards decision and looked forward to reviving and improving the Tourism Sector through your wealth of experience. Could you tell us about your main focus areas and about your priorities as General Manager to achieve these goals?
My main focus and priority as new General Manager of the Vanuatu Tourism Office is to relook into our marketing strategy for the next three years. We have support from the Government of New Zealand in doing a review on where we should be focusing on. We are looking at Australia, which is one of our traditional markets, so we want to expand our destination markets efforts in looking at markets from where we definitely have results shown. A lot of the visitors coming to Vanuatu come from Australia but only in several stages of the country. So one my main focus is how do we actually build on that market and get more visitors coming to Vanuatu from Australia.
Apart from that one of my main visions is also to strengthen linkages with our foreign embassy’s working in Vanuatu and also abroad. We are looking at China, we are also looking at Europe. One of my aim is to secure a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and go back to look, for example in Turkey, in Europe, thought our Ambassadors so that they are able to use their networks there. The reason why my vision is looking at this part is because even though tourism is growing in more than 40% of GDP, it’s always a challenge to get Financial support from the Government to go out to the market. The opportunity is to focus on Public Private Partnerships but especially partnerships working with ambassadors in different areas around the world. We are looking at the European market also looking at our Ambassador based in New York, to promote Vanuatu tourism there.
We hoped that we will revive our marketing strategy, we review our destination marketing plan and our website, which is something that my Marketing Manager Allan has been working on this year 2016. So it is to increase the numbers, to strengthen linkages with other subsectors in economy and also to partner with different stakeholders to support the promotion of our destination.
Acting Chairman of the VTO Board, Cr David Seule mentioned that you are focused on working with the national government that are committed to growing the tourism industry across Vanuatu, including the private sector partnership. What role does play the foreign investor in the private sector partnerships mentioned?
The part of the vision is also to work closely with the Vanuatu Investment and Promotion Authority (VIPA) but I believe that in the past couple of years we haven’t worked with them or perhaps we haven’t spoke the same language. Part of the vision is to bring visitors to come in, but not only to spend dollars here and support the local economy, but also to turn the visitor in the next investor. So it’s about working with VIPA to identify potential sites around the country and to communicate that there are investment opportunities for investors coming around the world and to support this growth and the sectors. The strategy is to work closely with VIPA and our 2017 expectation is also that we should work with the international finance corporations. There is support from the Asian Development Bank to come in and support the country in terms of infrastructure but we also have to work with Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) to engage communities, land owners, other local investors in the country to support growth and provide employment for the local people.
It is an objective of VTO to promote the existence of a vibrant tourism sector with active participation of local and foreign investors. There is no doubt that the foreign investor plays a crucial role on that. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for foreign investment in tourism in Vanuatu?
In terms of tourism there is opportunities in the development of the hotel sector, the accommodations sector. Vanuatu needs recognition of a major brand, we have the Holiday Inn, we have the Warwick Le Lagoon, but by bringing in another brand to the destination it will helped to further promote the country.
In the productive sector – I mentioned earlier - there are also so many opportunities. We do have a lot of farmers that have a lot of resources but they don’t have capital support to become commercial farmers to be able to supply goods to the hotels or resorts. There is opportunity for them to export but there is lack of support, so it’s a great idea to create joint ventures or partnership with them.
Perhaps in the area of the constructions in the next two or three years we are going to have more infrastructures development such us road developments, so that you provide access to the locals, and islands of the country to be able to access to markets, to be able to access social services, and we need investors to come here in this area to support local Government. Once you have these basic infrastructures in place, it enables us in VTO to promote opportunities to travel our destinations. In terms of infrastructure like roads, domestic airport and airstrips around the country there are opportunities for investment.
In 2017 a number of major tourism infrastructure projects will be coming to fruition including the Seafront and Portside Precincts and Lapatasi Wharf project. The upgrade of the Bauerfield Runway will also be a significant step in our development. How will you make sure the VTO and the tourism industry are ready to take advantage of the opportunities these projects present?
We want to use these infrastructure projects as assets to strength and to further promote Vanuatu as a destination. We know that the cruise industry is growing so definitely we want to support that and promote Vanuatu not only as a holiday destination but also as the destination for cruise passengers. We have an amazing wharf here, we have great seafront area here, Vanuatu is in a better situation or better position that Fiji, for example and we also have Luganville in Santo. We also want to promote Santo as a cruise destination in the next three years. We have infrastructure coming in place to Vanuatu so definitely our aim is to work with the Private Sector.
Deputy Prime Minister, during our interview, told us that country branding is crucial in a global world and that to both of us it is a primary role to portrait Vanuatu as the most competitive destination for tourists in the South Pacific. What are your main strategies to fulfil this primary role of positioning Vanuatu as the premier Pacific tourism destination in the international marketplace?
Firstly, I also give my hug to the former outgoing General Manager, I thing in that space he also had a vision of a growing tourism in Vanuatu and, I would also share the vision that one of the biggest challenges this office faces is actually achieving our targets and goals not having enough operational budget to go to the market and continue to market Vanuatu as a holiday destination. At the moment that we get that budget here we would be out in the market place frequently to communicate that we are opened, come to Vanuatu, the hotel and resources are here so that we can support the private sector. There is a need to relook at our market strategy. We need to redesign our plan to ensure that if we are focusing on promoting Vanuatu, we should be in the key places to marketing Vanuatu, as I mentioned earlier in regards to the Australian market.
Other ways in which I overcome this, is strengthening my networking with the other Government Agencies especially the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreigner Affairs and other Government Agencies that are also doing work overseas so the can promote the destination. For example the Ministry of Climate Change now is doing a lot of work and in the space of Climate Change, they are attending international meetings and that could be an opportunity to promote destination.
When you are representing Vanuatu abroad, and people ask you about your country, how do you feel Vanuatu is perceived and how would you like Vanuatu to be perceived in terms of tourism?
I always get from people that Vanuatu is the destination where the people are very friendly. We are very opened, the smile is a genuine smile, and it’s not a fake smile. Something very special about the people of Vanuatu is that we probably have a lot to say, but just by smiling we can summarize. People of Vanuatu are very true innocent, very genuine and this is what brings tourists here. That’s why we are proud that we won by the lonely planet the happiest country in the world’s recognition. Because of that I also wished to continue sharing the vision: “Come to Vanuatu!” This is who we are, just not because we have the volcano, we have the punching jumping but it’s because our people, that are very different from other Pacific people.
According to our research, you are part of VTO since 2004. You also worked 9 years for Moores Rowland. What is the most important knowledge acquired during the years that you are putting into practice today as General Manager of VTO?
Probably responding to that, going back to the Moors Rolland, I have to say that I had always a view of being a Lawyer and a Accountant so that’s why I started my career working for an accountant firm. However, the time there was a policy review in 1997, I think the Government was doing all comprehensive reform programmes, so then it was everything about tourism. It was the growth and the main drive of Vanuatu’s economy so I ended supporting the Government of Vanuatu working for the Department of Tourism.
I think one thing for me is my passion to see how Vanuatu’s beauty in terms of it’s people and in terms of the diversity of it’s culture, in terms of what God has provided for the people, how do we actually used that to show who we are to the world. I think it’s what’s in me, to be that ambassador, to continue promoting and working with people to support the tourism. I’ve established a very good connections with the people, with a lot of locals around the country, and my space in terms of working in tourism I started working with the community awareness, helping them to realised the potential they have.