Vanuatu is either the happiest place on the planet or a time bomb — it depends who you ask.
A 2006 British study, the Happy Planet Index, ranked the Pacific island as the former. Locals, on the other hand, watch with alarm as the gulf between black poverty and white wealth widens. And it turns out Australians hold a fair share of the blame.
Of all things it was the 1995 Tourism Development Master Plan that started the trouble. Drafted by the United Nations 10 years after Vanuatu gained independence from France and the United Kingdom, the plan appeared simple: bring in foreign investment.
To attract wealthy investors, tax breaks and other concessions were to be offered and the economy liberalised. The archipelago of 83 islands already had the rest: sunny weather, coral reefs, white and black sand beaches, and endless rainforests.
Expatriate and foreign investors poured in, with Australians making up almost half. They started their tropical island journey to wealth and comfort by buying beachfront properties, setting up tourist resorts and ended it reaping all the benefits of Vanuatu’s tax-haven economy.
According to a 2006 Oxfam New Zealand report, almost the whole of Vanuatu’s coastline is foreign owned. In 2005, the Vanuatu Daily Post reported that two thirds of Efate — Vanuatu’s main island — was already owned by foreign investors.
Real estate agencies spring up everywhere in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital; the "sale" signs glare from shop windows, tourist brochures and billboards. Much more of the marketing of beachside properties is done, however, via the internet.
Google "real estate" and "Vanuatu" and you’ll generate over 5 million results. Invariably, the same key phrases pop up: "Fiji 20 years ago", "naturally beautiful", "friendly locals" and "tax-haven". Ultimately: "Click here to purchase your dreams". The dream – waterfront land, a holiday house, a resort – costs anything between $50,000 and $400,000. It’s cheaper than anywhere else, you are assured. And it’s so close to Australia that "you might even consider us to be another state", points out Waterfront Real Estate Vanuatu.
What very few of them do point out is that "for sale" in fact means "for 75-year lease". To the local Ni-Vanuatu population, land can’t be owned. Therefore, it can’t be sold. Instead, it is held in trust by families from one generation to the next. Non Ni-Vanuatus may only lease land.
Charles, a local I befriended, is one of many Port Vila residents who have "sold" their land. In his case, it went to an Australian property developer. A mild-mannered man in his early 40s, Charles wanted to start a bus company to ferry cruise ship tourists. But the cruise ship operators preferred an expatriate-owned company. Forced to shut down his business and left with no money, he moved with his family into a shantytown bordering a five-star resort. He now works at another foreign-owned luxury resort and supports his wife and four children on a salary of 20,000 vatus a month, the equivalent of $236.
When selling his land, Charles also had to agree not to use the access roads to the sea and not to fish in the waters surrounding the land. His story is not uncommon in Port Vila. "It is colonialism coming back," he said, shaking his head.
I asked Charles what will happen after the lease ends. He shrugged his shoulders; the future is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that to reacquire their land, traditional owners have to pay for improvements made on the land at real market value.
Peter Walker, the director of the Port Vila-based Wan Smolbag Theatre Group put it more bluntly when speaking to the Oxfam research team:
"It’s a con to say that the land of indigenous people is safe because land cannot be sold. Land leased for 75 years is as good as owned. If you have to pay for improvements made on the land, who will be able to buy back their land? Meanwhile four generations will not be able to use/access the land."
But it is not only in real estate that locals are losing out. Due to the boost provided by the Tourism Plan, many opened up small guest houses. Although they charged less than foreign-owned resorts, they hardly received any guests and many had to shut down. Tourists mostly come to Vanuatu on package holidays, and wholesalers everywhere — including in Australia — promote only foreign-owned, luxury or medium-range resorts because they receive considerably higher commissions.
It is not that the locals have not explored other avenues. Like Charles, they sold their land to buy minibuses so that they could transport tourists arriving on cruise ships. But most of the cruise ship operators use one expatriate-owned domestic transfer agency, Adventures in Paradise, even though the locals offered cheaper services. When confrontations erupted over this, the cruise ship operators simply suspended their scheduled stops in Vanuatu until the matter was resolved.
In the interest of opening up tourism, the Government legalised tourist-only casinos in the 1980s. Again, a foreign-owned hotel won the licence and again, this initiative has not, according to Oxfam, generated any economic growth for Vanuatu. All profits are repatriated abroad.
Unsurprisingly, locals display mixed sentiments towards tourists and foreign residents. The description "the happiest place on the planet" is still applicable to some degree. Most people, although on the verge of poverty, are relaxed, warm and considerate. But they also feel let down by their Government and "well-intended" foreign investors.
During a friendly kava session, Thomas — the most relaxed Ni-Vanuatu I met — blurts out: "It will be like in Uganda. We’ll get rid of them." He is referring to the situation of wealthy foreigners — mainly Asians — in Idi Amin’s Uganda. The dictator expelled most Asians in the early 1970s amid looting and violence.
The Vanuatu Government declared 2005 the "Year of Tourism" — and then did the same in 2006. It increased its budgetary allocations accordingly but most of the benefits of tourism continue to flow to expatriate and foreign investors. Locals are left to fight for the crumbs.
An expat interviewed by Oxfam places the current situation in its broader context:
"As a social scientist, I see the possible consequences further down the track — it’s a social problem which will erupt later and lead to resentment of tourism and of tourists. The signs are already there — the high fenced walls to keep people out, on the coasts … these exclusive zones for the privileged few; people who once had access to the sea as a source of livelihood and recreation no longer have it."
"Time bomb" does sound like a more accurate description.
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