Tourism in Vanuatu and Solomon Islands

An Opinion Piece by Lennox Vuti, Port Vila, Vanuatu

Dear Editor,

I was on a tourism business visit to the Solomon Islands in November 13-17. I stayed at lovely King Solomon. I read your paper on Saturday 17 to find an article by Peter Ramoiki on “tourism growth”. That article made my day! Mr Ramoiki began by questioning Government’s seriousness as regards growth. Whilst he was critical of Government he made suggestions in improving the situation. He commented that funds allocated to tourism authorities should not be used improperly. His view that SI is not doing enough in terms of marketing to increase visitor numbers; that funds be used to assist ecotourism operators in the Solomon Islands and provided his views why such prospect and potential is an area that is not fully exploited and the benefits it stand to bring not fully understood.

He questioned the area of cruise ships (mainly arranged by P&O from Australia) and its excursionists – why Government has not reconized the tangible contribution that it is capable of bringing to a local economy like the beautiful Solomon Islands. I will want to embrace Edmun Burg’s statement that “for evil to flourish it only needed the good people to do nothing”, and further that action cannot be taken unless people start talking. My article will try to list some general comparison (without any detail) to assist the reader obtain a perspective on how well Solomon Island tourism fares with its closest neighbor. This humble, but factual presentation, is provided to assist the SI authorities assess how far we have come, or how short we fell and needed to go further. It is not my intention to provide a fuller analysis of the issues that emerge in this article, by so doing it would end up a publication. It is indeed no criticism, but instead a revelation of fact to enable the sleeping giant realize its real potential that awaits materialisation.

May I preamble my statement that I am no expert in tourism, but I have humbly visited almost all SPTO member countries and conducted tourism research. Colleagues in Solomon Islands tourism knows me well now as well as a Donald Kudu – a work colleague in the early 90s during the TCSP days in Suva. I come from nearby Port Vila, Vanuatu, whose total population is less than half of that of our giant Solomon Islands, and its land size relatively smaller too, but Vanuatu’s tourist (by strict UNWTO definition) numbers is eight-times that of Solomon Islands.

Whilst our Solomon Islands was able to receive about 13,232 tourists a year in 2010/2011, Vanuatu scored 97,180 (in 2010), authorities projected that in 2012 numbers would surpassed the 100,000 mark. Mr Ramoiki made reference to cruise-ships, citing that Solomon Islands is not doing enough to attract the cruise liners and operators; Vanuatu instead received 140,468 cruise visitors in 2010 – these visitors are called excursionists (or day visitors by definition) distinguishing them from the, at least, one-night- tourists by definition. These day visitors contributed onshore directly VT3.1 billion (about US$3.1 million).

The Vanuatu’s 2010 Cruiseship Survey cemented the statement made by Mr Ramoiki on the significance of cruiseship tourism to the local economy. “The Sample Survey 2010 has given estimates for the average total spend of Vatu 28,725 per Cruise ship passenger including the spending for tours bought on the ship or prepaid. The breakdown is Vatu 21,446 for direct spending by the tourist and Vatu 7,279 paid to the ship/tour operator by the tourist.

Cruise Ship Visitor Numbers in 2010 were estimated to be around 140,468 . Direct Expenditure by the Cruise Ship Visitor is estimated by multiplying the visitor figure and the above expenditure figure (Vatu 21,446) to give an approximate order of magnitude figure for the direct expenditure of cruise ship visitors in Vanuatu. In addition the agents of the ship/ tour operator would pay a proportion of the visitor’s spend on tours into the Vanuatu economy (estimated at 60%). Expenditure off the ship is likely to be much lower for ‘ports of call’ other than Port Vila. As a broad order of magnitude it is assumed that the spending would only be one third that of spending in Port Vila. So the expansion factor to allow for multiple stops would be 1.043.

Direct Expenditure by the Cruise Ship Visitor is estimated by multiplying the visitor figure and the above daily expenditure figure (Vatu 21,446), multiplying by the expansion factor to allow for multiple stops, to give an approximate order of magnitude figure of around Vatu 3.1 billion for the direct expenditure of cruise ship visitors in Vanuatu (compared with Vt 1.7 billion in 2007). In addition the agents of the ship/ tour operator would pay a proportion of the visitor’s spend on tours into the Vanuatu economy (estimated at 60%) making a total of around Vatu 0.6 billion in 2010).”

Local artifacts sellers, taxi drivers, buses, restaurants, shops, tour operators and other local products are believed to be direct beneficiaries from expenditures of excursionists (cruise-ship visitors) than expenditures from tourists which are mainly attributable to hotel/restaurant owners – with foreign ownership’s and that such tourist dollars would have a high leakage factor. We need to ask why a smaller country’s tourism reaps more than its relatively larger neighbor? Why is tourism infrastructural development and investment not taking such a high priority on SI’s agenda as Ramoiki expected?

What is SI’s marketing allocation in contrast to Vanuatu? Has our Government pumped enough dollars into product development and marketing to enable generate the increased numbers we all expect? Should we be seeking these allocations from our neighbors and compare how we fare? Is there a standard formula of so much input, so much output? Are we comparable? What about the product development allocation to the Ministry of Culture & Tourism – would this be sufficient to provide the stimulus that Ramoiki is seemingly asking for it to be invested into ecotourism and facilitate a subsidy that would go towards financing rural projects supported by Government? Why are tourists more likely to make a choice to visit a destination like Port Vila, but not, Honiara? These are very important questions for tourism growth. The responses to these questions would enable authorities define the path towards recovery and fast growth.

Vanuatu’s success relate partly, but importantly, to its own active private sector who invests part of their earnings into marketing the destination and their hotel through their own hotel chain. Wholesalers in Australia and New Zealand are paid to actively sell hotel rooms in Vanuatu, during the ACP-EU Meeting in June 2012, Vanuatu Government sought assistance from their counterparts in the hotel association to advise their wholesalers not to sell rooms to ensure there is sufficient rooms for the international meeting.The Vanuatu Hotels and Resort Association comprised a very active organization with very powerful memberships that engages the Government on a frequent basis. This ensured a good working Government-Hotel Operator relationship that enables complimentarity.

I am advised such a relationship also exists in our Solomon Islands – its effectiveness, you are better positioned to advise. In Solomon Islands there is no measure of occupancy rate – such data lacks, but this is something that should be provided by hotel/motel/resort operators. In 4th quarter of every year, Vanuatu experiences peaks in tourism arrivals, and most larger hotels (with 100 room plus capacity) would easily attain 100% occupancy. We’re unable to establish such a measure in Solomon Islands – my attempt last week failed as the data is just not gathered.

Change in many of our tourism institutions (both government and private sector) in the Solomon Islands in organizational structure, management, operational systems, etc needs closer review with the view for adjustment where it demands. As you well know, change is inevitable, not to change is a sure sign of imminent extinction. Why do you think the Dinosaur no longer roams the earth? It could not change as the climate of the earth around it changed. Institutions (government and private sector) and leaderships of them who don’t change with the changing tourism climate of our future world will, like the dinosaurs, find themselves only a museum attraction.

Solomon Islands must consider the 2006/2007 International Visitor Survey conducted at its own Hendersen International Airport. Recommendations therein must be pursued, if not, aggressively. We must not permit it to collect dust on shelves. We must be attentive to the visitor’s perceptions expressed therein, and take appropriate action if we have not done so yet. Visitor’s comments on SI as a destination must be taken seriously if our goal is to grow numbers. Visitor’s suggestions on how they see the destination improving should be given priority consideration and short-medium and long-term action plans designed to address them. Particular attention must be focused on the ‘repeat visitor’ variable as this assess’s the satisfaction of tourists, if such repeat visits (particularly from leisure tourists) are low or almost negligible then authorities have the right to be concerned.

If the Ministry of tourism has not yet disseminated the outcome of this survey, this must be done without further delay – its implementation is everyone’s business, not just Government. Unless there is goal ownership, there will never be strong support for any forward action planning. Data on tourism statistics and research lacks here. In such a situation it is very difficult to assess the effectiveness of our promotional and marketing efforts overseas, our ability to compare ourselves with neighboring countries let alone world afar, our Government and development partners would not be convinced that their support generated the expected outcome that we said we would achieve – it would make our argument for additional funds difficult as many and increasingly Governments/development partners seek evidence-based justifications as reason to increase funding or to donate any at all. This must be a motivating factor for the need for reliable, consistent and periodic tourism data paramount.

As in the SI, tourism rakes in foreign exchange earnings into our economies that rely basically on narrow revenue bases. Additional, the significance of tourism relating to direct employment, and the indirect and induced effects on the various economic sectors need not be said as well as its significance on the Balance of Payments positioning. This makes the need for tourism development a priority on many of our Governments agenda. Some Governments do it better than others, we, the Pacific people must play our role through democratic processes and our customary values in keeping them checked.

Governments have incredible power for good or ill in all our lives. If not, they control our destiny.Like the Fiji coups, the Solomon Islands have had its issues – needless to say nderstandably these events bring about short-to- medium term negative developments on our tourism, the economic downturn and devaluation of the local currency. We fell from such heights of promise to such depths of despair, there is only one way now and that is upwards. We must now show the outside world and ourselves our elasticity to bounce back after such events.

Lennox Vuti Port Vila, Vanuatu