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After Pam - How tourism helps with cyclone recovery in Vanuatu

In March 2015 Vanuatu suffered a direct hit from Cat 5 Cyclone Pam. 6 months later, they are open for business.

“You are in one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world,” David tells me. “Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami’s, cyclones, landslides…” But it's not all bad, he admits. In a trade-off for all the natural disasters, they get unparalleled natural beauty.


Vanuatu is an archipelago that stretches across 1200 km of the Melanesian South Pacific. There are some 80 islands, all with their distinct languages and cultures. Vanuatu sits about 2 hours flying time from Australia, the Solomon Islands and Fiji putting it in the firmly in the pacific rim's “Ring of Fire” and the equator's wild weather patterns. Earthquakes, cyclones and volcanic eruptions are the norm here and locals generally survive them with not too much damage. However, in March 2015, Vanuatu suffered a devastating direct hit from category 5 cyclone “Pam”. Shortly after the natural disaster, I visited the island nation.

Cyclone Pam leaves shipwreck in Vanuatu

On the plane over I meet a man from Tanna who’s a fireman in Port Vila. Laughing, he tells me he used fire hoses to tie down the roof of his home. He's smiling now, but it was a worrying night. Especially for his family and friends on Tanna where the brunt of the cyclone hit.


Outside of the capital, most island houses are traditional structures made of bamboo and thatched leaf roof. They may look dainty but, in fact, they last around a decade, even through the rainy season where storms and high winds are a daily occurrence. However, there is little that can resist a category 5 cyclone – or a direct hit from a falling tree.


The loss of housing was only half the battle. Food and water was also a problem. Aboveground crops and water stores were lost or contaminated with salt and debris. There were only enough stores and root crops to last a few days and the continuing weather and debris made it difficult to get in supplies.

Further out, on Ambrym, it’s policeman Jeffrey's job to maintain the peace on the island and be the co-ordinator and first responders to emergencies. During the cyclone he drove around the island updating people on what was happening, though thankfully no evacuations were needed. It was a similar situation on the island of Espiritu Santo. There, they tell me, the weather was mostly fine with none of the damage experienced elsewhere. But then, they were 500 km from Ground Zero.


As we drive through Port Vila, past the corrugated iron and bamboo huts people call home, I wonder how any of them were lost. I ask my driver how his house faired. “It was blown away,” he smiles. There’s another agency worker in the vehicle “How about yours?” I ask “No, it's gone,” she tells me matter of fact. “But it is okay. It is only temporary.”


Overall I haven’t seen as much damage as you’d expect from a cyclone that flattened the country only 6 months before. There are trees down, the odd tarp in place of a roof, there are a few hapless boats stuck on the shoreline or remnants floating in the harbour, and the price of bananas in the Port Vila market is still through the roof, but generally they are open for business. Only a few resorts are still closed with most are up and running, albeit while still making some repairs.


Cyclone pam damages hut in Vanuatu

The owner of a guesthouse in central Port Vila shows me around. Apart from needing to re-landscape his prize gardens and the jetty being lost to the sea, he says he hasn’t any substantial damage. Out at an eco resort just off the coast of Port Vila, a couple of the beachside bungalows were lost to falling trees but the majority of the resort was untouched. “It’s the trees that do the damage,” the manager tells me. “But nothing that can’t be fixed.”


I admire their resilience. This setback is only temporary and they are determined to get back on their feet. The bigger setback seems to be the double whammy of people cancelling holidays, denying them the tourism dollar so many rely on, while their politicians are on trial for corruption for stealing aid money.


Some islands, like Tanna, that were badly hit, do have less accommodation and tourism facilities available. But even the islands barely touched by the disaster, like Santo, are experiencing a drop in numbers and cancellations. It is a devastating blow to a local economy badly in need of a financial injection and particularly reliant on tourism. In fact, the tourist dollar contributes a staggering 40%. to the nation's economy, with three-quarters of all arrivals to Vanuatu being vacationers. Resorts and tourism activities are often small operators, either family-owned or owned by 'expats' (foreign migrants) who employ local staff. However, this is still a small far-flung pacific nation and annual visitor numbers are in the thousands, rather than millions, meaning even one person's holiday can have an important impact.


It’s a point picked up on by Vanuatu Tourism. While not underplaying the humanitarian impact of the cyclone, they point out that it hasn’t affected all islands the same way. And, after 6 months, many businesses are now up and running. With tourism the number one economic driver, they say that the best way foreigners can help is to come for a holiday, enjoy yourself and put some much needed tourist dollars in the hands of local businesses and workers. Let's face it, helping out doesn’t sound that much like hard work.

 

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