AIP Tour Bus

An Adventures in Paradise tour bus near the wharf (file photo)

An incident yesterday in which rocks were thrown at a tour bus with passengers inside is only the latest in a series of violent escalations down at the wharf.

Approximately 450 passengers were stranded aboard their ship after security personnel deemed the situation unsafe.

Deputy Prime Minister, Joe Natuman, who happened to witness yesterday's events, quickly assured cruise ship operators that he would guarantee public safety, and instructed the Vanuatu Mobile Force, National and Municipal Police to enforce strict security in the wharf area.

The move was characterised as a necessary short-term response, but tourism industry experts said there was much work still to be done to address the underlying issues. Officials and stakeholders will be meeting again next week to continue efforts to resolve the emerging crisis.

Tensions between bus and taxi drivers and tour operators have been rising recently as Vanuatu's economy suffers successive shocks. Large numbers of local transport operators compete for a limited number of passengers at each cruise ship arrival. Lax port security and official complacence have allowed frustrations to boil over.

Shortly before noon yesterday, the Daily Post was informed of the decision by Adventures in Paradise to cease operations at the wharf. The company owner wrote to inform stakeholders that the company had cancelled tours "until we have absolute confirmation that VMF are present at the wharf and my staff can operate in a safe environment."

The incident allegedly came about when some drivers spotted an Adventures in Paradise employee entering the port grounds, and demanded to be allowed to enter as well.

Eye witnesses reported that the "bus drivers were banging on the back of the buses, yelling at them and then started to stone the vehicles."

"The passengers inside the buses are extremely upset and scared about returning to the wharf," they continued.

This incident is simply the latest and most serious of many security-related issues in the wharf area. 

On February 20, the security officer aboard the Dawn Princess wrote an email to Vanuatu Ports & harbour authorities, and reported "a 'wall' of men, shouting and beckoning at our passengers. This was aggressive and threatening. It transpired that these men had been allowed in to the Port Facility and I am told were over zealous taxi drivers. No one was in control."

The Port's Chief Security Officer was present at that time and allegedly said "they won't listen, they won't go." 

The Dawn Princess security officer announced that he was copying corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, and that he expected that the incident would not be repeated when the ship returns to Port Vila tomorrow.

He concluded: "You will understand our Companies (sic) determination to comply with ISPS code and protect our ship, passengers and crew."

The International Ship and Port Facility Security code, or ISPS code, is a security regime developed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York city. The International Maritime Organisation describes it as "a comprehensive set of measures to enhance the security of ships and port facilities".

Acting Harbour Master Charly Kalo, who is responsible for security in the wharf area, replied to the Dawn Princess security officer's email, stating, "This is what happens every cruise calls [sic]."

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