Prime Minister Charlot Salwai used his keynote address at yesterday’s opening of the Australia – Vanuatu Business Forum to underline the government’s commitment to the private sector.
His speech was followed by a companion keynote delivered by Australian Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Mark Coulton. Mr Coulton’s remarks began with him encouraging Vanuatu to follow Australia’s lead in ratifying the PACER Plus agreement.
His following comments on improving access to Australian markets for agricultural exporters had people’s ears pricking up. In a separate interview with the Daily Post, he promised quick progress on loosening kava import restrictions as well.
Perhaps the most significant announcement was the opening of a one-stop-shop ‘single window’ facility for potential investors. The facility was inaugurated Tuesday by the Minister. Yesterday afternoon, he visited the Lapetasi wharf to unveil another DFAT-funded project—a computerised container tracking system funded by Australia’s Governance for Growth programme.
The event’s organisers insist this is a great time to consider new investments. A communique announcing the event read, “This Forum comes at a particular exciting time for Australian and Ni-Vanuatu business and for the Vanuatu economy following recent announcements… including new funding arrangements for infrastructure development in the region and other new projects.
It cited the “the introduction of an Australia Pacific Travel Card to facilitate travel between Pacific islands countries and Australia”. The card is aimed at making it easier for business people to move across borders throughout APEC and the Pacific. Valid for five years, it allows business travellers to visit a number of nations without applying for a separate visa, as well as expedited processing at selected airports.
“Concurrently,” the document states, “work is being undertaken by superannuation funds and other national wealth institutions in the Pacific to group together as the Pacific Islands Investment Forum to jointly support funding of new sustainable infrastructure.”
On the sidelines of the event, Vanuatu National Provident Fund chairman Parmod Achary told the Daily Post that he was planning an ambitious new programme that will leverage the Fund to invest in essential infrastructure. Further details should emerge next week.
The gathering saw presentations from Reserve Bank Governor Simeon Athy, ANZ chief economist for the Pacific, Dr Kishti Sen, and National Bank of Vanuatu GM Geoff Toone.
The tone overall was optimistic. Presenters seemed more inclined to focus on the positives than to highlight continuing worries such as recent draconian changes to work permit legislation or extended bans on consumer items being announced with little planning or consultation.
Ralph Regenvanu, whose GJP party crafted these policies, was present but did not address the gathering.
Instead, attendees were presented with an overview of the Shared Vision 2030 strategy, which allies key travel and tourism stakeholders in a joint plan to triple tourism in a decade.
There was tangible evidence on display, not only from Australia-funded endeavours, but from the Vanuatu private sector as well. Air Vanuatu yesterday signed off on the acquisition of the newest members of its international fleet, a trio of Airbus A220 short-haul commuter jets. These will be used to increase the frequency and timeliness of service to all major destinations in the region.
ANZ Chief Economist for the Pacific Kishti Sen was more optimistic about the mid-term outlook than the immediate future. For this year and some of the next, he told the gathering, the economy will grow, but only modestly. Construction will tail off, but this should be offset by a recent increase in forward bookings in the tourism sector.
But until business confidence improves, he said, he expected gains to be modest. Only when people begin to see tangible and enduring improvements will they begin to re-open their purse strings.
That should happen in the 24-48 month range, he said, as larger scale infrastructure investments begin to pay off. All in all, he concluded, there is reason for optimism, but the gains will only follow additional investment.
The last Business Forum was held at the Holiday Inn in February 2017.