After many difficult months for businesses it was great to see some positive news as we moved into February, and maybe some light at the end of very long tunnel.
Firstly, there was the announcement by the Prime Minister of the intention to open the “Tamtam” bubble with New Caledonia in April. Whether this is possible by that date or not is yet to be seen but it is an important demonstration of an understanding that momentum in a forward direction needs to be maintained whilst protecting the health of the country and its citizens. In April 2019, 1164 tourists visited Vanuatu from New Caledonia of whom 81% were categorized as being on vacation (ref VNSO International visitor arrivals April 2019, vnso.gov.vu). It is anticipated that as long as the flights are available there may be many more this April if the bubble is in place. This would be a tremendous boost to the economy and businesses, in some cases coming just in time. It would appear NC also has an impressive record with their management of health protocols having 55 cases of Covid 19 since March 2020 and 55 recoveries, 2 in quarantine and 0 deaths. At time of writing there are no community communicable cases. They commenced their vaccination program 20th January and to date 3432 have been vaccinated and 1025 have received their second vaccination.
The second item of positive news regards cruising. The impact of the pandemic on the cruising industry has resulted in a lot of the cruise companies rationalizing their assets and disposing of some of their old tonnage. In particular P&O Australia, the most prolific cruise ship operator in the region has replaced over 66% of its fleet with new tonnage. The Pacific Dawn (1950 passengers and 700 crew) and the Pacific Aria (1250 passengers and 600 crew) have been replaced by the Pacific Adventure and the Pacific Encounter. Both ships are each expected to carry 2600 passengers and 1100 crew. For many in the local community this will represent a huge increase in income and opportunities, and with newer ships comes newer technology consequentially reducing the environmental impact. For the bus drivers and water taxis alone an additional 600 passengers (the increase of pax onboard Pacific Encounter compared to Pacific Dawn), represents a potential 1,000,000 vatu of revenue during a one-day call. In total, with reference to the “Vanuatu Sustainable Cruise Tourism Development Strategy”, 600 extra passengers could bring in an additional 5 million vatu per day call in Port Vila and 2.5 million per call in Luganville. One port call in Port Vila of the Pacific Encounter or Pacific Adventure can inject 24 million vatu into the local community.
Now I fully appreciate that cruising can be a controversial subject in this country but it is undeniable that financially it does support a vast amount of businesses and socially it provides a large amount of employment. Additionally, the cruise operators make significant charitable donations to Vanuatu, examples of which are the sponsoring of the Vanuatu National Beach Volleyball team, Pro Medical, Save the children and most recently a 1.9 million vatu donation to the fund for repairing and renewing sections of the roof at the Port Vila Central Hospital.
The increase in passenger figures will not be without challenges. There will be a need for significant development of infrastructure throughout, particularly with regards to wharf operations and land transport. In the long term it is believed that upgraded infrastructure will be a benefit to everybody.
Domestic cruising has already started in Australia but it is still likely to be a long time until international cruising commences with its new Covid protocols in place. The gradual inflation of the Tamtam bubble with New Caledonia therefore should allow authorities and business operators time to focus on, trial, adjust and perfect their operations to meet the requirements of post pandemic hospitality whilst at the same time providing an essential financial injection to meet the inevitable costs of those obligations.
The Vanuatu Government and authorities have worked hard and been successful in keeping the country Covid free and have demonstrated that the procedures put in place are effective. With success comes pride but also reward and so as February draws to an end, we can see some hope of a balanced opening protecting health whilst balancing the economy in a sustainable manner.