Community-led tourism in Vanuatu

Eliza Raymond
Jul 23, 2023

Tourism influences the lives of thousands of ni-Vanuatu. A recent report by the World Travel and Tourism Council concluded that 38.9% of total employment (28,000 jobs) in Vanuatu were related to the travel and tourism industry. The Pacific Possible report also highlights the potential for tourism to continue to grow in Vanuatu and the significance of tourism in remote island nations such as Vanuatu where there are limited economically viable sectors.

While the macro-economic benefits of tourism are clear, we were interested in finding out if the economic benefits of tourism were reaching everyone in Vanuatu or only concentrated in the key tourism centres of Port Vila and Santo. We also wanted to find out more about how to be a GOOD traveller in Vanuatu to ensure that visitors to Vanuatu are having a positive impact on the places they visit. So we reached out to the wonderful Edna Paolo!

Edna Paolo was born and raised in Malekula, Vanuatu. She married Paul Paolo also from Malekula and they have two kids and are also looking after three kids from other families to support them with their school fees. Edna is 36 years old and speaks three languages - in addition to her mother tongue, she also speaks Bislama and English.

Malekula is the capital of Vanuatu's Malampa Province and one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse islands in Vanuatu. Shaped like a dog and sitting right in the heart of the archipelago, it is Vanuatu's second largest island. However, until 2011, Malekula received few tourists and experienced few of the economic benefits of Vanuatu's growing tourism industry.

As a result, Edna was hired by the government of Vanuatu as a Tourism Product Development officer and with the assistance of volunteers from Volunteer Service Abroad in New Zealand, she established Malampa Travel.

Malampa Travel is a not-for-profit booking agency based in Malekula Island and and locally owned by the Malampa Island Bungalows and Tourism Association (MIBTA). Their job is to help Ni-Vanuatu member tourism operators promote their products and to manage bookings on their behalf. All profits are returned to MIBTA for the development and marketing of the local tourism industry in Malampa Province (Malekula, Ambrym and Paama Islands).

We were excited by this model of community ownership and community-led tourism development in the Pacific so we asked Edna to share a bit more about some of the opportunities and challenges she faced with starting Malampa Travel. She told us:

Along the course of this development we encountered that communication is a big challenge in rural Vanuatu and that the local people have never travelled overseas or had a tourism experience before.  The level of formal education for the people in the rural community is quite low so tourism is totally a new venture for them. 

As a result of the services offered by Malampa Travel though, they have seen a significant increase in tourist numbers in Malekula. Overall Edna sees this as very positive for her island. In addition to the increase in employment opportunities, she explains that tourism has also brought other positive impacts:

There are also revival of custom practices that were almost lost. The community are encouraged to use locally available materials to build accommodation and also now realising the importance of establishing marine protected areas so the future generations have access to the resources as well. Handicraft production is also becoming more popular through women groups and people living with disabilities. Women are now empowered and are actively participating in economic development. The lives of people living in the rural area starts to change, as their earnings from the tourism activities can now be used to pay for school fees, better health services and to support the day to day livelihood.

Edna really encourages visitors to Vanuatu to take the time to get off the beaten track and visit Malekula and other outer islands. While Malekula is not for everyone, it is perfect for intrepid travellers seeking a more authentic experience of Vanuatu. Edna recommends:

For GOOD travellers to have a better experience of Vanuatu, you should visit outer islands like Malekula, Ambrym and Paama rather than staying in Vila and Santo resorts only. We would love to share with you our culture, enjoy the natural untouched environments, swim in our pristine ocean and snorkel in the best spots, visit our historical sites, enjoy the scenic views of our volcanoes.

But as GOOD travellers visiting more remote destinations that have not yet grown accustomed to large numbers of tourists, we must also take extra care to behave in ways that respect the local culture and traditions. For example, in Vanuatu, it is important to always dress conservatively and women should make sure that skirts cover their knees. Edna also recommends smiling and being friendly at all times!

We've also shared the Responsible Tourism Code for the Pacific, which has some great tips for visitors to Vanuatu as well as other Pacific island destinations.

Learn about the country and its culture

  • Remember that each country in the Pacific is unique
  • Be aware of local religious and social customs
  • Behave respectfully especially in villages, religious and cultural areas
  • Learn key words in the local language
  • Respect the dignity and privacy of others - ask before taking photos
  • Visit the visitor centre on arrival for local information

Minimise environmental impact

  • Dispose of rubbish carefully, recycle where possible, reuse your drink bottles and shopping bags
  • Minimise water and energy use
  • Choose environmental responsible tour operators

Protect the coral

  • Do not buy products made from coral, endangered plants or animals
  • Do not stand on, touch or remove any items from the reef, including coral

Support local initiatives

  • Purchase local products, arts and crafts
  • Eat local rather than imported food
  • Support local tour operators and stay in locally owned accommodation
  • If you want to gift money, support community projects rather than individuals

Pay a fair price

  • Bargaining for goods may not be appropriate behaviour
  • If the price is negotiable, pay a price that is fair for the seller and maker

Think about your impact

  • Remember you are a guest - always behave respectfully
  • Practice safe and responsible sex
  • Make your trip a positive experience for both you and the people in the country you visit.
July 23, 2023
5 min read