Vanuatu (previously known as the New Hebrides Islands) is an archipelago nation in the southwest Pacific Ocean.
|Currency||Vanuatu vatus (VUV)|
|Population||276.2 thousand (2017)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (BS 1363, AS/NZS 3112, Europlug)|
|Time zone||UTC+11:00, Pacific/Efate|
|Emergencies||112, +678-11 (police), 113 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The prehistory of Vanuatu is obscure; archaeological evidence supports the commonly held theory that peoples speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands some 4,000 years ago. Pottery fragments have been found dating back to 1300–1100 BC.
The first island in the Vanuatu group discovered by Europeans was Espiritu Santo, when in 1606 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós working for the Spanish crown, spied what he thought was a southern continent. Europeans did not return until 1768. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence.
During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of labourers, encouraged a long-term indentured labor trade called "blackbirding". At the height of the labor trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the islands worked abroad. Fragmentary evidence indicates that the current population of Vanuatu is much lower than that of pre-contact times.
The British and French agreed in 1906 to an Anglo-French Condominium. Challenges to this form of government began in the early 1940s. The arrival of Americans during World War II, with their informal demeanor and relative wealth, was instrumental in the rise of nationalism in the islands. The belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) promising Melanesian deliverance. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with a member of Parliament.
In 1980, amidst the brief Coconut War, the independent Republic of Vanuatu was created. During the 1990s Vanuatu experienced political instability which eventually resulted in a more decentralized government. The Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary group, attempted a coup in 1996 because of a pay dispute.
Vanuatu sustained extensive damage due to Cyclone Pam in March 2015. While the island of Espiritu Santo was unscathed, destruction on many outer islands was severe.
European settlers released several saltwater crocodiles on the island, although there remain 2 or 3 medium-sized individuals on the Banks Islands and no breeding has been observed. Despite its proximity to Papua New Guinea, crocodiles do not naturally occur on Vanuatu.
With such a large north-south area, Vanuatu has all the tropical variances possible. From hot and humid in the north, to mild and dry in the south. The Capital Port Vila on Efate can expect 27°C in July to 30°C in January. Nights can drop to 12°C. Humidity from December to February is around 82% and 70% around July.
Rainfall from January to April is around 300 mm per month, for the rest of the year around 200 mm per month. The Banks Islands in the top North can receive above 4,000mm of rain in a year, yet the southern islands may receive less than 2,000 mm.
Cyclones are natural phenomena to understand and respect. Mainstream tourism facilities are solidly built and experienced in cyclone management. Cyclones appear (in varying degrees with plenty of warning) on an average every couple of years from December to March. By following instructions given by the local authorities, you will be in no danger.
Yachties commonly avoid cyclones from Nov through April. There are no effective cyclone holes for any size of ship in Vanuatu. Yachties typically leave to the north of the equator, New Caledonia, New Zealand or Australia. There is a small boatyard in Port Vila with haulout facilities for yachts.
Tourism peaks from July to December. January to June is quietest. Experienced travellers take advantage of these tourism troughs to travel, as airlines, accommodation providers and other tourism-related businesses discount heavily during this period.
January to June is a little more humid, but cooled by the occasional tropical downpour. The added bonus is that in this period, tourism numbers are low. You have more opportunities to mingle with locals and aimlessly do your own thing instead of being rushed by the crowd (except when cruise ships are in port).
Vanuatu retains a strong diversity through local regional variants and foreign influence. In the north, wealth is established by how much one can give away. Pigs, particularly those with rounded tusks are considered a symbol of wealth throughout Vanuatu. More traditional Melanesian cultural systems dominate in the central region.
- 1 January: New Year's Day
- 21 February: Father Lini Day
- 5 March: Custom Chief's Day
- Easter (in accordance with the Gregorian calendar)
- 30 July: Independence Day
- 5 October: Constitution Day
- 29 November: Unity Day
- 25 December: Christmas Day
- 26 December: Family Day
The 83 islands of Vanuatu are grouped into six geographic provinces, the names formed by combining the first syllables or letters of the major islands in each.
Torres Islands and Banks Islands
Espiritu Santo and Malo
Pentecost/Pentecote, Ambae and Maewo
Malakula, Ambrym and Paama
Shepherd Group and Efate
Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Erromango and Aneityum/Anatom
Matthew and Hunter are uninhabited islands southeast of Aneityum. Aneityum people believe that the islands are in their historical territory. Aneityum appears to have provided the ancestors of the people of New Caledonia and there are cultural links particularly with the Loyalty Islands.
- 1 Epi Island
- 2 Espiritu Santo - Vanuatu's biggest island, and popular with divers. It boasts shipwrecks for scuba diving, delightful beaches, coconut plantations, jungle and traditional villages where young men still engage in age-old rituals to celebrate their coming of age, and where women are provided with special places to stay for the time they menstruate. Champagne Beach can compete with any other beach in the South Pacific, and is therefore one of the most popular places to visit.
- Malekula - A good place to dive into the divers' cultural traditions of indigenous peoples of Vanuatu. This is a place where stories of cannibals and spirit caves come to life and a good chance to watch the ritual kastom dances of the locals, in this case, the Small Nambas and Big Nambas people.
A long list of countries are exempted from visas , which includes all Commonwealth and EU member countries. All visitors must have a passport valid for a further 4 months and an onward ticket. On arrival, you will be allowed an initial stay of up to 30 days, extended one month at a time for up to 4 months.
- Vanuatu's main ports are Port-Vila on the island of Efate and Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo.
- Various cruise lines including P&O Australia operate regular cruises through Vanuatu waters.
Subsequent 11-night cruises explore the Banks Islands, then the isolated islands of central Vanuatu, depart from Port Vila via Tanna island to New Caledonia on 19 Oct.
- Air Vanuatu flies from Port-Vila to Australia (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne), New Zealand (Auckland), Fiji (Nadi) and New Caledonia (Nouméa).
- Fiji Airways flies from Port-Vila to Fiji (Nadi).
- Aircalin flies from Port-Vila to New Caledonia (Nouméa).
- Solomon Airlines flies from Port-Vila to the Solomon Islands (Honiara) and Fiji (Nadi).
The runway was reported to be in a ruinous condition; however, extensive repairs have been undertaken, and were completed in December 2019.
Some alternatives to Port-Vila include:
- Air Vanuatu flies directly from both Sydney and Brisbane to Luganville.
- Qantas offers an Air Vanuatu codeshare for weekly flights to Santo.
There are a few charter airlines, these are Unity Airlines, Sea Air and Air Safaris, however the national airline Air Vanuatu operates the domestic network.
Within Vanuatu, several companies provide boating service between the islands. These include Fresh Cargo, Ifira Shipping Agencies and Toara Coastal Shipping.
In Port Vila, the buses are minivans seating about 10 people, which largely traverse the main road and go and stop where you would like them to go. Wave at them to stop one heading in the direction you want to go. They are plentiful within the city and outside the city you can usually arrange for a bus to meet you at a particular time. If one looks full, just wait for the next one. The buses are used by locals, but are very friendly, cheap, and easy to use by tourists. Fare is usually calculated per person. The cost is usually 150 vatu per person anywhere around Port Vila. If you are travelling a longer distance, the fare may rise to 300 - 500 vatu per person.
Taxis are plentiful within Port Vila.
There are three official languages: English, French and Bislama. Bislama is a pidgin language, and now a creole in urban areas, which essentially combines a typically Melanesian grammar with a mostly English vocabulary. It is the only language that can be understood and spoken by the whole population of Vanuatu, generally as a second language.
It is a mixture of phonetic English woven in a loose French sentence structure spoken with ‘local sound' producing some comical outcomes e.g., ladies brassieres or bathing top is called "Basket blong titi"; no offense intended. An excellent Bislama dictionary is available from good bookshops: A New Bislama Dictionary, by the late Terry Crowley. Some common Bislama words/phrases include:
- Me / you - mi / yu
- Him / her / it (neither masculine nor feminine)
- this here - hem/ hemia
- Us /we / all of us - mifala / mifala evriwan
- You / you (plural) - yu / yufala
- I do not know/understand - mi no save
- See you later / ta ta - Lukim yu/ tata
- I am going now - ale (French derivation of allez) mi go
- One/ two / three - wan / tu / tri
- How much (is that) - hamas (long hem)
- Plenty or many - plenti
- Filled to capacity / overfilled - fulap / fulap tumas (too much)
- Day / evening / night - dei / sava (literally supper) / naet
- Hot / cold - hot / kol
- What / what is that - wanem / wanem ia (literally wanem here?)
- Why / why did you - frowanem (for why?)
- Please / thank you / sorry (very sorry) - plis / tangkyu / sori (sori tumas) - sorry too much
- Do you know - yu save (pronounced savee)
In addition, 113 indigenous languages are still actively spoken in Vanuatu. The density of languages per capita is the highest of any nation in the world, with an average of only 2,000 speakers per language. All of these vernacular languages belong to the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian family.
Vanuatu is not on the average traveller's destination wish list, except perhaps for those with a love for scuba diving, as divers have discovered the underwater treasures of this South Pacific archipelago a long time ago. However, even if you don't plan on touching this country's bright blue waters, it's a colourful mix of traditional Melanesian culture, friendly people, beautiful tropical beaches, active volcanoes and all the modern day facilities you'll need to have a great time.
The many islands rimmed with perfect sandy beaches offer lovely Pacific views. The Bank Islands boast great beaches combined with rugged terrain. On the largest of the Banks Islands, Gaua, you'll find the Siri Waterfall, which gets its water from the country's biggest crater lake: Lake Letas. Head to the island of Tanna to see Mount Yasur, the world's most accessible active volcano. A tourist favourite, Tanna is also home to waterfalls and men in penis sheaths and grass skirts. If you get the chance, stay to witness one of their ancient festivals or rituals.
Efate is the place where most visitors begin their encounter with Vanuatu and home to the country's friendly little capital, Port-Vila. It strives to bring the best of the archipelago together and is the go-to place for fine wining and dining.
Other places well worth visiting include Aoba Island (known for the crater lakes on top of the large volcano that defines the islands) and Pentecost (the spiritual birthplace of bungee jumping). Last but not least, the active volcanoes, lava lakes and local villagers' artwork are a good reason to stay in one of the traditional style bungalows on Ambrym.
Exchange rates for Ni-Vanuatu vatu
As of January 2020:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The local currency is the Ni-Vanuatu vatu (VT). (ISO currency code: VUV). There are notes for 200 VT, 500 VT, 1000 VT, 5000 VT, and 10000 VT while coins include 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 VT pieces.
Credit and debit cards on the major networks (Cirrus, Maestro, etc.) are accepted by many businesses in town.
ATMs are available in Port Vila, and include the Australian banks ANZ and Westpac. The National Bank of Vanuatu has a branch at the airport and is open for all flight arrivals. Otherwise, banking hours are from 08:30 to 15:00.
Tipping and gifts
Tipping is not expected in Vanuatu, nor is haggling or bargaining; it is not the custom and only encourages a "master-servant" relationship. However, gifts are very appreciated and the exchange of gifts for services rendered fits well into the local traditions. Western governments have a hard time coming to terms with this practice as it is interpreted as bribery and corruption. But in the Melanesian culture, this practice is a normal way to do business... well before the European colonisers introduced that "cash" stuff.
A bag of rice to a village chief may be received with gratitude and dignity, but to offer triple the value in cash may be regarded as patronising, plus it will artificially inflate the price for the next traveller; set a wrong expectation, and rapidly destroy the genuine spontaneous friendship so easily given to you.
A nice gesture is to give phone cards or a T-shirt, or school pads, pens, etc. for the children.
There are two market areas along the foreshore in Port-Vila. The main market sells mostly food, and you can find all kinds of local produce there. Further north, near the beach, there is a row of grass-roofed market stalls that sell clothing, bags, sarongs and other items.
The woven grass bags and mats are widely available and very attractive.
There are many restaurants and eateries in Port-Vila, ranging from up-market places catering to tourists and expats, to more low-key establishments. The approximate cost of lunch would be around the 1000-1500 VT range, depending on where and what you eat. Some examples of prices:
- sandwiches, around 450-600 VT
- bacon and eggs, 750 VT
- burger with fries or salad, around 1000 VT
- main meal, e.g. steak or seafood, 1200-2000 VT
- large, fresh-squeezed fruit juice, around 500VT
The traditional dish which you will most likely be offered once during your stay is a root vegetable cake called lap lap. Essentially this is either manioc (cassava), sweet potato, taro or yam shaved into the middle of a banana leaf with island cabbage and sometimes a chicken wing on top. This is all wrapped up into a flat package and then cooked in hot stones underground till it all melts together into a cake. The best place to pick up some of this is at the food market in the town centre and should cost you about 100 VT.
Tuluk is a variation of lap lap with the cake rolled into a cylinder with meat in the middle. It tastes a lot like a sausage roll. You can find these again in the market (usually from mele village people) but they will be served from foam boxes to keep them warm.
Vanuatu's meat is renowned in the Melanesian region. At the airports, you will see signs reminding you to pack the 25 kg of meat permitted to other nearby island nations. The reason the meat tastes so good is that the livestock are naturally reared, with no feedlots or other mass production methods used in some Western countries. This results in a steak that is very good indeed.
As you may expect from an island nation, seafood is a common option and the quality is generally excellent. Reef fish are commonly found in restaurants, along with many varieties of prawns, lobster and the delectable coconut crab.
The coconut crab is only found in parts of the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and has been declining in numbers so rapidly that it is now a protected species in most areas. There is a minimum legal size requirement in Vanuatu of four centimetres, but the creature can grow to over 8 cm in length with a leg span of up to 90 cm. The crab gets its name as it climbs palms to cut down and eat coconuts; nothing to do with the flavour.
Kava is a local drink, made from the roots of the plant Piper methysticum, a type of pepper. Kava is intoxicating, but not like alcohol. Its effects are sedative. Some travellers have experienced a hangover from its consumption.
Kava is consumed in private homes and in local venues called Nakamal. Some of the resorts also offer kava on occasion for visitors to try.
Kava is served in a "shell" or small bowl. Drink the whole shell-ful down steadily, then spit. It's handy to have a soft drink on hand to rinse with afterwards, as the taste of kava is strong and not very pleasant.
It is worth noting that the kava available in Vanuatu is generally a much stronger variety than the kava found in other Pacific islands such as Fiji, where it is comparatively mild. Four or five large shells in a typical kava bar will leave the inexperienced drinker reeling (or worse) after a couple of hours, and it can take a day to recover.
Good advice to experience kava as pleasantly as possible is to go with an experienced drinker and follow their lead, take the small shells, and stop after an hour and a half. It's quite easy to find a local kava drinking buddy, just ask around your hotel and you'll find volunteers, maybe at the cost of a shell or two.
Kava bars (or Nakamals) are normally dark places with very dim or no lighting at all. This is because bright lights and kava intoxication do not go together well: so be careful with flash photography, which may not be received very well in such venues.
Alcoholic beverages are also widely available. Resorts, bars and restaurants serving tourists serve a wide range of drinks. The local beers are called Tusker and Vanuatu Bitter.
There is a choice of all types of accommodation, including resorts in Port-Vila.
When visiting other islands or villages outside of the cities, there are many small guest houses that charge around 2000 VT per night and offer full service (meals, laundry, etc.)
Many of the motels in Port-Vila and Luganville also fall into the budget category, with prices around 2000 VT per night. There are a number of websites which list such motels.
Many people from overseas work in Vanuatu, either running their own businesses or employed by others.
Generally speaking, work permits are only available for positions where there are not enough ni-Vanuatu to meet demand.
There are many charitable organisations and NGOs operating in Vanuatu, and a strong community of volunteers in the area. If you are interested in volunteering in Vanuatu, the following organisations place volunteers there:
Vanuatu is, on the whole, a safe and friendly environment. You are unlikely to encounter any trouble unless you do something extremely provocative, though crime rates are said to be increasing, particularly in Port Vila at night. Take the same precautions you would anywhere else.
There are no seriously poisonous snakes, spiders, or insects on Vanuatu. However, there are various poisonous aquatic animals that you should beware of if you are swimming, snorkeling, or diving in the area. The most dangerous of these is the stonefish. Saltwater crocodiles are present, but the likelihood of an attack is minimal.
It is advisable to be immunised against Hepatitis A and B and typhoid fever before visiting Vanuatu.
Malaria is endemic within some areas of Vanuatu, but not Port-Vila. If you are venturing outside the resort areas, check with your doctor before you travel. Malaria may not be endemic but you may come in contact with mosquito carriers and visitors from outer islands who have malaria - particularly in the wet season and at the hospital.
Dengue fever is also mosquito vectored in Port-Vila and elsewhere particularly in the wet season. Be familiar with the symptoms as there is no cure all for dengue and malaria symptoms are intermittently leading to misdiagnosis. Many local clinics in the outer islands can test you for malaria.
Malaria preventative drugs have side effects which can cause problems in the sun, scuba diving, general stability and digestion.
Tap water in Port-Vila is clean and potable, but is best avoided elsewhere. (check with local consumers). Bottled water is not available outside the main cities. Fizzy drinks but not beer may be available outside the main cities. Giardiasis after using local water is rare. However, the water supply situation is getting acuter due to tourism, cattle raising, rapidly rising population etc.
Be careful of any small cuts, scratches, or other sores you receive while travelling in Vanuatu. As in most tropical areas, small sores can easily become infected if you don't practice proper hygiene. Most of these things require common sense. However the sea water in Vanuatu will not heal your cuts, regular wetting will cause the condition to rapidly worsen requiring intravenous antibiotics and possible amputation. Iodine solution does not work and is alleged to make the situation worse. Mercuro-Chrome [Cumulative Poison] and Gentian Violet are better.
Throughout Vanuatu, and especially outside of Port-Vila in the villages, life is strongly influenced by "kastom", a set of traditional customs and taboos that apply to all kinds of matters. Be aware of this, and respect locals' requests with regard to "kastom".
When visiting villages, women should dress modestly, wearing clothes that cover the shoulders and knees.
Christian religion is very strong. It seems common to invite and welcome visitors to attend local church services on a Sunday.
Revealing and sexy clothing (especially wearing beachwear in the capital) is not advisable, as over 100 years of missionary work has had its effect on the perception of what is considered as respectable attire in the islands. Regardless, it's considered disrespectful to the local people and can be interpreted by some indigenous inhabitants as an invitation for sex.
As Vanuatu is not a ‘fashion conscious' place no-one will notice or care if you were wearing the latest from 'the Paris Collection' or not. You are best off bringing a practical tropical wardrobe such as light cotton summer clothes that are easy to hand wash, a ‘sloppy joe' pullover and a lightweight waterproof wind jacket. If planning to go to the outer islands, bring a good flashlight (with spare batteries, you will use them), lightweight, walking shoes, sandals or good thongs (flip flops or crocs) for wet weather and old clothes.
When exploring the outer islands take all the older clothes you can carry, wear them and give them away to the islanders when you are finished wearing them. You and your children will be aptly rewarded in other ways. Instead of dumping your worn clothes in a charity collection bin at your local shopping centre, your children will interact with the very people who would be the recipients of those clothes (most NiVanuatu people buy these second-hand clothes from shops in Port-Vila).
Sharing and giving is a natural course of daily life in Vanuatu. The T-shirt you give to one person will be worn by all his friends as well. Three T-shirts on top of each other will be their winter outfit. You will provide them things that are hard for them to obtain, save them the expense of buying clothes (basic wages are quite low in Vanuatu) and you will depart with priceless memories, plus have more in your luggage for purchased local arts and crafts.
Communicating with NiVanuatu people:
- In Vanuatu, the display of anger, displeasure or irritability at a person or situation will reduce the recipient to a stony silence with a lack of co-operation or empathy to your point of view. Please be patient as it is a waste of time complaining. It will have no bearing on the outcome. And if you are verbally abusive, you will generate one of three responses: smiling, subdued laughter, or a fist in your face.
- Don't ask a question with the answer built into it. Locals will always agree in order not to contradict you. "Is this the road to X?" will generate a Yes. Try: "Where is the road to X..?", and you might get a different answer.
- Direct eye contact or raised voice level contact may be interpreted as intimidation. A local person's voice level combined with body language may be directly opposite to Europeans. He or she may nod agreement with everything you say in order not to offend you but may not have understood a word you have said.
- If you're in a bus and people on the footpath are turning their backs to you, don't be offended: they're simply letting the driver know that they don't require him to stop. There are few bus stops in Vanuatu, and those that exist don't get much use.
- If you see men or women holding hands, it's not what you may think. Men hold hands with other men, or women with women, because there is no sexual connotation attached to it. However, you will very rarely see a man holding a woman's hand in public because this would be considered as a public exhibition of sexual relations.
The Vanuatu people are a delight to photograph, friendly, co-operative and photogenic especially the children who are simply gorgeous. Yes, they love to be photographed but do not offer to pay to photograph local people as this will quickly discourage spontaneity and encourage commercialisation. Always ask before taking photos of local people.
In some cases, some people may be reluctant to be photographed for reasons that you may never know. It is prudent to enquire as to the fee for photographing cultural festivities as they are sometimes very high. The reasoning behind this is they put on the show, people take photos and make money selling these photos of their show, so they want to be paid accordingly. Shooting an exploding volcano at night calls for at least 800 asa setting and a tripod is essential for good images.
The international country code for Vanuatu is +678. To dial overseas from within Vanuatu dial 00 followed by the relevant country code and phone number.
Emergency phone numbers: Ambulance (22-100); Fire (22-333); and Police (22-222).
Vanuatu has GSM mobile coverage in Port-Vila and most GSM mobile phones roam seamlessly. You can buy special visitor SIM cards from TVI, which offer considerable discounts over roaming charges. Available at any post office.
International roaming from New Zealand and Australia is available. Telecom Vanuatu has a package called ‘Smile Visitor' which consists of a sim card with a pre-purchased credit. This can be purchased at the Vanuatu Telecom Office in town. Telephone: +678 081111. Email: email@example.com
Digicel is giving Telecom some overdue competition. Digicel offer a range of packages, and are widely available.
Radio and television
Many international radio stations such as Radio Australia, BBC World Service, Radio France International and China Radio International can be heard on FM radio in Port-Vila and in some other locations.
The national broadcaster, Radio Vanuatu is mostly broadcast in Bislama, but sometimes is in English and French. It is also available on AM and SW.
Distant AM broadcasts from Australia, New Caledonia and Fiji may also be heard.
Local and international TV broadcasts are available, but the national broadcaster 'Television Blong Vanuatu' is the only free-to air option.
Other broadcasts can be found on Telsat's Digital Pay TV service or via satellite.
Internet cafes can be found in Luganville & Port-Vila. You may also find that some post offices will also provide some kind of Internet facilities, and can be found on the main streets in Port-Vila and Luganville as well as on Espiritu Santo.
Postal services to mainland Europe can take up to 7 days. You can send letters and postcards from mailboxes in the streets, however the incoming postal service can be patchy, especially for parcels, so don't rely on people sending you things while you're staying in Vanuatu.