Vanuatu, one of the last hermit nations of Covid, to open up to tourists after two years | Vanuatu

Vanuatu, one of the last Covid hermit nations, is set to open up to international travel but there are fears the country is not ready to restart tourism, with the lack of deals with foreign airlines posing a significant problem.

From July 1, international tourists will be able to return to Vanuatu, a country of 300,000 people three hours from Australia, which has seen some of the toughest border restrictions in the world during the pandemic.

Vanuatu closed its borders to visitors in March 2020, allowing only a limited number of residents and visa holders to return throughout this period, with strict quarantine requirements.

But from next month the rules will ease almost completely, there will be no quarantine or caps on arrival, with travelers – vaccinated or not – being allowed to enter the country if they can show a certified negative rapid antigen test performed 24 hours prior to arrival.

The tourism-dependent country is keen to bring visitors back, especially as neighboring Pacific countries including Fiji and Samoa are reopening to tourists. Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for around 40% of GDP. In April 2020, just months into the pandemic, the government of Vanuatu estimated that 70% of tourism jobs had been lost due to Covid-19. Last year, the Vanuatu government estimated the combined economic cost of Covid-19 and Cyclone Harold at around $850 million.

However, there are concerns that the tourism industry is not ready for the resumption of travel, with particular concern over the lack of agreements with foreign airlines for travel to Vanuatu.

Rah Island, in the Banks group of islands in the far north of Vanuatu. Photograph: Ginny Stein/The Guardian

Currently, travel to Vanuatu is only possible via Air Vanuatu, the country’s beleaguered national carrier, which has only two planes for its international operations. There are fears that if anything were to happen to the heavily indebted national airline, Vanuatu would return to being a hermit nation.

Air Vanuatu activated its online booking system at the end of April, and Air Vanuatu chief commercial officer Greg Wilson said travel bookings are “starting to look healthy”.

“We have very strong demand for New Zealand, the majority of which are seasonal workers who want to return home, but we are seeing some very good numbers starting to come in,” Wilson said.

The national carrier will also resume services to the nation’s capital Port Vila, from major Australian capitals – Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. It also has regular flights to New Zealand, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

Vanuatu Tourism Board CEO Adela Issachar Aru told the Guardian that Vanuatu has been working hard to prepare for reopening, with air connectivity an important part of the country’s tourism recovery strategy.

On Tuesday, Virgin Australia announced it would launch direct services from Brisbane to Port Vila from March 2023, with up to five flights a week.

“Vanuatu is ready to welcome Australians to our shores from July 1 and Virgin Australia’s scheduled flights from Brisbane to Port Vila offer even more choice for Australians answering Vanuatu’s call,” said Issachar Aru, who added that talks are also underway with Qantas and Air Cal.

She said the industry understands the importance of connectivity and if it is not addressed in time, Vanuatu stands to lose out to other Pacific markets which are also reopening.

“Although we have not yet obtained approvals from other foreign airlines entering the country.”

Sophia Rodwell, Acting Manager of Holiday Inn, Port Vila, Vanuatu, says the industry is delighted to welcome people back after the pandemic.
Sophia Rodwell, Acting Manager of Holiday Inn, Port Vila, Vanuatu, says the industry is delighted to welcome people back after the pandemic. Photograph: Ginny Stein/The Guardian

Glen Craig, Chairman of the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council, says he sees air connectivity as one of Vanuatu’s significant risks. The only operator currently scheduled to fly to and from Vanuatu is the national carrier, Air Vanuatu.

The airline is heavily in debt and has repeatedly relied on government bailouts to stay in the air.

“Vanuatu depends on its heavily indebted national airline, which is the only airline that flies to New Zealand, one of Vanuatu’s three main markets, and Australia, which is our main market,” Craig said. “If something went wrong with the national carrier, which is making huge losses, and the government couldn’t fund it, we would be in trouble.”

Opposition leader Ralph Regenvanu is less optimistic about the nation’s preparedness.

“We have to open up, but we are certainly not ready. There are no confirmed deals for [foreign] airlines to fly to Vanuatu. We still have a few more weeks so we can only hope something happens,” Regenvanu said.

“I think we all have our hopes for the country opening up to tourism, but I think we’re going to be disappointed.”

Vanuatu’s closed borders meant it was preventing the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Omicron swept the country earlier this year and has now been registered in all six provinces. But hospitalizations and deaths from Covid have been few, with just 14 recorded deaths and 10,500 cases. Just under 40% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Sophia Rodwell, acting manager of the Holiday Inn, one of the capital’s largest full-service resorts, says the industry is thrilled to welcome people back. She says the station is well staffed and well prepared.

“Like any well-executed plan, we worked in stages,” Rodwell said.

The first arrivals to the country are expected to be those visiting family and friends, with the expectation of growth in wider tourist arrivals in the coming months.

“The big shift in the industry’s tourism plan was to maximize its natural strengths against markets such as Fiji,” Rodwell said.

“So, white sand beach?” Check. Surf? Check. Reef? Tick, but Vanuatu also has a lot more. There are blue holes, there is jungle, there are waterfalls, and so our positioning really depends on that.

For small tourism operators, such as owners of family bungalows and small tour operators hit hard by more than two years without income, the government has launched a low-interest loan scheme to enable them to rebuild.

But there are concerns about the state of tourism infrastructure in the main islands, with many believing it will take time for the tourism sector to rebuild and retrain new staff.

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