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Vanuatu’s TourismRebound in 2023

As the global travel landscape reopens, and airlines begin to operate additional flights, Vanuatu, is experiencing a slow recovery in its tourism sector. The opening of international borders in July 2022 marked a pivotal moment for the country, revealing promising insights into visitor arrivals and travel
trends. However, there have been a few setbacks which have proved to be obstacles to the continued
recovery. In March 2022, the Capital was hit by two cyclones, Kevin and Judy, within a 48 hour period, causing massive damage, power outages and destruction of property. Tourism numbers were significantly affected in the months that followed as hotels and resorts on Efate attempted to rebuild from the damage caused. Some hotels shut down completely.

Then there were the issues with the national airline of Vanuatu, Air Vanuatu, which continues to experience operational problems linked to mechanical breakdowns. These problems have contributed to numerous flight delays, and cancellations directly affecting passenger moral. Hotels and Tours operators suffered numerous cancellations as a result. It was a public relations disaster for the country
and the Airline. To ease the pain, Virgin Australia commenced flights to Vanuatu on 31 March 2023, offering a more reliable alternative to visitors wanting to travel to Vanuatu. The problems with Air Vanuatu continue but code sharing and partnership arrangements with Solomon Airlines have helped with the flights.

In his state of the Nation Speech on Friday March 17 2023, The Prime Minister at the time Ishmael Kalsakau disclosed that Air Vanuatu’s new fleet will consist of two (2) Boeing aircraft, two (2) additional ATR aircraft, and four (4) Twin Otter planes, to service the country both internationally and domestically. To date, nothing appears to have progressed. The constant changing political landscape has been a major contributor to the lack of progress in resolving the problems of the airline with constant Board Changes.

Figure 1: Visitor Arrivals by Air and Sea: August 2022 to August 2023

Overview of Visitors numbers

In November 2023, The Vanuatu National Statistics Office issued its latest report on International arrivals as at August 2023. The total international arrivals in August 2023 reached 30,306, with 8,266 visitors arriving by air—a 15% decrease from the previous month. The decline is attributed to a notable 17% drop in air arrivals for holiday purposes. However, the maritime sector saw a robust performance with 7 cruise ships carrying 21,849 day visitors and 191 yacht visitors, constituting 73% of the total sea arrivals.

Whilst visitor arrivals by Air continued to improve, it has not rebounded back to pre COVID levels.

A direct comparison between visitor arrivals for the following periods suggests that visitor arrivals are slowly improving but are still well below pre COVID levels.

For the 7 months between September 2019 – March 2020 when borders were closed due to the COVID Pandemic, 66,684 visitors arrived by air. A direct comparison of the same period in September 2022 – March 2023 had 32,649 visitors by air. This was approximately 50% of Pre COVID Levels. However during this period, the country faced significant headwinds due to problems with the National Airline and the twin cyclones in March.

A comparison of the 5 months following showed an improvement. The number of arrivals by Air before COVID for the period April to August 2019 was 53,298. In comparison to these Pre COVID levels, visitor arrivals for 2022 was 38,920, an improvement from the previous months to 73% of pre COVID levels.

Should this trend continue, visitors by Air to Vanuatu should be back to pre COVID levels by 2025 provided that the airline woes will be resolved.

Cruise ships

On the 9th November 2022, after a long hiatus due to COVID, Cruise ships returned to Vanuatu. Despite
being day visits, cruise ships have been an important part of the Tourism sector providing a source of income to Tour Operators, Bus Transport, and restaurants.

Cruise Ship arrivals from November 2018 – August 2019, cruise ship arrivals total 115,798.

In comparison, the same period from November 2022 – August 2023 were 193,212, a significant increase in numbers.

How are the Hotels and Tourism Operators Going?

Hotels have reported good occupancy rates in 2023, especially in July 2023 when the Melanesian Arts Festival was held in Port Vila. In 2023 some of the larger hotels had reduced their number of available beds due to damages caused by the cyclones in March. This has meant that smaller to medium sized operators were able to improve their occupancy. Also contributing to the drop in availability of Beds was the fall in available holiday rentals and Air B&B’s that had previously been on the market.

Tour Operators currently operating have reported good forward bookings but it is clear that there has been significant changes in the market. Some operators have discontinued offering tours and some have closed up, casualties of the economic downturn during the COVID period. There are now fewer Dive Operators on the market and the MV Coongoola became a casualty of the cyclones in March 2023 when sunk in Port Vila Harbour.

There are currently fewer options on the market offering activities directly targeting tourists which has meant that despite lower numbers of visitors by air than 2019, those that are currently still offering activities have reported good numbers and are generally pleased with the state of affairs. The large
increase in cruise ship arrivals has been able to make up the lower numbers in arrivals by Air and has benefitted tour operators.

The Tourism Industry in Vanuatu is a significant contributor to the Vanuatu economy. However, it still faces many challenges with the main one being the survival and success of the NationalAirline, Air Vanuatu. Other challenges facing Tourism is the lack of a skilled labour force due to the departure of many Ni-vanuatu to New Zealand and Australia on seasonal work.