Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago comprising approximately 82 relatively tiny, geologically younger volcanic islands (65 of which are inhabited), with a distance of about 1,300 kilometers (810 miles) between the most northern and southern islands. France claims and controls two of these islands (Matthew and Hunter) as part of the French collectivity of New Caledonia. The nation is located between latitudes 13° and 21° South and longitudes 166° and 171° East.
From biggest to smallest, the fourteen Vanuatu islands with surface areas more than 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) are: Espiritu Santo, Malakula, Efate, Erromango, Ambrym, Tanna, Pentecost, Epi, Ambae or Aoba, Gaua, Vanua Lava, Maewo, Malo, and Aneityum or Anatom. The biggest settlements in the country are the capital Port Vila on Efate and Luganville on Espiritu Santo. Mount Tabwemasana on the island of Espiritu Santo is the highest elevation in Vanuatu, at 1,879 meters (6,165 feet).
Vanuatu has a total size of about 12,274 square kilometers (4,739 square miles), with a land surface area of approximately 4,700 square kilometers (1,800 square miles). The majority of the islands are mountainous, with unstable soils and little permanent fresh water. According to one estimate from 2005, just 9% of land is utilized for agriculture (7 percent with permanent crops, plus 2 percent considered arable). The coast is mainly rocky, with bordering reefs and no continental shelf, and it drops quickly into the Atlantic depths.
Vanuatu is home to numerous active volcanoes, including Lopevi, Mount Yasur, and various submarine volcanoes. Volcanic activity is frequent, with the threat of a large eruption always present; a nearby underwater eruption of 6.4 magnitude happened in November 2008 with no fatalities, and an eruption occurred in 1945. Vanuatu has its own terrestrial ecoregion, known as the Vanuatu rain forests. It belongs to the Australasia ecozone, which also includes New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand.
Vanuatu’s population (which was projected to be rising at a rate of 2.4 percent per year in 2008) is putting increasing strain on land and resources used for agriculture, grazing, hunting, and fishing. Approximately 90% of Vanuatu families fish and eat fish, resulting in severe fishing pressure near communities and depletion of near-shore fish species. While most islands are well-forested, there are indications of deforestation on most of them. The islands have been logged, especially for high-value wood, subjected to widespread slash-and-burn agriculture, and converted to coconut plantations and cow ranches, resulting in increased soil erosion and landslides.
Many highland watersheds are becoming deforested and degraded, and fresh water is becoming rare. Proper garbage disposal, as well as water and air pollution, are becoming major concerns in and around cities and big towns. Furthermore, a lack of industrial job possibilities and market access have conspired to lock rural people into a subsistence or self-reliance mode, placing enormous strain on local ecosystems.
Flora and fauna
Vanuatu has a little number of plant and animal species despite its tropical jungles. It is home to the Pteropus anetianus, a local flying fox. Flying foxes play an essential role in rainforest and wood regeneration. They pollinate and spread seeds from a broad range of natural plants. Their food consists of nectar, pollen, and fruit, hence they are often referred to as “fruit bats.” Throughout their range in the South Pacific, they are declining. Governments, on the other hand, are becoming more conscious of the economic and ecological importance of flying foxes, and there are demands to enhance their protection. There are no big animals endemic to the area. The flowerpot snake, found exclusively on Efate, is one of the nineteen native reptile species. In the 1960s, the Fiji Banded Iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus) was imported as a wild species. There are eleven bat species (three of which are unique to Vanuatu) and 61 land and water bird species. While the tiny Polynesian rat is believed to be indigenous, the big species, as well as domesticated pigs, dogs, and cattle, came with Europeans. E. O. Wilson documented the ant species of certain Vanuatu’s islands.
The area is abundant in sea life, with over 4,000 kinds of marine mollusks and a wide range of marine fishes. Coneshell and stonefish contain a toxin that is lethal to humans. The Giant East African land snail came in the 1970s and has already expanded from Port-Vila to Luganville.
There are three or perhaps four adult saltwater crocodiles in Vanuatu’s mangroves, but no breeding population exists. Given the island chain’s closeness to the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, where crocodiles are abundant, it is believed that crocodiles reached the northern portion of the islands following storms.
Vanuatu possesses all of the tropical variations conceivable because to its vast north-south region. The weather ranges from hot and humid in the north to moderate and dry in the south. Temperatures in Port Vila, Efate, range from 27°C in July to 30°C in January. The temperature at night may dip to 12°C. Humidity is approximately 82 percent from December to February and 70 percent from July to August.
Rainfall averages about 300mm per month from January to April, and around 200mm per month the rest of the year. The Banks Islands in the far north may get more than 4,000mm of rain each year, whereas the southern islands may only receive 2,000mm.
Cyclones are natural phenomena that must be understood and respected. Mainstream tourist establishments are well-built and have cyclone management experience. Cyclones occur (in different degrees and with plenty of warning) every couple of years from December to March on average. You will be safe if you follow the advice of the local authorities. From November through April, yachties often dodge cyclones. In Vanuatu, there are no functional cyclone holes for any size ship. Yachts usually depart for destinations north of the equator, such as New Caledonia, New Zealand, or Australia. In Port Vila, there is a modest boatyard with yacht haulout facilities.
The months of July through December are the busiest for tourism. January through June are the quietest months. Experienced travelers take advantage of these tourist troughs to travel, since airlines, lodging providers, and other tourism-related companies provide significant discounts at this time.
The months of January through June are a bit more humid, although the odd tropical rain keeps things cool. The fact that tourist numbers are low during this time period is an additional advantage. Instead of being hurried by the throng, you have more chances to interact with locals and aimlessly do your own thing (except when cruise ships are in Port).
Vanuatu’s population is 221,506 people. Males outweigh females; the Vanuatu Statistics Office reported 95,682 males and 90,996 females in 1999. The majority of the population lives in rural areas, but Port Vila and Luganville have populations in the tens of thousands.
Vanuatuans are referred to as Ni-Vanuatu in English, a modern invention. The Ni-Vanuatu are mostly Melanesian (98.5 percent), with the rest being a mix of Europeans, Asians, and other Pacific islanders. Polynesians traditionally colonized three islands. Approximately 20,000 Ni-Vanuatu people live and work in New Zealand and Australia. The Happy Planet Index, published in 2006 by the New Economics Foundation and the Friends of the Earth environmentalist group, analyzed data on levels of reported happiness, life expectancy, and Ecological Footprint and estimated Vanuatu to be the most ecologically efficient country in the world in achieving high well-being.
Vanuatu’s main religion is Christianity, which is divided into many denominations. The Presbyterian Church in Vanuatu is the biggest, with about one-third of the people belonging to it. Other popular faiths include Roman Catholic and Anglican, which each claim approximately 15% of the population. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Church of Christ, Neil Thomas Ministries (NTM), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others are among the less significant organizations.
Several cargo cults arose as a result of the modern items delivered to the islands by the troops during World War II. Many faded out, but the John Frum cult on Tanna is still active, with followers in the legislature. The Prince Philip Movement, which honors the United Kingdom’s Prince Philip, is also present on Tanna. Yaohnanen tribe villagers believed in an old tale about a pale-skinned son of a mountain spirit traveling across the seas to find a strong lady to marry. Prince Philip, who visited the island with his new bride Queen Elizabeth, perfectly matched the description and is therefore regarded as a deity in Tanna.
Agriculture, tourism, offshore financial services, and cattle ranching are the four pillars of the economy. There is significant fishing activity, although this sector does not generate much foreign currency. Copra, kava, cattle, cocoa, and wood are among the exports, while machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, and fuels are among the imports. Mining activity, on the other hand, is insignificant.
While manganese mining ceased in 1978, a deal was reached in 2006 to export manganese that had previously been extracted but had not yet been shipped. There are no known petroleum deposits in the nation. The local market is served by a modest light-industry sector. Import tariffs and a 12.5 percent VAT on products and services provide the majority of tax income. Economic growth is hampered by the country’s reliance on a small number of commodity exports, susceptibility to natural catastrophes, and vast distances between component islands and major markets.
Agriculture is utilized both for consumption and for export. It provides a livelihood for about 65 percent of the people. Copra and kava production, in particular, provide significant income. Many farmers have abandoned food crop production in favor of kava farming, with the proceeds used to purchase food. Kava has also been utilized in clan and village ceremonial exchanges. Cocoa is also cultivated for the purpose of generating foreign currency.
In 2007, there were 15,758 families involved in fishing, mostly for consumption (99 percent), and the average number of weekly fishing excursions was three. The tropical environment allows for the cultivation of a diverse variety of fruits, vegetables, and spices such as banana, garlic, cabbage, peanuts, pineapples, sugarcane, taro, yams, watermelons, leaf spices, carrots, radishes, eggplants, vanilla (both fresh and cured), pepper, cucumber, and many more. In 2007, the following agricultural goods were valued (in millions of vatu – Vanuatu’s national currency): kava (341 million vatu), copra (195), cattle (135), crop gardens (93), cocoa (59), forestry (56), fisheries (24), coffee (12).
Tourism generates much-needed foreign currency. Vanuatu is generally regarded as one of the best holiday locations for scuba divers looking to experience the South Pacific region’s coral reefs. The wreck of the US luxury cruise liner and converted troop carrier President Coolidge on Espiritu Santo island is also a major draw for scuba divers. It was sunk during World War II and is one of the world’s biggest shipwrecks that is accessible for recreational diving. According to one estimate, tourism grew 17 percent from 2007 to 2008, reaching 196,134 visitors. The 2008 total represents a significant increase over the previous year’s total of 57,000 visitors (of which 37,000 were from Australia, 8,000 from New Zealand, 6,000 from New Caledonia, 3,000 from Europe, 1,000 from North America, and 1,000 from Japan. (Note: figures are rounded to the nearest thousand)). Tourism has been boosted in part by Vanuatu’s appearance on numerous reality television programs. The ninth season of the reality television series Survivor, titled Survivor: Vanuatu—Islands of Fire, was shot in Vanuatu. Two years later, the Australian edition of Celebrity Survivor was shot in the same location as the US version. In the middle of 2002, the government increased its attempts to promote tourism.
Financial services are a critical component of the economy. Vanuatu is a tax haven that did not share account information with other countries or law enforcement agencies until 2008. International pressure, mostly from Australia, pushed the Vanuatu government to start conforming to international transparency standards. There is no income tax, withholding tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, or exchange control in Vanuatu. Because of the tax advantages and favorable labor regulations, several multinational ship-management firms prefer to flag their ships under the Vanuatu flag (Vanuatu is a full member of the International Maritime Organization and applies its international conventions). Vanuatu is designated as a nation using a “flag of convenience.” Several file-sharing organizations, including Sharman Networks’ KaZaAnetwork and the creators of WinMX, have opted to incorporate in Vanuatu to escape regulatory and legal problems. As a result of international concerns, the government has pledged to strengthen regulation of its offshore financial center. Vanuatu gets the majority of its foreign assistance from Australia and New Zealand.
Cattle raising leads to the production of beef for export. The total value of cow heads sold in 2007 was estimated to be 135 million vatu; cattle were originally brought into the region from Australia by British planter James Paddon. Each family has 5 pigs and 16 hens on average, and although cattle are the “most important animal,” pigs and chickens are essential for subsistence cultivation as well as ceremonial and customary purposes (especially pigs). In 2007, there were 30 commercial farms (37 percent single proprietorships, 23 percent partnerships, and 17 percent corporations), with revenues of 533 million vatu and expenditures of 329 million vatu.
Earthquakes may have a detrimental impact on the island nation’s economic activities. A strong earthquake followed by a tsunami in November 1999 caused significant damage to the northern island of Pentecost, displacing hundreds. In January 2002, another strong earthquake caused significant damage in the city, Port Vila, and neighboring regions, and was followed by a tsunami. On August 2, 2007, another 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit.
In 2008, the Vanuatu National Statistics Office (VNSO) published its 2007 agricultural census. According to the study, agricultural exports account for roughly three-quarters (73%) of all exports; 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas where “agriculture is the main source of their livelihood”; and almost all (99%) of these households are involved in agriculture, fisheries, and forestry. Annual family income was 1,803 million vatu. Agriculture produced for their own home use was worth 683 million vatu, agriculture for sale was worth 561, gifts received were worth 38, handicrafts were worth 33, and fisheries (for sale) were worth 18.
Households spent the most money on food (300 million vatu), next on home appliances and other essentials (79 million vatu), transportation (59), education and services (56), housing (50), alcohol and tobacco (39), and clothes and footwear (17). Copra (485), kava (442), cocoa (221), beef (fresh and chilled) (180), wood (80), and fish (live fish, aquarium, shell, button) were among the exports valued at 3,038 million vatu (28). Industrial materials (4,261), food and drink (3,984), machinery (3,087), consumer products (2,767), transport equipment (2,125), fuels and lubricants (187), and other imports totaled 20,472 million vatu (4,060). There are a significant number of crop gardens – 97,888 in 2007 – with many on flat land (62 percent), slightly hilly slope (31%), and even steep slopes (7%); there were 33,570 households with at least one crop garden, and 10,788 of these households sold some of these crops over a twelve-month period.
In the early 2000s, the economy expanded at a rate of around 6%. This is greater than in the 1990s, when GDP increased by less than 3% on average.
The Asian Development Bank’s assessment on Vanuatu’s economy received mixed responses. It observed that the economy was “growing,” noting that it expanded at an outstanding 5.9 percent rate between 2003 and 2007, and praised “promising indications about government reform efforts in certain sectors,” but identified some constraining limitations such as “poor infrastructural services.” Because power is generated by a private monopoly, “electricity prices are among the highest in the Pacific” among developing nations. The study also highlighted “poor governance and invasive State initiatives” as factors reducing productivity.
In the March 2011 Euromoney Country Risk rankings, Vanuatu was rated 173rd as the safest investment location in the world. The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal rated Vanuatu as the 84th most economically free nation in 2015.