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 laborers, 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 greatly reduced compared to 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 in Parliament.
In 1980, amidst the brief Coconut War, the indepdendent 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. New elections have been called for several times since 1997, most recently in 2004.
European settlers released several saltwater crocodiles on the island, although today's population on the island officially stands at 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 300mm per month - for the rest of the year around 200mm 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 2,000mm.
Cyclones are a 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.
Tourism peaks in the months of July to December. The months of January to June are the 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.
The months of January to June are a little more humid, but cooled by the occasional tropical down pour. The added bonus is that in this period, tourism numbers are low. You have more opportunities to mingle with locals and carelessly do your own thing instead of being rushed by the crowd (except when cruise ships are in Port).
The 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.
A long list of countries are exempted from visas , which includes all Commonwealth and European Economic Community 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.
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.
The main international airport is in Port-Vila with flights to and from:
There are a few charter airlines, these are Unity Airlines, Sea Air and Air Safaries, however the national airline Air Vanuatu operates the domestic network.
In Port Vila the buses are mini vans 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. Fare is calculated per taxi.
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 book shops: '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 2000 speakers per language. All of these vernacular languages belong to the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian family.
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 please 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 (makes sense). Shooting an exploding volcano at night calls for min 800 asa setting and a tripod is essential for good images.
The local currency is the Vatu (VT). (It's ISO 4217 Code is VUV.) As of August 2009, 100VT is worth approximately 1USD, 1.20AUD, 1.50NZD or 0.70EUR . There are notes for 200 VT, 500 VT, 1000 VT, and 5000 VT, while coins include 1, 2, 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 8:30AM to 3PM.
Tipping is not expected in Vanuatu, nor is haggling or bargaining. It is not expected nor the custom to tip, 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 the White Man 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 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. Plenty of kids here! We naturally don't recommend lollies and the like as it only encourages junk food dependency plus giving cash to local men may often be spent at the Kava bar and of no benefit to his family. If you have to give cash, ensure it is given to women, preferably mothers who generally control the family budget. The introduction of Poker machines has certainly not helped the situation considering these places are for the most part frequented by local people (mostly men) who can ill afford to waste their small wages in this way.
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 vatu range, depending on where and what you eat. Some examples of prices:
The traditional dish which you will most likely be offered once during your stay is a root vegetable cake called lap lap. Essentially this either manioc (kasava), 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 vatu.
This is a variation of lap lap with the 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 region. At the airports you will see signs reminding you to pack the 25kg of meat permitted to other nearby island nations. The reason the meat's so good is that it's all naturally grown, with no feedlots or other problems of westernised mass production. The result of this is that the steaks are very good indeed.
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 travellers 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.
Alcoholic beverages are also widely available. Resorts, bars, and restaurants serving tourists have a wide range of drinks available. The local beers are called "Tusker" and "Vanuatu Bitter".
There is a choice of all levels of accommodation.
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.
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:
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.
Port Vila is, on the whole, a very safe and friendly environment. You are unlikely to encounter any trouble unless you do something extremely provocative.
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.
Tap water in Port Vila is clean and potable, but is best avoided elsewhere. Doctors used to treating common traveller problems are available in Port-Vila. Any more serious problems may require some form of medical evacuation.
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.
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.
Revealing and sexy clothing (especially wearing beach wear 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. We do suggest that you bring all year round: Easy to hand wash, practical tropical wardrobe such as light cotton summer clothes; a ‘sloppy joe' pullover; light weight waterproof wind jacket. If planning to go to the outer islands, bring a good torch (with spare batteries, you will use them!), lightweight, walking shoes, sandals for wet weather or good thongs (flip flops/croks) and old clothes
Tip: 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 and never knowing who really receives these (if they ever do...), 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:
"How long it takes to get there?" would be a better question...however, refer to the previous point for instructions.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or with the new player's Digicel, giving Telecom some overdue competition. Digicel have made themselves very visible, and can be found everywhere. They have a bunch of different cheap plans for you.
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.