Honorary Consul to the Netherlands on Vanuatu’s tourism promotion, diplomatic relations and support of West-Papua
Elly van Vliet, the Vanuatu Honorary Consul to the Netherlands, in excursive interview for Vila Times talks about representing Vanuatu in Western Europe, why it is hard to promote Pacific island countries as a holiday destination for European tourists, financial aid and Vanuatu’s economic development potential.
‘Vanuatu decided to appoint a Honorary Consul in the Netherlands to support West-Papuan self-determination’
– Hello Mrs Van Vliet. How you became the Honorary Consul for Vanuatu in the first place?
To support West-Papuan self-determination the government of the Republic of Vanuatu decided to appoint a Honorary Consul for Vanuatu in the Netherlands. The Dutch colonized West Papua before Indonesian rule began, so there had always been a special relationship between the two countries. The main goal was to bring the matter of West Papua to the forefront in the Netherlands. Additionally, promoting tourism from the Netherlands to Vanuatu was a goal.
In 2013, I had already gone to Vanuatu three times and had become acquainted with various West-Papuans, both in Vanuatu and the Netherlands. This was what led the government of Vanuatu to approach me for this role.
In December 2013 during a trip to Vanuatu the former minister of Foreign Affairs, the late Edward Natapei, orally appointed me as Honorary Consul. It took about nine months for my formal appointment to be officially authorized. This was partly due to initial unclear intentions and procedures between the Netherlands and Vanuatu.
‘Travel agencies in Western Europe mostly focus on luxury resorts not owned by Ni-Vans’
– Tell me a bit about your work as the Honorary Consul in Netherlands
The Consulate is located in The Hague: the capital of Dutch politics. This is where parliament is located, as well as all the ministries and most embassies. Additionally, there are several international organisations that are headquartered here (ICC, Europol to name a few).
Considering the positive experiences I had gained on my travels to the outer islands, it was obvious for me to start focusing primarily on promoting tourism. I contacted a Dutch travel agency (Pacific Island Travel) which specializes in trips to the Pacific. In our preliminary meetings, it became clear that the only way the promotion of tourism to Vanuatu can be increased was if Vanuatu would partly financially support this endeavor. It also became clear to me that travel agencies in Western Europe mostly focus on luxury resorts not owned by Ni-Van.
My visits to the Outer Islands taught me that the people there live in a particularly fragile environment. With a friend we visited his hometown, Ikiti on the Isle of Tanna, where there is a chronic lack of drinkable water. I then decided to see if I could find Dutch aid in this regard considering the Netherlands’ reputation in regards to water management. I attended a seminar about water projects for developing nations. Here I began to understand that the Dutch generally only support large-scale urban projects. Understandably, this regrettably is not an option for the Outer Islands.
‘In 2015, Cyclone Pam struck. For a while I was flooded by Dutch media to comment on the state of the archipelago’
In 2015, Cyclone Pam struck. For a while I was flooded by Dutch media to comment on the state of the archipelago. The Dutch government then notified me that there would be a five hundred-thousand-euro emergency aid fund. At our visit to the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs by ambassador Joy and myself, this amount was raised by former Dutch minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation her excellency Lilianne Ploumen to 3,1 million euros. Of course both ambassador Joy and I expressed our sincere gratitude to minister Ploumen on behalf of the people of Vanuatu.
This visit was the first of considerable exchanges with the Dutch government that ambassador Joy and his team and I have had. We always emphasized that Vanuatu has a structural need of knowledge accumulation regarding many areas, such as water management, diplomacy and organized football. This has led to several Ni-Van coming to the Netherlands for short periods to take courses, among which two “Blue Diplomacy” courses at the prestigious Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
In 2017, a Dutch senior football manager trained Ni-Van football managers for a week at the Vanuatu Football Academy. This happened in accordance with the World Coach program, which is a coordinated effort between the Dutch football union (KNVB) and the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this program enhancing life skills using football stood central. The KNVB made a film documentary on this program, to be used in the World Coach presentation to other countries. The KNVB thought so much of Vanuatu that they wanted to set the documentary there even though the World Coach program has existed since 1997.
From the Consulate I have cooperated with Dutch distributor Cinemien, in anticipation of the film Tanna. This led to a special event at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in 2016 on the anniversary of Cinemien (see attachment), where the film Tanna was shown to a selected large group of guests. At this event ambassador Joy and I were guests of honour. In addition, many Ni-Van living in the Netherlands and Belgium attended the event.
One month later we attended the premier at the Dutch cinemas in Amsterdam. Before the film started, I gave a lecture with cultural anthropologist Johanna Brinkman about Vanuatu. Johanna lived in Port Vila for a while in 2014 to conduct scientific research.
International Criminal Court/ Rome Statute
Since 2011 Vanuatu has been a signatory of the Rome Statute and has also ratified it. The Assembly of States Parties (ASP) is an annual affair; New York and The Hague take turns hosting the event. The last ASP in The Hague was in November 2016. Vanuatu attended the assembly for the first time ever, represented by Minister of Justice Ronald Warsal and Attourney General Kiel Loughman. From the consulate and in close coordination with ambassador Joy we completely facilitated and supported this attendance.
Minister Warsal gave a fantastic speech for the entire assembly, where he asserted the ecological vulnerability of countries like Vanuatu in regard to climate change.
Even though Ecocide has not yet been added to as fifth crime of the Statute, Warsal’s speech was an insightful and passionate appeal for legislation to protect vulnerable countries and peoples. Much like in the matter of West Papua, Vanuatu is also an international frontrunner in this regard.
‘Over the past decades there had been several Dutch companies participating in trade with Vanuatu’
– Currently, is there any trade going on between Vanuatu and Netherlands?
At this moment there is no trade going on between Vanuatu and the Netherlands to my knowledge. I did recently get into contact with Mr Nico Klijn, an entrepreneur who exported exotic plants to Vanuatu from his growery in the Netherlands. He mentioned how over the past decades there had been several Dutch companies participating in trade with Vanuatu. However, I am not aware of any Dutch companies presently actively trading with Vanuatu, except for Pacific Island Travel.
‘The amount of travel agencies that focus on Vanuatu is very limited and only bring their clients into contact with luxury resorts’
– What about tourism? Are there any efforts to advertise Vanuatu in Europe as a holiday destination?
The amount of travel agencies that focus on Vanuatu is very limited and only bring their
clients into contact with luxury resorts. Like I said, I was already in extensive contact with Pacific Island Travel in 2014. They are only prepared to cooperate if Vanuatu lends its financial cooperation. As I have no budget of my own as consul, I did not think this would be a viable option. I did create a Facebook page for the Consulate which has gained over 1300 followers since 2014. I regularly post updates here to promote Vanuatu. Interested parties also frequently approach me on social media and I supply them with information and anything else I can.
‘Vanuatu is particularly interesting for people who want to experience a different way of living. This demographic however is quite limited and hard to reach’
– Would be interesting to know your thoughts on the potential of Vanuatu’s tourism market.
A flight from Western Europe to Vanuatu takes approximately 40 hours and is costly. This means that only a select number of Europeans will pick Vanuatu as their holiday destination. We first visited Vanuatu in 2011 as part of a trip through Vanuatu and Fiji. Being in Vanuatu and meeting Ni-Van proved so memorable that we decided to go back the next year. Since then we’ve spent a large part of every summer in Vanuatu. What makes Vanuatu so special is its extremely hospitable inhabitants, the breathtaking nature and the culture and traditional ways of life on the various islands. The contrast with our hectic Western lifestyle is enormous, so to be able to spend several weeks a year on small islands and live like the Ni-Van live, without Western comforts, broadens our horizons.
After the first two trips we stopped using a travel agency. Since first coming to Vanuatu we have been to over 20 islands. Based on our experiences I am convinced that Vanuatu is particularly interesting for people who want to experience a different way of living. This demographic however is quite limited and hard to reach with big and expensive ad campaigns. The potential for tourism in Europe to Vanuatu is relatively small. However, for inhabitants of many of the Outer Islands it can be a very interesting source of income. During our trips to the Outer Islands we frequently ran into European travelers who did not take the usual tourist route. In the past several years a few European travel shows visited Vanuatu, including Belgian “Reizen Waes” (Traveling Waes) and the Dutch “Floortje Dessing naar het einde van de wereld” (Floortje Dessing goes to the end of the world). These TV shows were very well received and consistently get high ratings (over 100.000 viewers per episode and occasional reruns). The average viewer is the more adventurous type, curious and willing to see true nature. Additionally, photographer Jimmy Nelson chose Vanuatu to make a promotional film for his photography book. Of all the countries he fantastically photographed, he came back to Vanuatu to make his film. Also, the show Globe Trekker with Ian Wright has made an episode set in Vanuatu. After the show ended, Wright commented that visiting Tanna was one of the highlights of the entire series.
I think that these shows have contributed greatly to the awareness of Vanuatu in Europe. Perhaps Vanuatu/VTO can coordinate to promote Vanuatu in this way further: look for more show makers like Tom Waes and Floortje Dessing and invite them to make documentaries about Vanuatu. Maybe VTO can link these documentaries on its own site to boost awareness.
– Are there any ni-Vanuatu in the Netherlands?
To my knowledge there is only one Ni-Van living in the Netherlands. In the past several years we have been able to welcome many Ni-Van to our house. Sometimes just for dinner, a lot of times to spend the night. For instance, the Vanuatu beach volleyball team stayed a few days in our house during the beach volleyball world championships in The Hague and Amsterdam, and one of Vanuatu’s top cricketers stayed with us for a few months as he was playing on an internship with HBS, Netherlands’ biggest cricket club.
– What kind of personal benefits one can get for being a Honorary Consul (for Vanuatu) in Europe?
There are no benefits connected to being a Honorary Consul. There is no reimbursement and I do not have a budget. Nor do I have a diplomatic passport or tax benefits from being Consul. That has never been an issue for me. I enjoy the voluntary work that comes with it. Since last year I have started working less in order to be able to put more time in my consulship. The government of the Netherlands sees me as Vanuatu’s official representative. In that sense, a Consul General and an Honorary Consul have the same diplomatic status.
‘Vanuatu has opportunities for special products in niche markets: coffee and cacao, or kava’
– What are your thoughts on the Vanuatu’s economic development potential?
The economic development potential is obviously not massive. However, there are definite opportunities for special products in niche markets: coffee and cacao, or kava. Marketing is obviously a massive factor in this as well as quality control and a certificate of origin.
‘In travel shows Vanuatu is often characterized as the world’s most dangerous country with happiest people on Earth’
– What would you say about the reputation of Vanuatu in Europe? Or it is so generally unknown the country doesn’t have a reputation per se?
It is not a country a lot of people in the Netherlands are familiar with, with exception of Dutch-Papuans; in this community, there is a strong awareness of Vanuatu and what they have done to support the West-Papuans. In travel shows Vanuatu is often characterized as the world’s most dangerous country with the world’s happiest people. When these shows talk of danger they are of course talking about cyclones, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes. Generally, Vanuatu is portrayed in a very favorable light by these shows.
The website of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands advises citizens on every country on earth. Vanuatu is mentioned as having relatively low violent crime (robberies and break ins), but it is on the rise. Also sexual violence towards women is mentioned, saying it’s not a good idea to walk the streets at night alone and that the government of Vanuatu can do more to prevent protests from escalating violently.
In my conversations at the Dutch ministry the political stability of Vanuatu was also brought up. Political stability is one of the conditions the Dutch government has for a developing nation to get aid. During these conversations, it is also my job to make sure the knowledge the Dutch government has of Vanuatu is as complete, accurate and nuanced as possible.