Tahnia Cook, managing owner of Le Life Resort and founder of the first of its kind in Vanuatu Colour Festival, talks about her experience of managing tourism business in Vanuatu and recovering after Cyclone Pam, while sharing her views on the future of local tourism.
‘Tourism Department won’t promote northern side of Efate’
– Tahnia, you are the secretary of the North Efate Tourism Association. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
It’s all about the local products. Being the only expat in the community and having a resort there, I’m willing to help the rest of them, but it’s just about promoting people to come there to the other side [of the island].
So my role is more creative. Just thinking outside of the box, helping them with the marketing, helping them with their products as well, sometimes improving that, getting it out there.
I organised a retreat at our place last month, so we all got together, did a teambuilding event with all the members, stayed in tents, did a massive brainstorm on North Efate.
Because you have all the tourists that come to Vanuatu, and they just come to Port Vila, and no one travels around, maybe just 10% or something.
And that’s because the Tourism Department won’t necessarily promote the other side of the island, because the locals don’t have insurance, and so the Tourism Department don’t want to promote it. Plus, there is also massive thing going on – they won’t recognise our Association, even though we are registered association. They only recognise VHRA and only promote that – all their products, all those big resorts.
And I hate that, because when tourists come to Vanuatu, they want real Vanuatu. They want to have local experiences, meet people from Vanuatu, and not to go to VIP-resorts, but that’s all they can find. And when they see our place, they say something like: we didn’t know you guys are here, we didn’t know this was here, we didn’t know there was anything on this side of the island, because no one told us.
And I say: well, that’s because they can’t tell you. Because products are underinsured, or because the Tourism Department don’t want to know about local products. There are connections and politics going on the higher level.
So little guys just get neglected out there. That’s why we are trying to do things ourselves. We are doing marketing with Air Vanuatu, we are making a video for planes. And just trying very-very slowly to do other stuff. As a whole team we will all go to Tok Tok this year, and promote our products out there, but it’s just so hard. It’s really hard just to let people know about our little products. We have beautiful cascades, and waterfalls, hot springs and caves, the best beaches, the best snorkeling, and all the stuff on that side of the island.
And the locals just sit on their bums and don’t know how to market themselves. If people do drive around [that part of the island], they just drive straight past all this great stuff, and they don’t know it’s there.
So that’s what my role is. Basic admin and secretarial work, and about promotion and marketing as well.
– How long have you been owning a resort?
We had it before Cyclone Pam, and then Pam wiped us out completely, we lost everything. I did a lot of work for the disaster relief, and then we have rebuilt. A lot of people still think we are closed after Pam.
And that’s the other reason I am doing the event [Colour Festival], because people still think everything is devastated out there. So I’m saying: northern part is bigger and better that ever before. So come over here!
My dad started it first, and then myself and my sister partnered with him on this business, and once I have got behind, we really started doing the promotion and marketing. We have just taken off. We have the full occupancy all the time, we are really busy. We have got a really good name for ourselves, we have the best reviews.
People who are coming here have a really wonderful stay, don’t have to spend too much money, and have really authentic and genuine Vanuatu experience with all the fluffs and the thrills. Some might come sleep in one of that tents, some prefer to come sleep in one of the bungalows. Drink kava with locals every afternoon. Go to their villages in the back of the truck.
We have a lot of land. We’ve got a reef in front of us, the river, and then the rain forest behind us. So we just incorporate that in everything we do, as well as the locals. We are just one big family. Everything we do is about joining the locals with tourists; making those connections, introducing them, not keeping them in the bubble. The ones that come and stay in the bubble are not our kind of tourists. We want the ones that go out, want to see what’s there, meet new people. And when guests come to us, we introduce them all, and then we end up all eating together and doing everything together anyway.
‘We never saw any help from the government after TC Pam’
– You mentioned the time when TC Pam went through Vanuatu. Tell us a bit about your experience back then.
We lost everything. I was in Australia at the time of cyclone. And that’s when I went to TV a few times, with couple of TV stations. Channel 9 flew me here to go and see the resort and its devastation. It was completely demolished.
Three of us, we did the medical aid. I came few days after Pam, and it was months and months before we saw any relief or help. We probably treated over one thousand people on that side of the island medically. We were also just feeding everyone. And it was like living in the desert, because you come back to everything being dead. Every tree was flattened, every building was flattened, and we were living on tinned tomatoes and rice for good couple of months.
We started rebuilding, and it probably took us about 18 months to rebuilt. So it was very tiring. Having no income during that time, no insurance to get covered. So you rebuilding completely from scratch, still trying to give locals work while you have no business, that was really important for us as well.
But we survived. And now we’re on top of the world again!
– But the government and international organisations were helping you a lot at that time, right?
A lot of stuff were going on there. It was really scary time, because we had a lot of locals turn on each other, we had some people trying to get money from us or steal things, because they lost everything as well. When you have no money and no food, that’s when survival instincts kick in.
We never saw any help from the government. No help or financial assistance or any of that. No help from all the NGOs as well. I think just Red Cross came once or twice with water. We were telling them that we’ve got water, cause we had a lot of water, we just needed food and medical supplies, we needed housing for people, and all this sort of stuff, and it was just non existent. So it was really hard time. It’s a miracle that everyone survived on that side of the island, there were no fatalities. It’s amazing.
– And now, in 2017, you see a lot of positive changes and improvements, compared to the time after Pam? You think tourism sector fully recovered?
I think it’s getting better, but very slowly. And I think it’s still going to be a long ride until it comes back to full recovery of what it was back in 2013. In the end of the day people still trying to survive and keep businesses going. The tourism market is still short, it’s not really good. Not considering how many people are visiting other South Pacific islands.
And that’s why we need to be active. So many expats just sit around, and they get tired, and they get depressed. Instead we need to be proactive, and actually change the marketing, get new strategies, diversify our offers, spend some money on promotion. Then we will be able to recover and grow.