Ronan Harvey, owner of the largest private airport in Europe, wealthy international investor and businessman, in exclusive interview for Vila Times talks about his experience doing business in Vanuatu, what made him decide to sell his property and leave the country, and why so many other investors have left Vanuatu in recent years.
‘I was the fifth largest investor in Vanuatu’
Hi Ronan! If I understand right, several years ago you have been one of the largest investors in Vanuatu. And also one of the most famous international businessmen to invest in Vanuatu. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a former RAF engineer. I started my first company in 1983, and now own substantial holdings in education, sales and distribution businesses, as well as aviation and property. My principal holding is Cotswold Airport – the largest privately owned licensed airport facility in Europe.
I purchased Western Pacific Cattle Co. Ltd in 2008, just before the Global Financial Crisis. My intention was to establish a functioning plantation producing organic products. Plans developed for a resort and subdivision, however that was before I became dissatisfied with the situation in Vanuatu.
Back then I was the fifth largest investor in Vanuatu.
I was spending roughly a million US dollars a year on the redevelopment (and lifestyle) locally. I have documents to attest this, and VIPA officials will be able to ratify these facts.
‘Business investors that remain in Vanuatu are there due to debt’
But at some point you have decided to sell your property and leave?
Based on my knowledge, every significant (non-Chinese) investor has left Vanuatu or is leaving.
On Santo those are: Marc Henon (Ratua Island), me (Velit Bay), Anthony Welch (Lataro Island), Torq McLeod (Turtle Bay), Matt Yates (Turtle Bay resort), Colin Cashmore (Oyster Island & Mount Hope plantation). And this is just Santo. I can count 50 investors nationally who have departed in the last 3 years.
But clearly there are some significant (or relatively significant) investors still doing business in the country. Even without mentioning Chinese investors.
Let me be clear: the business investors that remain in Vanuatu are there due to debts. Trapped by high interest rates (8-12%), they have in many cases mortgaged Australian properties to fund their lifestyle decision. There is no way out, other than bankruptcy.
I don’t believe anyone on Santo actually makes a profit, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence! Every property on Santo is offered for sale.
Is it really this bad?
I was at Velit Bay for six years, and none of the expat managers employed there lasted more than a year. A couple just walked off, unable to cope with the continual harassment, threats, and intimidation by local thugs.
It seems that Chinese investors keep coming to Vanuatu, and they don’t really plan to leave.
Chinese investors are filling the void left by the departing “western” investors. The difference is that funds generated from operations in Vanuatu are exclusively shipped back to China, or say Australia as a mechanism to achieve residency. Nothing stays in Vanuatu, nothing is spent locally. And the levels of criminal activity around Chinese operations are legion.
Are you aware of the Chinese whore houses operating in Port Vila? The government is turning a blind eye it seems.
But you can’t say that all Chinese investors are doing things this way. There are some “clean” and independent (not connected with Chinese government) investors originally from China, trying to do things as transparent as possible, in line with all rules and regulations, even the most ridiculous ones, and for the benefit of Vanuatu as a whole.
Nothing wrong with Chinese investments or services. The problem is the criminal Chinese element setting out its stall in Port Vila in particular, and the China’s government. In due course People’s Republic of China will ultimately control Vanuatu and other Pacific island groups.
‘50 key investors left Vanuatu back in 2014, myself included. Due to security issues primarily, but also due to the attitude of government departments towards investors generally’
So the main reason for investors to leave, in your opinion, is the government? Or activities of other people, who are not part of the government?
50 key investors left Vanuatu back in 2014, myself included. Due to security issues primarily, but also due to the attitude of government departments towards investors generally. Ni-Vanuatu think they can “do it alone.” They simply can not. The skill set just doesn’t exist within the populace and, in all likelihood, never will.
I’ve been in business for 30 years. I own the largest privately owned airport in Europe and other substantial international companies: Polydron, Nexus TEC, etc. I could go on. Vanuatu exhibits an arrogance and myopia I’ve never seen anywhere else. All I can say is – good luck, they are going to need it when China gets its hooks in.
So, as I understand, now you have another investment project in New Zealand, right?
We are building a substantial hangar in New Zealand, which is coming close to completion. NZ is a great place to fly vintage planes. And none of the CAAV (Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu) bullshit we had been getting from Joseph Niel [CAAV Director].
In the UK at Cotswold Airport we are installing a 5 megawatt solar power installation. You might check out our annual Airport scholarship, I was working towards getting a couple of Ni-Vanuatu kids over for an extended training interval. Everyone loses when corruption and lawlessness dominates.
Read more stories and interviews with former and current Vanuatu investors in Vila Times.
Reminder: the opinion of the person interviewed may be incoincident with the opinion of Vila Times’ editors.