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Film-maker Mike Bhana: Vanuatu Not Ready For a Massive Growth in Tourism

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Mike Bhana, film-maker who created a number of successful TV shows for National Geographic, Discovery and other major channels, in exclusive interview for Vila Times, talks about the new travel show called Journey, his experience filming in Vanuatu for decades, the Pacific tourism market growth potential, and why Vanuatu should concentrate on developing the elite tourism opportunities instead of mainstream segments.


‘The majority of travelers are looking for something more. More than experience’


Hi Mike! So you specifically came here in Vanuatu to present your new TV show?


It is more than just a new show as well. I have been working in the Pacific for 25 years. And one of the things we often come across is that it’s very difficult to get good quality footage on different islands. Also from the news point of view, it is very difficult for news outlets to access high quality images and high quality video for that purpose. And over those years it has been one of those things that I always wanted to improve.

We have been filming the Fish of the Day project for over the last two years. The show is not so much a hardcore fishing show, as it is a travel destination show. So we travel destinations and take the tourism opportunities.

From there the idea of Journey show came out. We know that people are genuinely interested in travel shows, there is a great market for it. Broadcasters are very keen, but we wanted to do something a bit different. Because travel shows that exist currently are all about the places. You can stay at the hotel, try some local food, visit landmarks. We wanted to do something a bit different.

I come here in the Pacific every year as a storyteller, find stories and tell them. But I always get more stories than I can ever tell. And what makes each one of these places in Pacific unique, are the people, culture, history. The Hero experiences that tourists can’t normally hear when they come to these places.

So what we wanted to do is to structure up a new show that is more about finding out what the essence of each destination is, trying to get what makes it unique and different. Because that’s what most travelers are searching for. They are looking for a connection.

The majority of people are looking for something more. More than experience. And that is what Journey is going to be about.

And on the back of that, we are going to be making so much content during the creation of the show, while on location. So we want to create a client-based library system, a content for all the Pacific islands. And we don’t want the Pacific islands to pay for that. We got people from the programs that we make currently to take care of that, and part of coming here was to get Pacific countries Tourism Offices support, so we could go on their behalf and start to build this product.



‘There is a potential for a lot more tourists to come to the Pacific’


So tell me more about this Journey show. How it going to be different from other travel shows around?


The idea is that we would have a presenter, and he would be going in a journey. And journey is to come to Vanuatu, and find out what makes Vanuatu unique. So he might arrive here in Port Vila, and if he has heard about the hero experience in Tanna, he travels to Tanna, sits down with the elders in the village and discusses culture, and history, and what makes it unique. And he might take a journey up to the volcano, because it is one of the few places in the world where you can stand at the edge of the volcano. And then his journey might take him to the North, up to Pentecost, where he talks again to the people in the villages about their culture. So that is how we pictured Journey working. Looking at both hero experiences and having opportunity to go and find those stories, talk to people, find out what is unique.



You have been here in Vanuatu before, right?


Many, many times. I have started coming here in the early 90s, we used to make the Air Vanuatu in-flight videos in the early 90s, we made a couple of fishing shows here through the 90s, I made two documentaries here, one for National Geographic and one for Discovery. And I have always had a connection with this place, it is very special to me.



‘I see a huge increase in elite tourism opportunities’


What is your general impression of Vanuatu compared to other destinations in the Pacific? Some people say they are not so different from each other, from the tourism point of view.


I think they are. And I think that is what we want to show. The thing about tourism at the moment, specifically about small islands, is they just don’t have infrastructure to have a lot more tourists. Not yet. They are not ready for it. But there is a potential for a lot more tourists to come to the Pacific. So we need to manage that. And the best way to manage that is to make sure that the quality of tourism, the quality of experience is high.

In case of Vanuatu for instance. You got some really unique things here. Most travelers who come here, they haven’t experienced things that Vanuatu has to offer – volcanoes, President Coolidge, Pentecost. Those are the type of product that you can sell, something that makes Vanuatu different.

It’s about selling those individual things on each island. The diversity of culture is absolutely spectacular. So every place is different, and has its own history, and I think those stories, about where they come from, are really interesting to people.

There are so many stories to be told here. Are if you tell them right, everyone will be engaged.



‘None of the islands in the Pacific can afford to have a massive growth in tourism right now’



You said you have been coming in Vanuatu since 90s. Have you noticed a lot of changes here in recent years?


I think there are a lot of changes happening. Just in the last four-five years, what I have seen when I come here is a huge increase in elite tourism opportunities. Top end boutique lodges, a lot are in Santo. I was up there in December, didn’t know half of those places existed.

So there is a lot of boutique development going on, and that’s good, because their target segment is high yield travelers. Those are the sort of people who come and spend a lot of money locally, and a lot of that money goes right back to the villages. So yeah, I think there are a lot of changes going on.

Like I said, none of the islands in the Pacific can afford to have a massive growth in tourism right now, because they don’t physically have an infrastructure for it. But what we can do, we can make sure that we offer different and high quality experiences. And that’s how we sell each one of these places, by being different. Most people who came to Vanuatu will come back, because the experience is always good.

And that is because of the people, not the hotel. You can find good modern hotels anywhere in the Pacific.

That’s the point of difference in each one of these places. In every place the people are different. And the thing about the Pacific is – people here are the friendliest people on the planet.



So you think the elite segment of the tourism market has the biggest potential for development in Vanuatu?


I think there is growth across the board. We are going to see a huge increase in cruise ships coming through the Pacific. Not necessarily a lot more in terms of the numbers, but the size of the ships is dramatically changing. And that puts huge pressure on the tourist operators. Because instead of having a thousand people turn up, you have two or three thousand people in one time, in one place. That is a real challenge for the smaller islands to deal with.

We are going to see a major increase in the number of tourists from Asia coming to the Pacific. And those visitors who come here, they are going to be more adventurous. They are not going to be the group-popping types, they are going to be middle-upper class Chinese who are going to look for a family adventure that is just a little bit off the beaten track. And that’s where these sort of little luxury lodges and smaller places around the islands are going to be very successful, if they will make sure they can provide these kind of experiences.