Pascal Guillet on promoting Vanuatu as a tourism destination, remote islands and Air Vanuatu
Pascal Guillet, the Vanuatu Ecotours founder and independent tour coach, in this exclusive interview for Vila Times says remote islands is the future of tourism in Vanuatu, the Department of Tourism should promote inland activities and local people more, while the Government needs to encourage filming crews around the world to do more TV productions in Vanuatu.
– Hello Pascal. Could you tell me a bit about yourself?
I arrived to Vanuatu in 1992 from Morocco. I had been working in Morocco for four years and after that applied to work here in the French Embassy’s school. I was a sports teacher when I came here, so I have spent eight years at the French Embassy’s school in Port Vila. After that I moved to the Vanuatu Teachers College.
And after that I had been working for the Ministry of Education as an adviser. And when my contract was finished, in the end of 2004, I opened my own business – Vanuatu Ecotours – that I still have now, around 15 years.
‘A lot of people believe tourist business is easy, but it’s not easy at all’
– How you came up with the idea of Vanuatu Ecotours?
When I was a sports teacher I had been organising such tours for my students and my friends from Alliance Française for free. All kinds of sports activities, walking, rafting and other outdoor activities. So I have always been involved in all kinds of outdoor activities, and when I finished my contract I asked myself: “what can I do here”? Maybe I could do a business using my knowledge and my experience since I know the custom land owners and farmers on Efate. So I asked them if I could pass through their lands, and they said I am welcome.
And then slowly, step by step, I have built by business. Since the start I have been offering walking tours, cycling tours, river kayaking and private waterfalls tours – Lololima. It is located inside the private property that belongs to the Catholic church. I have the key and I can drive through or walk through that land and the waterfalls. So we offer quite a number of different activities.
‘There is a big gap in attitude between Vanuatu and Western countries’
– Nowadays how many different tours you offer?
It is different every week. A lot of people believe this kind of business is easy, but it’s not easy at all. It’s a lot of competition. Since 2015, after the TC Pam and runway problems the number of tourists is going down. Last two years in was harder than before.
But I feel very confident about the future.
‘Port Vila is not Vanuatu. If you want to go and discover Vanuatu, you need to go outside of Port Vila’
– Why is that?
The people in Vanuatu are very friendly. When I do my tours tourists love local people. There is a big gap in attitude between Vanuatu and Western countries, so that’s one of the things people really like in here.
I always promote the remote islands of Vanuatu. Port Vila is not Vanuatu. If you want to go and discover Vanuatu, you need to go outside of Port Vila. But it’s not far – you drive just ten minutes, start walking in the bush and see a completely different life. That is real Vanuatu.
There are two completely different markets. We have Port Vila with big resorts, swimming pools and everything else but if you are interested to see the real Vanuatu and meet locals you have to go outside. Of course you can go to one of the islands – Malekula, Tanna, Gaua. And that would be an amazing experience.
I feel confident because these tourist experiences are truly amazing. I am very lucky, I travel a lot and every time I realise that the potential of Vanuatu is huge.
‘For me the future of tourism in Vanuatu is the remote islands’
For me the future of tourism in Vanuatu is the remote islands. Because if you come here and stay in the resort in Port Vila you are in competition with Fiji, New Caledonia and other destinations in the Pacific. It’s quite the same island holiday experience everywhere – nice resort, big swimming pool, good food. You can do this all around the world.
But if you go to Pentecost, and I have just come back from Pentecost, been there for five days walking tour, that is unique. Because you can talk to locals directly. If you go to Asia you would need a middle man, a translator. But here in Vanuatu you can interact with locals directly. That is amazing. And then, there are no dangerous animals or plants so it’s safe.
So for all these reasons when you go to a remote island in Vanuatu you have very real and very exciting experience.
‘Now 80-90% of all tourists stay only in Port Vila’
– What is the share of tourists visiting the remote islands nowadays?
Now 80-90% of all tourists stay only in Port Vila. Only 10 to 20% visit remote islands, and most of them go to Tanna for one or two days, or for two-three days to Santo. Other islands don’t have many tourists.
But in the future, if we develop that with Air Vanuatu and the Department of Tourism, Vanuatu could become a very successful destination. It is a very good niche. We will not have 1 million tourists per year – in Fiji they expect to reach that number per year very soon, we can not reach this amount. But it is not a problem, in my opinion it is better to look for quality, which is a rich experience and respect to customs. So we will have maybe several thousand tourists in that niche every year, but good and interesting tourists.
I feel confident for the future of Vanuatu because these things will not change. There are no dangerous animals at the remote islands, and people there are completely different. This is an other life. Every time we go there 100% of my guests have the same response. They say it is unbelievable and amazing. So I always have very positive feedback.
– Where your tourists usually come from?
60% from Australia, 20% from New Zealand, 10% from New Caledonia. And the other 10% from all over the world. Mainly it’s Australians of course.
‘My guests are people who want an experience’
– Younger or older?
We don’t have many young people, it is too expensive for them. Most of my guests are around 40-50-60 years old. They have traveled a lot before around the world or just around the Pacific. And here they want to discover something different. They don’t want to stay in the resort for the whole week. Those are my guests, people who want an experience. I have some younger people as well, and couples. Sometimes they stay at the resort, and they want to have an adventure for couple days or they want to do something active to stay fit – a cycling tour or a walking tour.
But the feedback is always very good. And that is important for marketing, because we are short of money compared to big countries, like Australia and New Zealand, even Fiji or Indonesia. We can not compete. It is quite expensive to buy an advertising in newspapers, TV or other media. But the feedback is very good, and now there is a new space for marketing – Internet.
– So how you market your tours mostly?
I am not very good at marketing, that’s the reason why I don’t have that many tourists. I own a small business and don’t want to have many-many tourists. Actually I don’t care that much. I enjoy my life in Vanuatu, so happy here, even after 25 years. I’m not trying to have ten tourists per day. I really enjoy what I’m doing, and I think this is the most important. I have my fliers in every resort around Port Vila. So when a tourist stays in a resort he has a choice of activities, and Port Vila is so good from that point of view.
– Oh really, you think so?
Yes. We have more than 60 different activities here. From helicopter to jet ski, to baggy, to village tours and custom lands.
‘High prices is a problem. This is not a cheap destination compared to Asia or even Fiji’
– Yes, but all of those are the same with activities in other similar destinations, they are overpriced and poorly managed.
That’s true, but here you have everything, within a small town. High prices is a problem. This is not a cheap destination compared to Asia or even Fiji.
‘Department of Tourism should promote the inland activities more, and the people’
– So what you think about the current promotion of Vanuatu as a tourism destination?
In my personal opinion the Department of Tourism should promote the inland activities more, and the people. Because beaches, snorkeling, diving – you can do all that in many places, we are in competition with Fiji, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, French Polynesia. Even with Australia. But if we market local people, inland activities, that would make Vanuatu stand out. Because if you go to Australia, with snakes, spiders and everything else, you can’t do what we can do here. And we have volcanoes here. So we can promote a lot of inland activities, interaction with people, the culture. That is quite unique.
But I think now people in the Department of Tourism understand those things. After twenty years they have much more experience, they travel all around the world and have feedback from tourists.
That’s the reason why I am so confident in the future of tourism in Vanuatu. We have so many things to offer. You can do a full day of tracking and then have amazing diving or snorkeling, you can have massage. So you have a mix. Because if you go to Fiji on a small island you would only be able to relax and swim, nothing else. But in Vanuatu at the same place you can do everything.
So the problem is more about us not having enough money to spread the message about Vanuatu and what it has to offer. And the tourists who come to Port Vila, they don’t know about places like Malekula or Ambrym. But as soon as they know and go there, their feedback is amazing.
‘Our program is specially designed to develop tours and activities in remote islands’
– And you also participate in the development of the remote islands tourism?
Now we have more products, we develop our offers in the islands. This is a part of DFAT program, funded by Australian High Commission. Our program is specially designed to develop tours and activities in remote islands. So they have employed me as a tour coach because since 2012 I have another business as a consultant. I started with Malekula, developing tours, and then I moved to Ambrym, Santo, Gaua, Tanna and other islands. So being a coach under the DFAT program is the reason why I am lucky to go and visit the remote islands often, every month.
Under this program our intention is to help indigenous people to develop their tours or to create new tours. To make the destination more attractive for tourists. In Malekula before we started with this program most tourists stayed only one day, just to see a custom dance. Now you can stay in Malekula for one week or even two weeks, you have so many things to do.
– What do they offer there?
They offer a four days package – this is like a “survival” tour, where you move from one island to another. There is also something we call coast to coast hiking, when you cross from the East coast of the island to the West coast. So you can spend four days in Central Malekula, three days in the North of Malekula, two or three more days elsewhere. We also have two or three different islands where you can stay for a day for snorkeling or swimming, completely alone at very nice sandy beaches, we have very nice custom dances, cannibal sites, waterfalls. So there are so many activities. Even in Malekula you can stay for the whole two weeks!
– So how much would it be for a tourist to stay in Malekula for let’s say a week?
Well, the price would depend from your accommodation and what you want to do there. You can go to malekula.travel web-site and see it yourself. There is a list of available accommodation, the list of tours and everything else.
The average price for accommodation on the remote islands would be around 3000 vatu per person, including one night and three meals. That’s quite an affordable price. The transport would be quite expensive, but if you walk or ride a bicycle than you would not need to pay for transport.
Air Vanuatu flights are a bit expensive. We have to work on that with Air Vanuatu. If they want to develop the remote islands they need to do something with prices. Another problem with Air Vanuatu is – when you travel from overseas to Vanuatu you allowed to bring 20 or 30 kilos of luggage, but when you go to Pentecost or Tanna you can only bring up to 10 kilos. This is a small thing, but it makes quite a big difference. If you come to Vanuatu with your suitcase and then you want to go to Gaua or Malekula you can not bring it with you, so you have to pay extra, which is not fair. These small details sometimes are very important.
If we want more tourists in the remote islands, we need to do things. It’s not so much about talking or marketing. Sometimes tourists come to Port Vila, and they want to go to the remote island, but due to that maximum luggage requirement they decide just to stay on Efate.
– And they don’t have flights every day, right?
It is almost every day. It is more about the baggage allowance and of course the price. Because going to Fiji for example is less expensive that going to Santo. So a lot of even local expats choose to go to Fiji for holidays.
We can not do much about prices. The price for accommodation and meals in remote islands is very fair, I think. The price of Air Vanuatu tickets is something that should be changed, especially since the airline is owned by the Government.
Now we have a good level of accommodation and tours at the remote islands, but we are short of tourists. The local tour guides and accommodation managers need to practice. And if you have only couple tourists per month you can not practice what you have learned at the workshop.
Now we need to spend a lot of time and efforts on marketing. Because the product is ready – accommodation, tours, transport – everything is ready, but we are short of tourists. They need to have tourists every week so that the customer service would improve, and maybe the price could go down a little bit.
‘We have to develop remote islands because Port Vila now is overcrowded’
– So now they don’t even have tourists on a weekly basis?
It depends from the island. Some places like Ambrym and Tanna do have tourists every week. But most of the remote islands do not have tourists every week.
And that’s the future. We have to develop remote islands because Port Vila now is overcrowded.
‘Every year I travel, and when I get back to Vanuatu I realise that the potential really is huge’
– What are the main mistakes in Vanuatu’s tourism marketing nowadays?
When you are in your office it is hard to understand the business and the marketing. Because you are sitting behind a computer. But when you are in the field talking to tourists you can feel what their expectations are. Every day I talk to tourists and ask them questions. So I think after fifteen years I have a data base, and I know what they want to experience.
– And that would be the remote islands kind of experience?
Not for everyone. Some people come here just to relax. They work hard in Australia and want just a week of relaxation sitting at the beach. That’s fine. We can offer this kind of holiday, but we can offer more as well. Because if they just want to relax around the pool they can go to Fiji, they can go to Bali. But if they want a mix of relaxation, comfort and adventure – we can do everything. And you don’t need to travel for many hours for that. Like in New Caledonia – you can do it, but you need to travel at least two-three hours from your resort, while in Vanuatu it’s 15 minutes.
And I travel a lot myself, so I can compare. I work in America, in Africa, in Europe. Every year I travel, and when I get back to Vanuatu I realise that the potential really is huge. I have been to Fiji, to New Caledonia many times, to PNG, Solomon Islands, Palau, French Polynesia. We can do more here, we have much more to offer. Good customer service, good price, good resorts. That’s the reason why I am so confident in Vanuatu.
‘Because we are short of money, we should promote Vanuatu with TV productions’
And because we are short of money I think we should promote Vanuatu with TV productions. This year I had been working four times with different TV productions. And last year in Fiji 74 different TV productions had been done. 74. With a lot of people in filming crews. And people around the world know Fiji because of all these TV productions. But when you talk about Vanuatu in Europe or America they don’t know where it is.
So that’s about what we can do – more TV productions. This is something the government should be promoting instead of asking for money. Because now you have to pay 300,000 vatu to the Vanuatu Cultural Center to get the filming authorization even for one day of shooting. In New Caledonia it is free, in Fiji – I don’t know, it is either free or very cheap. But here you have to pay for accommodation, you pay for your flight, you pay for the excess baggage, because you need to bring a lot of baggage for shooting, and you still need to pay 300,000 vatu fee for the filming authorization.
‘TV productions is something the government should be promoting instead of asking for money’
Instead of trying to squeeze as much as possible from those film crews that do come here, Vanuatu Government should encourage them to come – offer free tickets, free accommodation. And then instead of having ten TV productions per year with two people in each crew we can have one hundred. TV productions, documentaries will give Vanuatu a lot of free marketing everywhere. This is another small thing that is very important.
Nowadays some filing crews want to come to Vanuatu, but because of this attitude on the government level – “this is TV, they are white people – they must pay” – they choose to go to Fiji instead. And when you turn your TV in the most productions about the Pacific you only see Fiji, or French Polynesia. So where you go for a holiday? To Fiji or French Polynesia.
What is important here as well – how many people are coming in the filming crew. Two years ago I was doing my best to promote Vanuatu for a TV channel in Canada. They had 70 people crew about to come. But when they saw all the fees – immigration fee, labour fee, filming fee – they went to Fiji. 70 people, can you imagine? The number of taxis they would need, the accommodation, food and everything else. That would make a very good income for the country. And free advertising all around the world. The documentary done by some channel let’s say in England will be viewed all around the Commonwealth countries. What a great promotion that would be!