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Vanuatu feeling the pinch as coronavirus pandemic keeps tourists away

By Catherine Graue, Sunday July 12, 2020 - 05:11 EST
ABC licensed image
The coronavirus pandemic has seen island resorts in Vanuatu left completely empty. - ABC licensed

With school holidays in Australia, Vanuatu's picturesque beaches and turquoise waters would normally be busy with tourists at this time of year — but due to the coronavirus pandemic, they're empty.

"Tourism has been decimated here," Liz Pechan from The Havannah Vanuatu, a five-star resort on the island of Efate, told the ABC.

"I was shocked for a little while, I think I was a bit dumbfounded: like how can this happen, how can the world just stop?"

Like the vast majority of hotels, Ms Pechan currently has no bookings, and more than 30 staff have already been let go.

Tens of thousands of workers in the country's tourism industry are believed to have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

"There was a lot of tears from both those who were staying and those who were leaving," Ms Pechan said.

"We're very connected with our community, and it was very tough to look someone in eyes and say, 'Look, I'm really sorry I've had to make this decision, it's not because I want to make this decision.'"

The Vanuatu Government has promised its biggest stimulus package ever to try soften the blow, and at 4.2 billion vatu ($52 million), it's considered to be one of the largest in the Pacific on per capita basis.

But people say they are yet to receive any of the relief payments promised for those who have lost work.

Selling homemade donuts to get by

Twenty-three-year-old Gideon Rambe lost his job as a pizza chef at another exclusive island resort. Four months on, he's still without formal work.

"They said to me now we are closed, because Government are approving now no more flights for planes coming to Vanuatu," Mr Rambe said.

Instead, he wakes up at 3:00am each morning and works seven days a week, selling homemade donuts, called kato locally.

He said he was making enough to get by, and was saving up to buy a pizza oven so he could open his own take away business.

But he said dozens of his former colleagues were not doing as well.

"Some of them don't do anything," Mr Rambe said.

"I talk to them ... 'I'm at home, I do kato. If you want, I will teach you and show you.'"

"I tell them, you must work hard! When the resort is not open, we try to do something."

'I need to keep my family going'

It's not just those directly employed by resorts and hotels who are suffering.

"It's quite challenging. It's tough on us, for me," said Joslyn Garae Lulu, the proprietor of a successful small handicrafts business.

She said her enterprise had been destroyed by the international border closures, which have kept tourists out of Vanuatu.

"Whatever I have in stock, I can't sell them because we don't have customers anymore," she said.

"I'm a widow, I need to keep my family going, my kids need to go to school, and we need food."

Ms Lulu said she had seen nothing of the income payments that were promised for people who had lost work due to the pandemic.

"Whatever savings we had, we used up," she said.

"They promised us a stimulus package, but now as we are speaking, there's nothing yet."

Double disaster means stimulus can't last forever

Vanuatu's Finance Minister Johnny Koanapo said he was happy with how his Government has handled the growing economic crisis.

"It's over 4.2 billion vatu [in stimulus] that we've rolled out. I'm satisfied with the way it's going, although this is the first time ever we're running this stimulus package," he said.

He confirmed the Government would extend the income support through July, but admitted they wouldn't be able to afford it beyond that.

Cyclone Harold, , left Vanuatu with a mammoth damage bill of about 28 billion vatu ($350 million).

"The stimulus package, in particular the employment stabilisation package that's going out, it's not something you can sustain over time, especially with the uncertainty that's hanging over us," Mr Koanapo said.

"You don't know when COVID is going to finish, so we're switching policy on that in the coming weeks and months."

He said the aim of that switch was to make Vanuatu more self-sufficient, focusing on food security and bolstering the local agriculture sector — an area that has come under unprecedented pressure due to both Cyclone Harold and the global coronavirus pandemic.

The natural disaster damaged local food production, while the virus has interrupted imports of vital foodstuffs.

"It's just the tough reality that this country's faced with — it's a beautiful country, but we're faced with a lot of these natural disasters that keep affecting our economy," Mr Koanapo said.

"We want to create a resilient system where people can call on you to depend on agriculture, and it's created a kind of character as well in our minds that you have to be resilient in tough times, because tough times are here to stay."


© ABC 2020

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