What is wrong with Vanuatu’s tourism market?
Why Vanuatu’s tourism promotion strategy is fundamentally wrong, doomed to fail, and VTO is just wasting money
Vanuatu is among world’s poorest and least developed countries for a number of rather objective reasons: no natural resources, remote location, undeveloped infrastructure and so on.
Vanuatu as a country doesn’t have many leverages to attract finances and other resources much needed to grow, develop and give its citizens opportunities to live more successful, meaningful and interesting life.
Nevertheless, some ways to succeed are still there, and developing tourism industry is one of the most obvious opportunities. Tourism alone potentially could bring Vanuatu and its citizens enough income for education, public health, building new infrastructure and everything else, without constant need to ask for money from Australia, a modern day bureaucratic realm and self-proclaimed white master of the Pacific, and China with its poorly hidden sneaky crusade for regional dominance.
‘This column’s main point is to state an opinion and explain why all VTO and other tourism-related organizations’ efforts to promote Vanuatu are fundamentally wrong, to a large extent is a waste of money and doomed to fail’
That’s why it is hard to leave without attention how fundamentally wrong Vanuatu’s tourism marketing strategy is, and most of the efforts in that direction. Vanuatu Tourism Office and the Department of Tourism spending funds to promote this country as a tourism destination clearly without a thought-through strategy and without basic understanding of this industry on a global scale and the importance of positioning and having targeted segmentation.
If continued the same, Vanuatu tourism industry will keep growing by a tiny pace thanks to the global trend in rising number of travelers. Most likely this very very slow growth will go on until the next natural disaster or infrastructure failure will roll the industry back again after aid funded rebuilding.
This column’s main point is to state an opinion and explain why all VTO and other tourism-related organizations’ efforts to promote Vanuatu as a tourism destination are fundamentally wrong, to a large extent is a waste of money and doomed to fail; and what needs to be done to take an opportunity and turn currently dysfunctional and deeply vulnerable Vanuatu tourism industry into a source of income for the state and its people.
Why tourists should come to Vanuatu? VTO has no idea..
‘All these ads urging you to “wake up in Vanuatu,” while giving absolutely no reason why should you. With the same success, the slogan of these campaigns could be “Come to Vanuatu. It’s pretty much like Fiji, only worse and more expensive’
Vanuatu’s marketing strategy doesn’t have a clear message and target audience. VTO’s promotion appeals to everyone (and “everyone” here stands for general mass tourist), while having almost nothing unique to offer, and completely losing to mainstream tourist destinations in everything, from prices and accommodation to food and service.
Look through all the materials promoting Vanuatu as a tourist destination, including VTO web-site, discovervanuatu.com.au web-site, tourist booklets etc, and you will see they cannot answer one simple basic question: why tourists should come to Vanuatu?
All these ads urging you to “wake up in Vanuatu,” while giving absolutely no reason why should you. With the same success, the slogan of these campaigns could be “Come to Vanuatu. It’s pretty much like Fiji, only worse and more expensive.”
If you ask people in local tourism industry about that, they would probably say something like “Of course they want to come to Vanuatu, it is so beautiful here. And our people are so nice and sweet.”
Here’s the thing. Modern tourists are not excited simply by beautiful tropical nature, clean ocean and beaches. Because all this, to some extent, is offered by dozens of countries around the world, located not too far from the equator — look and the globe starting from Australia, going to Southeast Asian countries, passing through India and Africa to southern Europe, crossing the ocean to South America and the Caribbean. Most of those places have all that, and usually much better.
And the fact that ni-Vans are very kind and naturally sweet people, although probably true, is by no means good enough to persuade someone to spend a vacation here. Almost all popular tourist destinations of the tropical segment are famous for their hospitality and friendly attitude to tourists.
Of course they are – being nice doesn’t require any work to be done or money to be spent, and let’s be honest – it’s not so difficult to be nice to people who come to your country for a couple of weeks in a relaxed holiday mood to spend several thousand dollars on overpriced food and tourist services.
That is why the kindness and sweetness of ni-Vans or local expats is absolutely useless from the tourism business promotion point of view.
If you think about it, almost any word with respect to the people in Vanuatu would be more beneficial for the promotion of tourism in the country than “sweet” or “nice”, because being nice brings absolutely no added value. “Funny”? Ok, maybe the place is boring, but at least they will tell me funny jokes to make me laugh all the time of my holiday. “Crazy”? Not too bad, at least after the trip I will have some stories to tell.
‘How many tourists who visited Vanuatu once, come back? You don’t need to be an expert to say one time visitors almost never come here again’
But being sweet? No. Everyone is sweet – Fijians are sweet, Thai are sweet, Filipinos are sweet. Everyone is nice and welcoming around tropical tourism destinations, except maybe white people. Being sweet is not our thing.
The absolute majority of modern day tourists have already been to a number of lovely tropical islands with beautiful beaches, warm climate and colorful landscapes. The only reason why tourists would possibly give preference to Vanuatu in comparison to other destinations is a need for diversity and desire to add one more country to their list of “countries I have been to”.
Citizens from Australia and New Zealand may visit Vaunatu for a vacation simply because other tourist destinations for these remote on a global scale countries – mainly Bali, Fiji and Thailand – are discovered long-long time ago, while modern tourists want to visit new destinations.
Tourists from other countries may visit Vanuatu only looking to excite themselves and surprise their friends in social networks with photos from an exotic country most people never heard of.
But how many tourists who visited Vanuatu once, come back? You don’t need to be an expert to say one time visitors almost never come here again.
What modern day tourists want?
Modern day tourists are spoiled brats. They have seen pretty much everything, and Vanuatu just doesn’t have anything really special to convince them to come in spite of a number of obvious limitations – very high prices, poor facilities and bad quality of service.
Snorkeling and diving? It is available everywhere these days. Indigenous people and their culture? Too boring, sorry. Volcanoes? Those are nice, but are they worth spending money on flights and overpriced accommodation, time and energy needed for such a trip? Maybe for a few, very few. Sailing and fishing? Same story. Restaurants and food? Forget about it. Gambling? Could be, but casinos in Port Vila are the most pathetic I’ve seen in my life.
‘Modern day tourists want an experience, and everything Vanuatu currently has to offer – is deadly, deadly boring’
Modern day tourists want an experience, and everything Vanuatu currently has to offer – is deadly, deadly boring for most, and not exciting even for those without much travel experience.
It’s not just about Vanuatu of course. This is a global problem for the mass tourism industry: having palms and beaches, resorts and hotels with a number of boring tours around the place is just not enough anymore. Nowadays tourists want more, and the most successful would be those tour operators who will adapt, learn and do the homework, to be able to offer exciting and thoughtful solutions with greater niche orientation and age segmentation.
But let’s go back to Vanuatu.
Another problem of Vanuatu (as well as a number of similar destinations) – there is no one to do the job of promoting the country as a tourism destination properly. Investors are building resorts and hotels because they see a mostly empty market – the potential in obvious. After that they hire managers (as cheap as they can find) to operate those properties without a proper vision or general strategy, and with no motivation to have one whatsoever.
Vanuatu government appoints people who don’t have broad knowledge and experience to promote the country as a tourism destination, and they just don’t understand the need to change basic approach and strategy, probably getting advises from poorly qualified to be competitive in their home countries foreigners.
Vanuatu’s tourism industry is a miserable failure now, and will most likely stay like that in the future, despite the potential for growth and development.
Why VTO’s marketing efforts is a miserable failure – China’s market
If you think I am exaggerating the extent of failure and inefficiency of VTO and other participants of the tourism market in Vanuatu, just look at China.
PRC is currently a huge continuously growing tourist market, and Vanuatu’s Government is in a state of ongoing well-documented love affair with China – with Chinese Ambassador holding fairly bought “golden key” in his hands and Vanuatu’s PM seemingly happy to serve, relationships between the two countries are as good as they can possibly be. And yet, looking at the official statistics from VNSO, in October 2017 (last reported month) the share of visitors to Vanuatu from China was as low as around 3%, with similar rates in other months of the year. With 10,611 being a total number of visitor arrivals to Vanuatu in October (pathetically low number) simple calculations show us only around 318 Chinese nationals arrived to Vanuatu as visitors in October. It is safe to assume at least one fourth of those people would be business visitors, working migrators and family visitors. That gives us an estimate of just around 238 or (most likely) less tourists from China a month.
So you would understand clearly, China is such an attractive tourist market not just because this country nowadays has quite a lot of people who can afford to spend a relatively big amount of money for a couple weeks holiday trip. It is also attractive because people in “newly-rich” countries like China have generally less sophisticated taste. They are not as picky as Westerners are (due to the simple lack of experience, culture and education), and much easier to fall into marketing influence, if the promotion is done well enough.
Vanuatu Tourism Office’s helplessness and absence of adequate thinking perfectly illustrated by VTO’s own so called “vision.”
“The vision for the tourism industry approved in 2014 is also the vision for the Vanuatu Tourism Office: Tourism celebrates Vanuatu’s culture and environment, empowers its people and captivates its visitors throughout the islands.”
‘VTO doesn’t have a clue how to effectively promote tourism in Vanuatu. Neither does the Department of Tourism’
The “vision” sentence is a perfect example of completely meaningless statement with, I should note, a telltale sign of influence from Australian officials, who seem to be world famous experts in meaninglessness.
This “vision” is not able to hide a simple fact – VTO doesn’t have a clue how to effectively promote tourism in Vanuatu. Neither does the Department of Tourism.
Of course, VTO is not the only one to blame for such a miserable state of tourism in the country. VTO shares it with owners and managers of Vanuatu hotels and resorts, sitting on their properties with insanely high prices for accommodation and food, forcing those few tourists who did make an unfortunate choice of Vanuatu as their travel destination to pay 2-3 times more to cover investor’s loses coming from their poor management and failure to offer a competitive service.
If nothing changes Vanuatu will be able to compete only and exclusively with other Pacific island destinations, but even in this rather small niche it is extremely unlikely to become a leader.
What to do?
Some of you would think all of this is just a baseless criticism, with no real solutions offered.
Are there real solutions to implement for Vanuatu tourism industry to finally be able to answer the question above: “Why tourists should come here?”
Certainly. I won’t describe all potentially workable solutions and ideas here, as I am not getting paid for the development of the tourism strategy (VTO is), but will provide some hints, ideas and realistic directions to move to prove the point.
Targetisation of tourist groups by age, interests and expectations, with long-term commitment to the proper development of a number of niches is one of the directions to move.
Of course, there is an obvious need to have a long-term (at least 5-7 years) strategic plan to promote Vanuatu as a tourism destination. Right now VTO either doesn’t have any strategy at all, or, like I explained above, relies on some very, very poor planning, with absolutely no chances to succeed.
A number of working ideas and inspiration can be taken from Southeast Asian countries, mainly the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. Collaboration with closest Pacific neighbors for some segments would be highly desirable.
The development and promotion of meaningful and properly organised package tours is another workable solution.
What’s in the future?
Is it possible to achieve real growth of the tourism market in Vanuatu, for it to provide a significant share of the country’s GDP and become the main driver of infrastructure development? Certainly. Would that ever happen? Realistically – probably not.
To achieve that you would need some knowledgeable and experienced people managing all the country’s organized tourism promotion efforts. And they would not only need to develop a comprehensive and creative approach to the general marketing strategy, but also have to do a lot of day-to-day work, compelling all participants of the tourism industry to collaborate and improve quality of their services and diversity of their offers. Not a very realistic perspective for a country like Vanuatu and its government, is it?
By Abbott Priestley exclusively for Vila Times