Travel In Rural Vanuatu

A group of ni-Vanuatu in a rural village.

Mbonvor on Malekula's south coast, accessible only by foot or sea. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.

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Why Travel In Rural Vanuatu?

First of all, not for the beaches, no matter what you expect from a South Pacific island. Vanuatu has a few lovely beaches, but most of its coastline is rugged, sharp coral. I am not all that well traveled, but I recommend Hawaii for beaches and surfing. Second, not for a cheap tropical paradise where friendly natives take you in and you just graze off the fat of the land. Vanuatu is not all that inexpensive, Immigration won't let you stay for longer than three months, and ni-Vanuatu villagers are pretty savvy to the ways of free-loading westerners.

What you will get is a glimpse of a way of life completely alien to, although superficially influenced by, that of Westerners. You will move among people who make their livings as subsistence gardeners and whose view of the world is completely different from that of the West. You and they will receive the same stimuli through your senses, yet come to completely different conclusions about what happened and why. They will not let you into their world, and you couldn't enter if you tried, but that glimpse of the surface is fascinating.

You will also perceive through all your senses things that are fascinating to the Western mind on their own merits. All that fringing reef, the living reefs underwater, the forest and its plant and animal inhabitants, volcanoes, and cultural sites ranging from everyday villages to clan dancing grounds. Also, there is the odd beach; even surfing if you know where to look and don't mind dragging a board for days over long and inconvenient distances just to be able to say you did it (different strokes for different folks, I guess).

Bride and aunts in front of a pile of pandanas mats, cloth, etc.

Ambae Island bride and her aunts with her bride price. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.

If you are not looking for a place just like home (but warmer and without the social constrictions - i.e., a hotel pool where you can be obnoxious), if you can afford to get there and travel about, and if you are flexible in your food and accommodation requirements, traveling through rural Vanuatu just might be worth considering.


I receive regular enquiries about traveling in rural Vanuatu. Since I end up copying the same few paragraphs as a reply, and since that reply is not as complete as I could make it, I hope that these pages explore the subject more fully. They are not by any means complete; this is just a starting point, or another piece of information for someone who is learning about the subject.

Since I left Vanuatu in November, 1992 and am no longer current, this page will stick to generalities. Nevertheless, during the five years I lived in Vanuatu, I traveled to almost every part of the archipelago by plane, ship, truck, motorboat, canoe, and foot. I'll try to pass on some of what I learned.

This information is worth what you are paying for it. I am just providing a rough guide to what I know about travel in Rural Vanuatu and don't guarantee any of it. In particular, I am not a physician and I am just passing on general health information. If you go to Vanuatu and find this information useful, I am glad to be of service. If you find it didn't prepare you to your satisfaction, that's why they call it "adventure" travel. Should you decide to go, have a great trip!

Rural vs. Official Tourist Vanuatu

For most of the time I lived in Vanuatu, official government policy was that tourism was restricted to Luganville, Espiritu Santo Island; Efate Island; and Tanna Island. Wealthy tourists were preferred, and it was hoped that they would stay in Port Vila's three international-class hotels and spend their days shopping at the duty-free shops and going on official day-tours around Efate's ring-road, to Yasur Volcano and the "Custom Village" on Tanna Island, and to the Pentecost Land Dives in season (April - May). Cruise ships were also welcome to dock at Aneityum; Port Vila; and Champagne Beach, Espiritu Santo and disgorge 1,200 day-trippers to languish on the beach or wander up and down main street. Frustratingly (for the government), the same planes that brought First Class tourists in that little section up front also had a big Economy Class behind. Besides, pesky yachties kept dropping anchor in Port Vila Bay for weeks at a time, spending as little as they could in order to extend their cruises for as long as possible. Consequently, the government's objective of limiting tourism to big spenders was never fully realized.

Even so, most of the tourists who flew Economy kept to the Government's approved itinerary, but there were always a few that struck out on their own; the government pretty much left them alone. Towards the end of my stay, there was even some official encouragement of the establishment of small guest-houses by ni-Vanuatu on the outer islands. I felt this was a positive step, as very little of the money spent on the official tourist circuit finds its way to the rural majority, and what does is concentrated in the hands of custom owners of a few popular attractions such as Yasur Volcano and Champagne Beach.

Anyway, it is possible to travel in rural Vanuatu, but one must be self-sufficient. Also, the mode of operation in Vanuatu is flexibility. To loosely translate a coworker's comment: "Everything in Vanuatu gets buggered up, but it's OK in the end". Those who can't accept uncertainty and surprises are not going to be happy traveling in rural Vanuatu. One must have a Plan B and C, and not be tied to a strict schedule, so all surprises are pleasant. Don't forget, the place is not set up to please tourists; it is set up for the ni-Vanuatu who live there, and their agenda is definitely not the same as a traveller's.

Upon reading my first draft, my wife pointed out that I had omitted mention of the many lizards, cockroaches, spiders, rats, slugs, millipedes, centipedes, hermit crabs, crowing roosters, etc., etc. that we shared our various accommodations with in rural (and urban) Vanuatu. Frankly, I never think of these features of tropical life as anything but a natural part of the background. I was a quite surprised when they distressed a visiting friend; maybe I was in Vanuatu too long. Anyway, those who are bothered by these mostly harmless critters will be more comfortable staying in one of Port Vila's excellent hotels and keeping to the official bus tours. Don't forget to go on a guided horseback ride at Club Hippique, so you can support the riding hobby of my ex-fellow expats. (Hey, I can put in one plug, can't I?)

The commercial tourism and business side of Vanuatu is presented at the Vanuatu On Line site, with pages on the National Tourist Office and various businesses.


I have always been a bit skeptical of "backpacker" guidebooks devoted to or with a section on Vanuatu, feeling that they presented a rather false sense of familiarity with the nation. Nevertheless, I recently (March, 1997) picked up the 1995 edition of Lonely Planet Press's Vanuatu Travel Survival Kit and was pleasantly surprised; it is much improved over the original 1991 edition. I can still quibble about a number of details, but the general country information especially is quite good. Actually, until I realized that it was written at least a year before I wrote this travel guide, I thought they had lifted some stuff from this site. Now, for all I know its authors may be entertaining similar notions about me, but we have independently arrived at many of the same points of advice about travel in Vanuatu. The book is worth a read.

A Few Basics

Asking ni-Vanuatu to share their home islands with oneself requires a large dose of cultural sensitivity in response. A few points about the real Vanuatu:

Vanuatu is not a cheap place to bum around. One can not "live off the land", and everything sold, except for locally-grown rootcrops and seasonal fruit, is imported and priced at Australian price plus transport plus high import duty plus "corner store"-style markup. It is necessary to bring money; the Immigration Department won't allow entrance without it, anyway.

Ni-Vanuatu have their own way of thinking, customs, and traditions that have nothing to do with a Westerner's experience or expectations. While hospitable and friendly, they are not prepared to bend their fundamental beliefs for the benefit of tourists. They are not going to break tabus or share custom secrets with some stranger just because he went to a lot of trouble and expense to get there.

On this subject, it is not acceptable to expect to head into the interior of an island to "share the experience" of groups who have chosen to live the "kastom" life. They are well acquainted with Western ways, and have chosen to actively avoid them. They don't want outsiders, even those who have found some self-proclaimed "relative" as guides to their village. Anyone who breaks a custom tabu, for example an action as simple as using a path reserved for the opposite sex, is in serious trouble. Those who are insensitive and foolish enough to ignore my advice on this should forget anything I say in these pages about safety. Survivors will likely find the Immigration Department providing them with a personal escort to the airport.

Land usage rights are taken very seriously in Vanuatu. There is no "crown" or "public" land in Vanuatu. Every inch of ground is owned by someone who expects to be asked permission to camp there, and perhaps to even travel across it. Much of Vanuatu's land has several people who think they own it, so getting permission from one person might not sit well with another ownership claimant. Fortunately, most of the time people make allowances for us ignorant Westerners. Also, all of that food, like bananas, seen growing here and there is not free for the taking. Someone (usually a woman) has put a lot of work into clearing the land, planting, and tending her garden and expects to feed her family from it. One can probably get away with taking the odd coconut or a papaya that is obviously not in a garden, but that's about all without permission.

There are lots of chiefs on Vanuatu, most chosen or recognized by their village, some not. None of them have the right to give anyone permission to use another villager's property. The custom owner must always be found and asked; this can be difficult at times since, in some cases, only the custom owner is considered to have the right to identify himself as such.

All rivers and the ocean as far out as the bottom can be seen are also owned by someone. No fishing or spear-fishing is acceptable without permission; anyway, see "ciguatera" in the Health Section of these pages.

A big message here is: one can not expect to live off the land. Even the poorest Westerner is by far richer (in material terms) than a ni-Vanuatu villager. The idea is that we share our material resources with them, not them with us. Another message: travelers must show respect for Vanuatu and its people by doing their best to comply with local ways and customs.

There is very little money economy in rural Vanuatu. It can not be expected that anything but basic vegetable foodstuffs like root crops and vegetables will be found for sale. Meat or maybe even fish may not be available. There are lots of cattle and pigs around, but they are "lumpy": without refrigeration, lots of people have to get together to eat them at one time, so they are reserved for feasts. Most things needed must be brought with oneself.

People in Vanuatu expect to be paid for what they provide to tourists, but there is no tipping. There is also no bargaining for items like food, although a price can be offered first in order to head off an unreasonable demand. Some things can be very expensive in Western eyes, like $15 each to see Yasur Volcano, or even several hundred dollars each (maybe $1,000 extra for video cameras, if allowed at all) to see the Pentecost Land Dives. Locally-grown food is reasonably priced on the outer islands, although it is relatively expensive at the Port Vila Public Market ("public" in name only, this market is a monopoly held tightly by local villages - most urban ni-Vanuatu exist on less expensive imported white rice). Some feeling for reasonable "island" prices can be gotten by checking out the Vila Market and dividing prices by a factor of two or more.

I sometimes run into people who don't want to buy food in the third world on the theory that this deprives the locals of nutrition. This is nonsense in Vanuatu. Food is plentiful; what is scarce is cash. Most people are more than happy to exchange food for money.

What should a person pay for a guide through the bush? I have to admit that as I was a government official, villages that I visited were expected to provide a guide, so I never paid (taxi boats and trucks were a different matter). Check when you get there, but I believe that the current national minimum (read maximum for most ni-Vanuatu) wage is about 120,000 vatu (US$105 or so) per month. Divide by 21 or so working days per month, and about 600 vatu for a day's guiding would seem to be about right, or maybe 2,000 vatu for a two-day overnight trip. It is expected that in addition, guides will be provided with their food.

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©Stan Combs, 1996.