Vanuatu is often called the ‘Land of Smiles’. Perhaps it's a genius marketing idea, but it was once named the ‘world’s happiest place’ in the Happy Planet Index, and to see the beaming faces and hear the ‘hallos’ of the ni-Vanuatu it’s hard not to agree. Paradise it may be, but it's not all smiles in these happy isles: islanders contend with frequent land disputes, lack of basic infrastructure, corrupt politicians and tropical cyclones.

Bouncing Back from Pam

A global risk analysis study in 2015 reported that Port Vila (and by extension, Vanuatu) was the world's most exposed capital to natural disasters – cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic activity and drought. Not long after the report, Cyclone Pam wrought havoc across the islands, in March 2015, damaging or wiping out 95% of buildings (mostly village homes) in the hardest hit areas, along with vital crops and plantations. Although the clean-up and rebuilding is well under way, the economic effects of one of Vanuatu's worst-ever natural disasters are far-reaching as Vanuatu’s economy is largely agricultural; some 80% of the population is involved in farming and fishing. Major exports include copra (dried coconut), beef, cocoa and kava.

Tourism is also an important source of income, though little filters through to the outer islands. Cruise ships provide two-thirds of annual visitors (most coming from Australia and New Zealand), who come ashore for a few hours to buy handicrafts or take adventure tours. Many young ni-Van leave their villages to work in the tourism and service industries in Efate and Santo.

Politics Vanuatu Style

Corruption in Vanuatu politics is nothing new since independence, but a culture of backhanders and bribes was laid bare in October 2015 when 14 MPs, including Deputy Prime Minister Moana Carcasses, were found guilty of corruption and bribery and sent to prison for up to four years. Prime Minister Sato Kilman was criticised over his handling of the affair but was not among those charged. Still, with half of his People's Progress Party in jail, governing became untenable and a snap election was called by President Baldwin Lonsdale for 22 January 2016. Incredibly, more than half of the jailed MPs applied to recontest the election from prison. They were denied by the electoral commission.

By February 2016, a bloc of 36 newly elected MPs from 11 parties was attempting to establish a new coalition government.

The Times (& Kastoms) are Changing

Vanuatu is like two different countries: there are well-developed Efate and Santo, which have roads, electricity and tourism infrastructure, and then there are the other islands – all 81 of them. Outside Efate and Santo, life mostly goes on without basic infrastructure and the islanders survive on subsistence farming.

Though Vanuatu’s villages can be remote, ni-Vanuatu that have eschewed modern life (by choice) are few and far between. Kastom (traditional) villages on the island of Tanna are the most well known, featuring in a handful of documentaries and reality TV programs. Even here, kastom itself is changing to meet the tourism-industry’s demands. What were once only ceremonial dances are now staged for tourists, while Pentecost’s traditional spectacle of land diving now has an extended season and more jumps per week to cater to passing cruise ships.

My Land, My Vatu

Since independence in 1980, foreigners have been permitted to buy 75-year land leases for commercial use (50 years for residential) in Vanuatu. It’s tempting for traditional owners to lease out lucrative land and buy a speedboat or 4WD truck; however, these decisions are often later regretted. The law was developed so that ni-Van could have control of their land and earn rent, but foreign investors now control some 90 per cent of the (mostly beachfront) land around Efate, and there have been plenty of disagreements between developers and landowners when things go wrong.

Vanuatu’s beauty has also created tourism opportunities for the ni-Van. The traditional owner of a tourist-friendly blue hole or stunning beach can charge between 500VT to 2000VT per visitor, even just for a look. Working out who that traditional owner is can lead to disputes that sometimes result in the complete closure of an attraction.

Cultural Landscapes

Vanuatu's population is not completely homogenous. There are hundreds of expatriates living in Vanuatu (mostly in Port Vila and mostly from Australia and New Zealand), and on most islands you’ll find Australian Youth Ambassadors, American Peace Corps volunteers and New Zealand Volunteer Service Abroad participants (VSAs). There’s an increasing number of Asian families running shops in Port Vila and Luganville, and projects such as the port development at Luganville have seen as influx of Chinese workers. Tanna’s Lenakel is an exception, as no foreigners are allowed to own shops here.