Cooking the Goose

It‘s easy to cast aspersions at the people who stood down on the wharf road yesterday and threw stones at a bus full of visitors. That kind of behaviour is unacceptable under any circumstances. No amount of frustration can justify such violence and intimidation.

The costs of such behaviour are difficult to calculate, too. There’s the immediate loss of approximately 5 million vatu daily in tours and activities that get booked by passengers before they arrive. There’s the knock-on benefits derived from staff income being spent closer to home, including bus and taxi fares.

Then there are the indirect costs. The lost fares for those very drivers whose frustrations have boiled over. The opportunity cost to the countless shops, handicraft vendors and duty free suppliers in and around town. The shifting perception of cruise operators, which might lead them to question their significant investment in Vanuatu as a destination.

Goodwill is priceless, and if we fritter that away simply because we can’t manage a single high-traffic location, then we really have to ask ourselves some basic questions about the direction this country is going in.

But let’s be clear about one thing: The problem runs deeper than just a bunch of angry men acting like bullies. It’s been a terribly difficult year for everyone in this country, and it’s not unreasonable to ask ourselves whether the consecutive crises that we’ve faced over last 12 months haven’t contributed. Not only to this, but to the continuing flare-ups in Tanna and elsewhere.

Is ignorance a factor in all of this? Almost certainly. One common argument on social media is that expat investors are horning in on tourist traffic, jumping the queue and relegating local transport operators to picking up the leftovers.

That would be compelling if it were true. But it’s just not. Cruise ship operators the world over rely on one or two designated tour operators in each location to handle the bulk of their official tours. In many locations, travellers aren’t allowed off the ship if they don’t book through approved operators. These operators are selected following a fair and open process and reviewed periodically. All operators are welcome to compete.

But it’s not realistic to think that the dozens of single-vehicle operators are ever going to be able to offer the same kind of service as the larger tour companies. Individual drivers getting riled at Adventures in Paradise is pointless, and it gets us nowhere. They’re simply not competing for the same passengers.

Passengers visiting Vanuatu have always been free to come and go as they pleased. But what cruise ship operator is going to stand by and allow its valued customers to be victimised in the way they were yesterday?

If anything, local drivers are making the case against their own right to operate down at the wharf.

A few things are obvious: First off, drivers need to stay in their vehicles. No exceptions.

And we do need security down at the wharf. The VMF have proven effective in the past, but they have other duties. Police, though, have been deficient, to put it nicely. Yesterday, they failed utterly in their duty, and if anecdote is any indication, they have been far too cavalier about the whole situation for far too long.

If the police are to pick up this role—and fulfil it—then changes must be made to bring them up to snuff.

Most importantly, the harbour master has to answer some difficult questions. Time and again, he has reminded people that he alone holds authority for security at the port. That’s fine, but that also means that the buck stops on his desk.

Port security regulations stipulate that police, the minister and the director general must—not may, not should, but must—become involved in dealing with security breaches. They are doing so as this column is being composed.

We expect answers, and we expect action.