AKA Mystery Island: tiny island, big story

We are making our next one hour documentary for BBC World Service. It investigates the extraordinary growth of cruise ship traffic, in particular to Vanuatu. From this chain of islands in the South Pacific we report from the southernmost island of Aneityum and how the community of Anelguhat is managing the influx of as many as 30,000 cruise ship passengers a month to what is marketed as ‘Mystery Island’. It’s a tiny island with a big story.

Cruise ship tourism growing fast

Cruise ship tourism is growing exponentially. It’s the fastest growing sector worldwide. 25 million cruise ship holidays were taken in 2015. As more and more Chinese tourists take to the seas that number is likely to double in just a few years time.

Mystery Island is just the kind of destination that cruise operators like to offer their passengers: remote, exquisitely beautiful and welcoming. The representative of Carnival Corporation – the global company which owns runs half the cruise ships in the world – who has directed traffic to Mystery Island explains they are planning more such ports of call in the South Pacific.

Global trends to local impact

A ship the size of a fifteen storey building laden with 3000 ‘newly-wed’s, over-fed’s and nearly-dead’s’ cruises in at first light to anchor just offshore from a village that has no road, vehicle or electricity. Are two worlds about to collide? It’s the answers from ni-Vanuatu that matter. From the far South of Vanuatu on Aneityum and Mystery Island and then later in the far North, in the Banks islands on the tiny isle of Rah, the programme listens to community leaders, handicraft sellers, snorkelling safari guides, village tour guides, marine protection area officers, ferry drivers, youngsters, elders, sceptics and enthusiasts – and some cruise ship passengers too.

Gains and losses

Young men and women describe a whole new future of being able to earn well on their home island. There are smartphones, BMX bikes, drinking water tanks, solar panel systems, tin roofs, boats with outboard motors, well-equipped schools and dispensaries all paid for with the revenue caught from the great ships’ visits. There are plans to raise families in higher, assured standards of living, school fees paid and plane trips to visit relatives afforded. There are grateful tourists inspired by the warm welcome, extraordinary marine life and the island lifestyle apparently in tune with nature that they observed.

Worryingly, mothers describe how they find it hard to teach family values now they cannot prevent their young children from seeing tourists smoke, drink and behave – and dress – badly in the village; traditional crops and meals being replaced with store food now those so often working with ships have little time for work in the gardens; health problems in young and old alike from the change to a poorer diet. Voyeuristic tourists patronise the islanders they meet and show little concern for how what they do on their visit could impact negatively on the people and place they visit.

Managing change

Ships have always brought change to Vanuatu. Whether bearing explorers and exploiters – from missionaries to blackbirds – they have all taken or done what they wanted. The cruise ships are just the latest. They arrive at a time when Vanuatu needs sustainable, far-reaching economic returns to maintain island life.

In a world that refuses to pay well and promptly for what ni-Vanuatu can grow on the islands then selling the location may be the next best thing. How that destination tourism is managed is what counts. That’s a question that people like Barry Nagia, and the other directors of the business on Aneityum, are trying to answer. They deal with all the pressures of the present. They are mindful of the prospects for the future too. They have a multiplicity of concerns, practicalities and demands to consider and resolve.

You can hear our programme AKA Mystery Island broadcast worldwide by BBC World Service in October 2017. You will also be able to find it online on the BBC World Service documentary web page to listen to at a time that suits you best. We hope you will tune in.