This is work? Judging the Vanuatu tourism awards

I've just been to Vanuatu to help judge the biennial Vanuatu tourism awards for the third time.

 The Ni-Vanuatu piccaninnies present the judges with thank you gifts made from all local resources

The Ni-Vanuatu piccaninnies present the judges with thank you gifts made from all local resources

Every time I visit I feel more and more at home. This place has certainly taken a piece of my heart (maybe a Tilma office in Vanuatu is on the cards!).

The friendliest and happiest people on earth live in Vanuatu. The Ni-Vanuatu (the local Melanesians) are the most beautiful people that you will ever meet.

 Anita is a hand-craft trainer from Aneityum and a young entrepreneur to watch! 

Anita is a hand-craft trainer from Aneityum and a young entrepreneur to watch! 

Tourism is everyone's business

Vanuatu as a destination and its tourism industry are very different to Australia (but has some close similarities and challenges to regional and rural Australia). As a developing nation, Vanuatu has its own challenges, and it is hard to compare the two. 

However, there are things we can learn from their tourism industry:

The Ni-Vanuatu communities offer and deliver authentic experiences - nothing is fake. They themselves are so authentic, they make their visitors feel comfortable and at home - and this is what makes Vanuatu such a special destination. The locals are welcoming, hospitable and friendly - they want to look after you. You feel safe.

Because the Vanuatu economy is so heavily dependant on tourism, everyone knows that tourism is everyone's business - from the customer service providers to government ministers. 

The Tourism Minister's mission is to have every government minister at the tourism awards to show that they get that tourism is everyone's business. This year the Agricultural Minister sponsored an Agri-tourism Award - which interestingly was won by a female farmer for consistently supplying fresh produce to the main market to meet the demand of hotels and restaurants. 

 Judges welcomed by to Mystery Island by the crew at Mystery Island Tours

Judges welcomed by to Mystery Island by the crew at Mystery Island Tours

Industry development

Vanuatu is very dependant on aid from Australia and New Zealand. After Cyclone Pam in 2015, Australian aid supported the redevelopment of the Port Vila foreshore. As an Aussie, this made me feel so proud of my country.

Vanuatu's TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) funded by Australian aid has been training youth in tourism and other skills - though mostly for entry level jobs while in general ex-pats hold managerial and executive positions. I spoke with some of these young TVET Ni-Vanuatuans and was blown away - they are really savvy, think strategically and show entrepreneurial potential. 

I started to see the opportunity for the Ni-Vanuatans to become leaders in their tourism industry. I started conversations with the Vanuatu Department of Tourism on a leadership program for Ni-Vanuatu youth in tourism. For example, this program, with support from Australian and New Zealand aid, could support student mentorship and internships, with visits to Vanuatu's main source markets to do work experience in managerial and leadership roles. I want to be instrumental in helping to get such a project off the ground. Watch this space! 

I could see in Vanuatu how industry development programs have made a big difference to the visitor experience. Since my last visit two years ago, there has been an accreditation and ambassador program for transport providers and their level of service has seen a big improvement. It feels so good to see investments in industry development really pay off. 

 Time to meet Nemo on Mystery Island, with my trusty guide Geoofry

Time to meet Nemo on Mystery Island, with my trusty guide Geoofry

Creating braggable experiences

While there to judge the awards, I also presented an industry development workshop with Natalie Bramble of iClick2Learn. Natalie has a background in tourism but works in community development and training for non-profits and community groups. Natalie is also a judge for the NSW and Australian tourism awards. 

Our workshop taught 35 tourism operators how to create braggable experiences. We had identified that there is starting to be a lot of similar product across Vanuatu as operators see the success of a business and replicate it to get a piece of the pie, instead of offering a point of difference. 

The biggest lightbulb moment in the class was when we had them stop and think about what their customer would want, instead of thinking about 'What can we operators do?'. The participants identified a regular customer, such as an Australian family, and identified that customer's journey from research to travel to visit and departure. They then imagined being that customer then asked themselves, 'What do I need?' at each point of the journey. They all nailed it. And began to understand their customers really well, identifing how they could add value to each part of their customer's journey. 

We encouraged them to create new experiences for their ideal customer, and differentiate themselves from their competitors. We used lots of case studies to illustrate this. 

 A view from the top of an old volcano - heaven! 

A view from the top of an old volcano - heaven! 

Tourism Awards

The tourism awards are done in a different way than in Australia. The award submission is short so as not to exclude anyone not fluent in writing English or Bislama which opens the awards to a broader audience – not restricted to just how well you can write a submission.

The focus is on site visits. The judges are encouraged to give constructive feedback in terms of business management and tourism opportunities. The operators love the fresh perspective from the international judges. 

Personally, I got to visit 


This year I had the pleasure of spending a few nights on Aneityum and Mystery Island. After my jungle experience on Malekula island in 2016, this was much more relaxed and chilled.

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The awards ceremony was two separate events - an open inclusive free event in a central location to encourage the whole community to join in celebrating tourism and so villagers can support their local businesses, then a gala dinner for the finalists. All of the finalists are flown in to Port Vila from the islands to ensure they can afford to attend.

The tourism awards ceremony was fantastic – it was great to see so many locals in attendance and it was an honour to celebrate the finalists and winners for the great work they are doing. The presentation of judges gifts by the gorgeous Ni-Vanuatu children was an unexpected delight (and a sure way to get some tears from a mumma!). The children presented us with local gifts and produce to bring back to Australia – so generous and kind!

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My favourite moment was when Isabelle Atuary of World Car Rentals who won the customer service award – she could come here to teach us service! When she won she leapt up and did a huge High 5 Yes! Isabelle has worked in tourism since age 14, paying her own way through school.

She totally knows customer service - she doesn’t stop smiling, and could talk underwater! She told me, 'I just want to make my customers super happy'. If Isabelle is away, their sales of the rental company plummet. Isabelle talks to tourists on the street: 'How are you going? How can I help you?' 

The dinner after the awards ceremony had fewer attendees and was mostly ex-pats - very different from the earlier ceremony. Many locals cannot afford to attend a gala dinner, or wouldn't want to go to such an event. My experience in attending tourism awards events is that once you are seated you have lost the value of being able to network.

Rather than taking some of the attendees away to a separate event, perhaps continuing the awards presentations with a cocktail-style evening with live music and networking would provide more value to attendees (and be less expensive to host!).

What do you think? Should Australian tourism awards move away from expensive exclusive gala dinners and invite the community in to celebrate the industry?

 Exploring the Mele Cascades, another gorgeous place to visit in Port Vila

Exploring the Mele Cascades, another gorgeous place to visit in Port Vila

A massive shout out to Vanuatu, the FIRST country to completely ban plastics from 1 July - a lot of islands dependant on tourism are being heavily affected by plastic pollution so this is an example we should all copy!

 Kayaking in style with Mystery Island Tours

Kayaking in style with Mystery Island Tours

The food!!!!

I have always raved about the produce in Vanuatu, but since my last visit two years ago it has gotten even better. As always, a daily trip to the fresh produce market was a highlight – I cannot get enough of the local papaya and soursop (it’s just not the same in Oz!).

This year I was introduced to the new local chocolates – OMG! Aelan and Gaston…that’s right, not just one local chocolate, but two. And they are both divine!!!!

Thanks to Tanna Coffee I broke my no-coffee rule that I started on the first of January….the best coffee I have ever had!

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The café scene in Port Villa is just getting better – thanks to Numbawan Café and K2 Café for keeping us fuelled and for your great wifi ☺

 A locally cooked meal at Paunvina Guesthouse

A locally cooked meal at Paunvina Guesthouse

Family holiday

This year I was lucky enough to show my family around Port Villa and some of the nearer islands – as expected, they loved it as much as me. A night on Pele Island with nothing but the ocean, some village dogs, hospitable locals and each other (and the roosters!) was more than perfect. What a great family holiday destination.

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There was a bit of a shake up one morning. A 6.1 earthquake was an interesting way to wake up after the judges' impromptu dinner and drinks the night before (wasn’t really sure if it was too much duty-free gin or if my bed was really shaking!)

Thanks to my running and fitness buddy, Jackie, I had daily runs around Vila, and the odd CrossFit session at the local gym allowed me to keep up my fitness addiction…and meet more amazing locals!

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The team of judges and our fearless judges manager (Victoria Mclean!) and project coordinator (Jackie Potgieter!) made my time away from home feel every bit at home…What an amazing bunch of highly-skilled, fun and caring individuals. We have become a family ☺  I have made so many great friends throughout the country it is very hard to leave…Thank you to every one of you for making me feel so welcome and at home.

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Every Aussie should visit this beautiful country – it is safe, it is fun and it is only a short flight away. Have you been?
Linda TillmanComment