Port Vila, Vanuatu – Dressed for work in a torn T-shirt and a plain black baseball cap that covers his thinner dread, Lopez Adams’ appearance contradicts his success.
He is at the forefront of a spate of business owners in the small South Pacific nation of Vanuatu finding new ways to survive in a world without tourists.
Its Coffee Tree Cafe has become a fixture in Port Vila, the picturesque capital of Vanuatu, an island nation of 300,000 people located about 1,750 km (about 1,100 miles) east of Australia.
Despite its unpleasant atmosphere, the café has become the meeting place – and workplace – of the city’s leading laptop brigade.
Adams, who has spent his life in and around the capital, is proud to spot trends before they happen. His secret to pandemic survival is his secret to success: treat the tourists as a surplus crowd, and focus on the locals to survive.
“We did not focus too much on tourism because we know it is always a fragile business to do.”
He cites his dependence on local producers as the key to resisting the country’s pandemic isolation. Using his long-standing relationship with producers and fishermen, he negotiated a survival plan in which they guarantee volumes of sales in exchange for reduced prices.
While other businesses are struggling with shortages of flour and other staple foods due to global shipping disruptions, he makes gnocchi with locally grown sweet potatoes, known as “kumala”, and sells them at prices much lower than those of local resorts.
There is another advantage to his collaborative approach. When the economy finally recovers, businesses will “come back right away,” Adams said.
“All the business [will] come back when the borders are open. ”
Businesses in Vanuatu, such as those in other remote Pacific island nations that rely heavily on visitors, will face adversity for some time to come. Before sealing its borders in response to COVID-19, Vanuatu, which has not yet reported any cases to the community, generated about 45 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) from tourism and travel.
Last year, according to the Asian Development Bank, Vanuatu’s GDP shrank by 8.5 percent, the largest contraction since the country gained independence from Britain and France in 1980. Taken as a whole, the economies of 13 Pacific island nations shrank by 5.8 percent by 2020, according to computer data.
Vanuatu Premier Bob Loughman has expressed hope that border restrictions will begin to ease in March, but Len Tarivonda, director of public health, has marked the end of the second quarter as more likely.
Vanuatu and fellow Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Solomon Islands are lagging behind in the race to be vaccinated. After nearly six months, Solomon Islands has vaccinated less than 20 percent of eligible adults double. Vanuatu began vaccinations seriously in June, but it is not on track to reach its year-end goal of giving at least one dose of vaccine to 80 percent of the adult population. The Sydney-based Lowy Institute predicted in a report released on Sunday that the three countries could be among the last on earth to achieve high vaccine coverage, with PNG on target to have only 35 per cent of adults vaccinated by 2026 .
Other Pacific island nations fared better.
In Fiji, the government is pushing ahead with efforts to revive its tourism industry, one of the largest – and the hardest hit – in the South Pacific. Ahead of the planned reopening for tourists on December 1, Tourism Fiji has signed a promotional agreement with Australian comedian Rebel Wilson, in an effort to appeal to a younger, devil-may-care demographic that is under have curtailed travel restrictions.
Fiji needs every tourist he can get. Prior to the pandemic, tourism accounted for nearly 40 percent of economic activity. In 2020, Fiji’s GDP shrank 15.7 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund, with expectations of a further 4 percent contraction this year.
Fiji’s experience with the Delta variant was bitter, with more than 52,000 cases and nearly 700 deaths in a population of less than 900,000 people. By July, the country’s infection rate had exceeded India’s.
Now there is a sense of urgency as the government balances the value of positioning itself as a first-mover in the lucrative Australian and US tourism markets with the risk of further infection.
An aggressive vaccination campaign, backed by more than a million doses donated by Australia, has put the country in a regionally leading position in the immune race. Only tiny Niue, with less than 2,000 people, has a higher vaccination rate per capita.
Fiji’s enthusiasm is undoubtedly tempered by French Polynesia’s failed reopening. The move was preceded by a July visit by French President Emmanuel Macron. Within days of his visit, however, a second wave of infections swept the island chain.
French Polynesia now has one of the highest rates of infection among the Pacific Islands, with 45,601 cases and 636 deaths.
For other Pacific island nations, the return of tourism appears to be a distant prospect.
In PNG, the most populous island nation in the Pacific Ocean with nearly nine million people, health officials have temporarily turned back hospital services in the face of overwhelming numbers.
A lack of testing makes it difficult to make sure how bad things are. Official government figures suggest that only 23,000 people tested positive by October, but data managed by the AFP news agency by the World Health Organization showed that suspected infections exceeded 60,000. The official death toll of less than 490 people is widely regarded as an understatement.
With a health system that is limited at the best of times and major protests against vaccination outside Parliament, the country is struggling to function.
Last week, Scott Waide, a veteran journalist at PNG, wrote a lively account of his family’s efforts to keep their parents alive in the capital, Port Moresby, and told of the struggle to find oxygen tanks and breathing apparatus around the caring for elderly couple at home.
The cost in lives and livelihoods across the region has yet to be fully calculated. In December 2020, the Lowy Institute predicted that unless the Pacific island nations received a $ 3.5 billion increase in development aid over the next few years, the region would face a “lost decade.” Since then, things have improved little.
“The outlook for the Pacific has likely deteriorated overall in recent years,” said Roland Rajah, chief economist at the Lowy Institute.
“Fiji and others who have done well with vaccinations are still strongly dependent on the broader global economic recovery, especially in tourism, which will take time. While the outlook has clearly deteriorated in others such as PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu who are lagging far behind in their vaccination campaigns. “
Whether they live with the virus or with its economic consequences, the islanders of the Pacific come to the idea that the difficult times are just slowly disappearing. In Vanuatu, Lopez Adams is focused on finding ways for everyone to get through this time together.
“I hope everyone can start thinking about this new way of doing business,” Adams said.
“Always look at the past and the future. Make the best assessment today. So when something happens, you are ready to face it. ”