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By Len Garae and Marc Neil-Jones

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, May 30) – Bus and taxi drivers in Vanuatu may not be aware they might have closed the door to the international tourist market when they barred the passengers of a world respected research ship from leaving the wharf on two pre-booked excursions on Saturday morning.

Jubilant drivers boasted how they successfully stopped the buses with their passengers from driving away – using tables and their own vehicles at about 8 a.m. on Saturday.

A driver who claimed to be their spokesman and a provincial committee member representing Malampa Province said the Endeavour was listed with visiting tourist liners and no one had advised them it was a research vessel.

[PIR editor’s note: Malampa Province is located in the central part of Vanuatu, just northwest of Shefa Province wherein the capital of Port Vila is situated.]

"We have organized ourselves in the normal manner to provide normal service for the passengers, but the ship might have booked with the tour company before berthing, which allowed the buses to pick the passengers while we wasted our time waiting here for nothing," the spokesman from Malekula complained.

He added, "We would not allow them through and suggested the only way out would be for the ship to pay for all the time we wasted waiting for passengers while the local tour company picked all of them up. They declined [the request to pay the bus and taxi drivers] and returned all the passengers to the ship."

Staff from Destination Pacific Islands advised, "The trouble started as soon as we picked up passengers to go on tours that they had booked around Port Vila and to Ekasup." It was clear the drivers did not know how many passengers were on board and many taxis were on the wharf.

Destination advised, "They blamed us for not telling them that there were only a few passengers on board and wasted their time. They stopped the buses from going anywhere and when the police arrived they did nothing. It is a shame as these people have spoilt things for tourism. The people on board did nothing in town and went back to the ship shocked at what had happened. This is ‘The Year of Tourism’ and they do this. It is very sad. One of the crew from the ship asked the taxis if they could give some money to allow the tours to go ahead as they had been paid for in advance and the drivers refused, telling them to go back to the ship."

Destination Pacific is owned by Australian John Marsh, and managed by Grant McClelland who advised, "I sold these people these tours 14 or 15 months ago as part of our world wide marketing effort. I visited California. I don’t see the taxi association spending any money to promote traveling by taxi in Vanuatu. People have a right to choose how they want to see Vanuatu. Taxi drivers cannot force people to use taxis when they have no standardized fares, when many taxis don’t have meters running and when more and more people are complaining about getting ripped off by taxis. These people asked us to organize buses to take 73 of them to a couple of tours as part of their research before going to Lelepa and Hat Island" McClelland said, "I mentioned to Willy Wilson a month ago that this was a small private ship bringing in scientists. It is on the National Geographic web site and the trip has taken 14 months to organize."

He advised that Port Vila would not be included in two additional tours organized by the same company because of the problems caused. The industry is becoming more and more frustrated by the lack of action from the government and police in dealing with these problems.

He is examining the possibility of taking legal action to recoup lost business. The company employs 31 Ni Vanuatu.

While Port Vila Efate Transport Association President, Willie Wilson could not be reached before going to press, the fear that tour operators have is that National Geographic, which is a powerful global media organization based in America, which publishes the popular color magazine, National Geographic, circulated around the world along with television and radio programs, was understood to have brought a film crew with them and they might have filmed the roadblock.

Denny Zacharie of Erakor Security Services who was on duty at the wharf confirmed seeing the film crew return with their equipment to the ship. The ship immediately set sail for Lelepa, Hat Island, Ambrym and Santo [to the north] and indicated it would cancel two more trips planned for later this year.

The passengers are not tourists in the literal sense of the word but renowned scientists and naturalists who devote their time to researching rare plants and insects and animals around the world.

June 1, 2006

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