Asked if there has been enough done to address the basic issues of social and economic justice for bus drivers, South Sea Shipping Managing Director John Tonner says, “We’ve discovered through the process that there’s been a lot of filtered communication, and at times miscommunication.”
Part of the next steps for the tourism industry, he says, “are an increased awareness of who is doing what, so that the butter is spread across the loaf.”
Spreading the butter all the way across the proverbial loaf is key to achieving any resolution at the wharf.
Mr Tonner begins with an uncomfortable truth that everyone sees but no one seems able to resolve.
“The real problem is basically that there are far too many buses and taxis for the volume required.”
“We have a stressed aviation [sector],” he continues, “so there’s a bigger problem.
But is it being addressed? Socially, I think we still have a long way to go.
Economically, I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
The problem isn’t as one-sided as some seem to think.
Among the issues that came to light in the wake of the recent violence is the actual number of local tour and transfer providers who benefit from the current state of affairs.
In one typical cruise ship day, Adventures in Paradise directly provided 9 out of 123 bus trips, the remainder of which were provided by sub-contractors.
AIP itself runs a number of its own tours, but the overwhelming majority are locally owned and operated, including Ekasup cultural village and Mele Cascades.
In all, AIP claims, 68% of cruise ship passengers go on a tour that is 100% Ni Vanuatu owned and operated. Qualifying tours are added and updated periodically by AIP.
The next scheduled competition will be in July.
Adventures in Paradise itself operates on a two-year contract with the cruise lines.
It is subject to a rigorous qualification process that includes compliance with a 150 page manual and subscription to a VT 9.7 million special insurance policy, which is in addition to the company’s local liability insurance provided by QBE.
Ignoring the social and political dimension for a moment, it’s clear there’s an economic gulf between what the cruise ships want in a tour operator, and what the overwhelming majority of local transport and tour operators can afford to give.
It’s also perfectly clear that nobody wants to leave things the way they are.
But if the government simply mandated that these operations were to be a reserved business, as things stand today, no other entity exists that could provide the service to the cruise operators’ satisfaction.
How, then, do we bootstrap local capability so that the majority of Ni Vanuatu drivers aren’t left angry and empty-handed?
This is a question that must be answered if the wharf situation is going to be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.