You awake from the darkness, eyes hazy, having indirectly gazed at a bright light for too long. Blinking away the blur, you find yourself laying on the silky sands of an endless golden beach, the suns heat relentless as it blazes down. In front of you, distant peaks of green punctuate the crystal-clear ocean waters, with small stilted huts and paddle boarders in-between. Each wave rolls quietly in, one after the other, as rhythmic tribal music fills the air. Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, the reality of life in the South Pacific region depends entirely on perspective.
There is no doubt the South Pacific region has a history as colourful as its existence, and the stunning locales sprinkled throughout the region have produced some interesting contrasts over the years. Having been romanticised in literature and on-stage in recent decades, the picturesque island nations are attracting visitors from all over the world. Recent statistics reflect that tourism makes up nearly 50% of GDP in some markets, with holidaymakers from Australia and New Zealand largely represented in meccas like Bali and Vanuatu. In fact, over a quarter of a million of us made the journey in the third quarter of 2014, according to the most recent figures available from the Regional Tourism Resource Centre. But it isn’t all cocktails and clear skies in the regions silver lining.
Despite the spike in tourism dollars, actual conditions for native residents are seemingly not improving. In the wake of long-term weak governance, Papua New Guinea – a similarly popular holiday destination – still faces a number of major infrastructural problems that are subject to the help of international aid. With a life expectancy of just over 60 years of age and low education levels, the Australian Government reports that over 40% of PNGs 2 million residents are still living poverty due to uneven economic growth over the last few decades. Staggering statistics, and ones that go against the grain of the regions oft-smiling holiday snaps. As PNGs closest neighbour, it’s no surprise that Australia is reportedly the largest single aid contributor, with over $550 million projected to be spent on regional improvements in this financial year alone. The ongoing aid program, not only in PNG but across the island nations, is Australia’s attempt to encourage positive development and a stronger economic outlook overall. Building more pillars of support, to take the hefty weight off shaky tourism dollars. Though as with any ambitious plan, the economic-growth journey has not been free of the occasional setback.
International media coverage of regional security jitters has also affected the critically important tourism industry at times. The Melanesian ‘arc of instability’ has seen four Bali coups, seven military mutinies (featuring Vanuatu, Fiji and PNG), an accidental cross-border military assault and military oppression in West Papua – all within the last 25 years. With prominent international media coverage of the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 – particularly in the key Australian market – the livelihoods of family’s dependant on tourism business quickly unravelled in the aftermath as traveller numbers dwindled. The blasts also revealed the vulnerability of the Balinese government, which had no pre-emptive plans or procedures for crisis management, further hampering the community rebuilding effort. From a reporting aspect, some academics argue the practice of “parachute journalism” – where reporters from outside countries are sent into foreign crisis zones with little local knowledge – can further skew international perceptions because of singularly focused coverage. The geographical distance of many Pacific Island territories and media budgetary difficulties in a post-internet world have sadly resulted in barebones “westernised” conflict-only coverage in recent years. Perceptions of the endless golden beaches are turning darker still. The multinational aid investment is not simply a handholding exercise however – it is often a necessity in the face of adversity.
The poverty-scarred island nations frequently see some of the world’s most intense and destructive weather patterns, with Cyclone Pam being the most recent example. Vanuatu was decimated by the Category 5 cyclone on March 13, with over 250,000 people on three islands affected. The disaster triggered a wide-ranging disaster relief effort, spearheaded by the charity organisations and governments of surrounding countries. As the Vanuatu lands minister Ralph Regenvanu told Guardian Australia, “This is the worst disaster to affect Vanuatu ever as far as we know.” With global warming debates ongoing, some also point to the South Pacific islands as a particularly vulnerable area that may produce the world’s first “climate refugees” – people displaced due to climate change.
Through the fog of any storm cell however, one thing remains clear: the South Pacific really is a region rich in colour – in history and in life. While the vibrancy depicted in your friend’s glossy holiday snaps depicts the best of the island nations, the real question lingers just beneath the surface of beauty: are you willing to understand the worst too?