Crime, Natural Hazards & Health in Vanuatu

Vanuatu is not a crime hot spot, but watch out for these natural dangers

It's hard to imagine that there could be any real threats to your health or welfare in such a divine tropical paradise, but there are! Sunburn anyone? Dehydration? What about The Bends or a huge Kava hangover? And let's not forget the massive fault line that lies underneath many of the islands in the Pacific - earthquake, tsunami, volcano activity, it's all there in sunny Vanuatu.

Ok, for most travelers the only real risk is a hangover from too many cocktails at a resort's swim-up bar but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be aware of all the risks!

Crime in Vanuatu

Ok, so Vanuatu is not a major crime hotspot, more like a slightly warm or even a tepid one. Crime in Vanuatu is low but it is on the increase and travelers have sometimes been the target of petty crime.

(Bustling downtown Port Villa.)

Robberies, assaults and sexual assaults against foreigners have been known to occur. Women in particular should avoid going out alone at night or to isolated locations.

Petty theft is an increasing problem. Keep your accommodation locked at all times and if possible your valuables stored in a safe.

From time to time prison breakouts occur and inevitably crime rates increase in the period following. Keep your eye on the local media and any safety alerts from locals. When breakouts do occur, keep your valuables locked up and stay away from any potential high crime areas.

Vanuatu's Natural Hazards

We've all seen the photos, crystal clear azure water, whiter than white beaches, blue cloudless skies - what possible risk could Mother Nature pose in Vanuatu?

(The wreckage of a second world war American plane shot down over Vanuatu)

Well, from November through April the Cyclone Season is in full force and usually causes flooding, landslides and major disruption to services. And Mother Nature doesn't always stick to the script, cyclones can occur at any time throughout the year.

The Vanuatu telephone directory has advice on the Vanuatu Natural Disaster Management Organisation's colour coded cyclone alert system. The directory also provides details on the basic safety procedures people should follow in the event of a cyclone threat.

You should also familiarize yourself with your hotel or accommodation evacuation plans. You should carry your travel documents with you at all times (i.e. passport, photo identification) or secure them in a safe, waterproof location.

Earthquakes are another fact of life in Vanuatu. In fact, on Boxing Day 2010 a 7.3 magnitude earthquake occurred offshore 230km south of Port Vila. The earthquake caused a small tsunami which left minor property damage on the island of Tanna. Smaller earthquakes followed, including one three days later 5.0 magnitude 30kms north of Port Vila.

(Not fireworks - an active volcano!)

Since January 2010, Vanuatu authorities have issued alerts for the volcano Mount Yasur on the island of Tanna. Volcano activity levels can change quickly. You should always contact the Vanuatu Tourism Office for the latest advice on volcanic activity. Alert levels and accessibility to volcanoes can change quickly.

If a natural disaster does occur during your stay or a warning is issued, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor local radio stations for updates.

Health & Disease in Vanuatu

Sunburn and dehydration are obvious health issues in the tropics. Always wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses and try to stay out of the sun during the main heat of the day, between 11am and 2pm. Also, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated (anything with an umbrella and fruit in it doesn't really count!).

As in any tropical areas, small sores or cuts can easily become infected if not given proper care. Coral cuts in particular can be dangerous as they can quickly become infected. If you do suffer a coral cut a squeeze of lime or lemon can be a good natural antiseptic or contact your accommodation provider for some hydrogen peroxide or antiseptic. Any cuts or abrasions should be left open and not covered with sticking plasters.

As in any tropical area the risk of malaria and other mosquito-borne disease including Dengue Fever is quite high. As always prevention is the best cure, wear an insect repellant at all times and use an insect net over your bedding if you accommodation doesn't have air-conditioning or insect screens.

Another danger to be aware of in the tropics is the risk of Ciguatera poisoning from warm water or reef fish. The symptoms of Ciguatera poisoning include:

  • tingling and numbness in fingers, toes, around lips, tongue, mouth and throat
  • burning sensation or skin pain on contact with cold water
  • joint and muscle pains with muscular weakness
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and/or abdominal cramps
  • headache, fatigue and fainting
  • extreme itchiness, often worsened by drinking alcohol
  • difficulty breathing in severe cases.

Fish that feed in warm ocean waters are potential carriers of ciguatera toxin. Problems are encountered with many fish species including coral trout, Spanish mackerel, red emperor, wrasse, reef cod, sturgeon fish, trevally and kingfish.

At present, there is no effective treatment or antidote for ciguatera poisoning. But you should always seek medical care if you suspect you are suffering from ciguatera poisoning. The foolproof way to avoid poisoning is to avoid eating any and all reef fish.

There are no real threats from land creatures in Vanuatu - no snakes, spiders or insects to be wary of. But as well as ciguatera poisoning there are a few risks posed by swimming creatures, including being bitten by a sea snake or stung by a stonefish and there are even saltwater crocodiles to be aware of. But the likelihood of an attack from any of these is nominal at best.

The only real threat on the land is from the large wild dog population in Port Vila, these have sometimes been known to attack small children, so avoid them.

Medical Care

If you do require medical treatment Hospital and medical facilities in Vanuatu are limited and very expensive. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for their services.

In the event of a serious illness or accident (including diving-related injuries), medical evacuation to a destination with appropriate facilities would be necessary. Also, there is only one hyperbaric chamber in Vanuatu, located in Port Vila. Many of the popular dive sites are located on other islands and it may take several hours to reach facilities in the event of an accident.

It is recommended that you get the following vaccinations before travelling to Vanuatu:

  • Hep A
  • Hep B
  • Typhoid (for longer term travellers)
  • Up to date Tetanus-Diptheria, Measles Mumps & Rubella

Local Customs

Like many Pacific Nations, people in Vanuatu are relatively conservative. Revealing clothing (especially wearing bikinis or going shirtless in the capital) is not advisable, it's considered disrespectful to the local people and can be interpreted by some indigenous inhabitants as an invitation for sex.

Kava is a local drink, made from the roots of the plant Piper methysticum, a type of pepper. The preparation and drinking of Kava is a nightly ritual in many Pacific nations including Vanuatu and locals will often invite travelers to join them for Kava.

Kava is served in a "shell" generally it tastes like dishwater so spitting or rinsing your mouth with soft drink is not considered rude. Kava has a sedative effect but some people do experience significant hangovers from too much consumption.

Getting Around in Vanuatu

Throughout Vanuatu, roads are not well maintained and extra care should be taken when driving.

Public transport vehicles are often in a poor state of repair and while inter-island boats are required to have a current seaworthiness certificate, many do not and their seaworthiness cannot be relied upon.

Also, high safety standards by tour operators are not always met, especially for adventure sports or diving. Sufficient life jackets and adequate safety equipment may not be provided. Recommended maintenance standards and safety precautions may not be observed. Always check the tour operators' credentials and safety equipment beforehand and ensure your travel insurance policy covers your planned activities.

To avoid trespassing on any of the islands, permission should be sought from local landowners before accessing non-public areas, including beaches. Some landowners may charge a fee for access.

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1 Comment

  • tim gorman said

    Having just returned with my family from a 6 week trip to Vanuatu i agree with most of the above information. We traveled to the Banks and Torries islands in the north then south to Tanna. We never experienced nor felt any threats of crime. Outside of the major towns of Port Vila and Luganvile our accommodations were never locked. Keep in mind these were the only places that had locks. We did meet a group of evangelists up in the Banks that had contacted ciguatera. From the looks of them and what they told us not a good thing to get. Having said that we did eat a lot of reef fish ourselves but only ones caught and presented by locals. We also cut our selfs repeatedly, mostly the feet and some cuts by coral. We did come prepared with antibiotics, both oral and topical and suffered no ill effects. We did choose to bandage our wounds. As with many things in life volcanos are inherently dangerous, us common sense.

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