Vanuatu Tours & Holidays
An unforgettable archipelago of 83 islands, each one more beautiful than the last.
Vanuatu isn’t your run-of-the-mill tropical paradise in the South Pacific. Sure, you could spend your time lying on deserted beaches or swinging in hammocks, but there are volcanoes to be hiked, reefs to be snorkelled, songs to be sung and dances to be… attempted. There’s plenty to dip your toe into – from cascades to hot springs to flourishing marine reserves – and the swimming spots are just the start. A welcome here is like a welcome home; come to Vanuatu and you’ll never want to leave.
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Vanuatu at a glance
Port Vila (51,000)
Bislama, English, French
(GMT+11:00) Port Vila, Noumea, Honiara
Type I (Australian/New Zealand & Chinese/Argentine 2/3-pin)
Learn more about Vanuatu
History and government
It’s believed that the first people to inhabit the islands of Vanuatu were the Lapita, who left remnants of their pottery at sites stretching from northern PNG to Samoa. It’s thought that they appeared in the South Pacific around the years 1000–1500 BC.
Villages popped up on different islands though people were separated by language and geographical features. There was also a strong belief in black magic, which was blamed when misfortune struck. Cannibalism was rife among the different tribes as it was believed that consuming an enemy would bring their strength to the victor.
Age of exploration
The 17th century saw explorers arriving in the South Pacific from Europe. In 1605 a Portuguese explorer employed by Spain arrived in Vanuatu during an attempt to find ‘terra australis’. He pulled into Santo Island and, in the belief that he had found modern-day Australia, named it Terra Australia del Espiritu Santo.
In the late 18th century James Cook mapped the islands of Vanuatu and named several of them including Tanna and Ambrym, names which are still used today. He named the entire island chain the New Hebrides.
The first missionaries arrived in Vanuatu in the 19th century but were met with a hostile reception, perhaps because of previous atrocities committed by traders. After several missionaries were eaten the church sent Polynesian missionaries in the hope they would be accepted, but they too were served up for tea.
This isn’t to say that cannibalism was rife throughout all of Vanuatu. A chief named Roi Mata ruled Central Vanuatu (Efate, Lelepa, Moso etc.) during the 17th century and he famously brought the different tribes together for a feast, espousing the benefits of living in harmony. He told people to bring different items to the feast – yam, coconut and more – and then split them into tribes based on the item. To this day people identify themselves through their mother’s tribe, whether it’s the coconut tribe, yam tribe, breadfruit tribe or whatever.
Despite this new-found peace in some parts of Vanuatu, other areas suffered from various epidemics as a result of interaction with traders and missionaries. Entire populations were wiped out as a result of measles, smallpox, pneumonia and more, and over the course of the 19th century it’s estimated that the population dropped from approximately one million to 100,000.
British and French Influence
Settlers from Britain continued to arrive in Vanuatu through the 19th century and so did the French, who had laid claim to New Caledonia in 1853. By the end of the century much of Vanuatu’s farmland was owned by foreigners.
The British and the French continued to clash, with a 1906 agreement decreeing that the British and French would have equals right in Vanuatu while the locals would essentially have none. Everything was duplicated – police, schools, currencies – and laws and regulations differed depending on whether you subscribed to French or British rule.
Pacific War and the path to independence
WWII saw the Japanese advance through Pacific territories and the US sent soldiers to Vanuatu to construct military bases. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers ended up passing through the islands at some point and many locals were employed on the bases. Much of the American equipment was left in Vanuatu and the sunken planes and ships are now popular drawcards for divers.
Once the war had ended the slow journey towards independence began. The biggest issue for locals was the use of land by foreigners and several political movements sprung up in favour of independence. After various secession attempts and avoided conflicts with the British and French, independence was declared on 30 July 1980.
Vanuatu has had a rollercoaster ride since independence. The founding prime minister, Walter Lini, served until 1991 and after this everything became slightly chaotic. Bribery, corruption and mutinies dominated the political landscape, and these problems resurfaced in 2015.
Most recently, Vanuatu has seen huge investment from the Chinese into tourist and government infrastructure. This investment has sparked conversations about the power balance in the South Pacific as the Chinese naval strength continues to grow. For now, however, Vanuatu remains a popular tourist destination thanks to its stunning beaches, excellent diving and welcoming culture.
Geography and environment
Vanuatu is made up of 83 islands of varying sizes, though not all of these are inhabited. The northern islands have an equatorial climate, which is hot and rainy throughout the year, while the central and southern islands have a tropical climate with a hot, rainy season from December through March and a cool, dry season from May to October.
The islands are actually spread some 900 kilometres from north to south and while this geographical spread means the weather can be quite different, most of islands are characterised by a mountainous, volcanic landscape with quite high elevation. Given Vanuatu’s location on the Ring of Fire, there are a number of active volcanoes, the most famous of which is Mt Yasur on Tanna Island. It’s nicknamed the Lighthouse of the Pacific as its glowing cone can be seen from the sea and is also a popular tourist attraction as it’s possible to walk right up to its crater.
The islands are typical of the South Pacific – mangoes, bananas and coconuts grow among swaying palm trees, while life below the water is perhaps even more beautiful. The coral reefs provide a home for an array of colourful fish, sharks and more. And though the coral in some areas has been damaged as a result of the cyclones, a strong recovery is expected.
On the topic of cyclones, Vanuatu has the unenviable title of the world’s most at-risk country for natural hazards, according to a UN report. Earthquakes, volcanoes, cyclones – the Ni-Vanuatu know them all well thanks to Vanuatu’s position in a very volatile area of the world. The most recent disaster, Cyclone Pam, came through in 2015 and levelled a huge area and left some 75,000 people homeless with an estimated 90 per cent of crops destroyed. Despite this, the Ni-Vanuatu constantly rebuild their island homes and revel in the strong ties they have with the land.
Festival and events
Given the spread of Vanuatu’s islands and the unique customs and traditions observed on each one, there are festivals throughout the year celebrating everything from Christian saints to black magic to the humble yam.
Vanuatu celebrates its independence from Britain and France on July 30 every year. Expect food, dancing and music across the country.
John Frum Day
John Frum is a mythical figure on Tanna Island. He’s worshipped by the island’s cargo cults and he is supposedly an America WWII soldiers who will materialistic wealth to those that follow him. February 15 every year is John Frum Day, during which followers hold a military parade complete with wooden rifles in the hope that John Frum will return.
Yam & Magic Festival
North Ambrym Island is known for the black magic that supposedly still exists on the island. This festival, held in July, celebrates the importance of the yam to the people of Vanuatu and features dancing, ritual magic and feasts.
St Andrew’s Day Festival
The locals of Rah and Mota Lava islands have been celebrating the life of Saint Andrew for over 100 years. The three-day festival is an infusion of Christian and traditional customs with singing, dancing, cooking and other cultural activities.
Culture and customs
You’ll struggle to find a bigger grin than the one that greets you in Vanuatu. This is, after all, the fourth-happiest country in the world, and there’s plenty for the locals to be happy about.
It’s hard to say what makes the Ni-Vanuatu – those from Vanuatu – such happy people. Maybe it’s the importance placed on family and social connection, maybe it’s the abundance of coconuts. Maybe it’s the fact that thanks to Chief Roi Mata, the threat of cannibalism no longer weighs heavy on their shoulders. Whatever it is, it pervades all 83 of the islands that make up Vanuatu.
The Ni-Vanuatu are Melanesian, the same as those coming from the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. They have almost no genetic relation to Polynesian people.
Religion plays an important role in Vanuatu’s daily life. The majority of the country practices Christianity but celebrations will usually blend traditional and Christian practices. And on the topic of celebrations, well, they’re common. There are festivals throughout the year and huge parties are held whenever there’s a wedding happening.
Eating and drinking
Vanuatu’s cuisine is very much based off sea food, fresh fruits and vegetables. While Port Vila has plenty of supermarkets and restaurants, those living on the smaller islands rely heavily on what they can grow in their gardens. In the mornings the men will usually head off on fishing boats in search of yellowfin and skipjack tuna and the catch will be split among their family, their neighbours and, if they manage to get a big haul, they might sell some fish on to the local restaurants too.
These are some of the culinary highlights to look out for:
Laplap is Vanuatu’s national dish. It’s simple, it’s tasty and it’s widespread. The locals take a taro, grate it and pound it into a paste, then it’s laid out on a banana leaf and coconut milk is added. They add meat – maybe pork, beef, fish or even flying fox – then wrap it up and put it underground in a rock oven.
Go to your garden and grab some cassava, island cabbage and coconut. Grate the cassava and roll it up in some island cabbage like a sushi roll. Shuck the coconut, add water to the flesh and make a coconut cream, then poach the rolls in the cream. Voila.
You’ve no doubt seen a pineapple before, but you haven’t tasted pineapple until you’ve had it in Vanuatu. This is the sweetest, tastiest pineapple in the world and you’ll find it everywhere.
If you’ve previously spent time in Melanesian or Polynesian places you’ve probably come across kava, a ceremonial drink made from the root of the kava plant. In Vanuatu, it has become part of everyday life for many local men and they’ll often get together at the end of the day to share a shell or two. It’s said to have a calming effect on the body and you may well be offered some when you arrive in a new community.
Shopping in Vanuatu is limited to the market stalls typical of Melanesian nations. There are ample souvenirs of the cheap plastic kind, but we recommend trying to find a locally made memento.
Remember, it's a good idea to check with your local customs officials to ensure that you are able to bring certain items back into your home country. Australia and New Zealand generally have strict quarantine laws.
The local women weave baskets, bookmarks, placemats and more. These can be found in the markets in bigger cities like Port Vila, or in smaller villages that you may be visiting on a day tour.
Some of the local men carve small necklaces and larger sculptures that can be purchased at markets or in villages. Dolphins and turtles are particularly popular.
Visit the craft markets in the bigger towns and you’ll almost certainly find a local artist selling paintings of sunsets, volcanoes and sea creatures. Most of these artists are incredibly talented and the colourful paintings are of great value.
Tanna Island is well known for its coffee production. Find some beans to bring home on the island itself or you’ll be able to pick up a bag at one of Port Vila’s many cafes or markets.
A hangover of Vanuatu’s French colonial days, there are several small chocolate-makers operating in Port Vila. Pay them a visit, sample some different flavours and perhaps bring a few blocks home.
Vanuatu travel FAQs
Trips from 1 January 2023 onwards
From 1 January 2023, Intrepid will no longer require travellers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 (excluding all Polar trips and select adventure cruises).
However, we continue to strongly recommend that all Intrepid travellers and leaders get vaccinated to protect themselves and others.
Specific proof of testing or vaccination may still be required by your destination or airline. Please ensure you check travel and entry requirements carefully.
The best time to visit Vanuatu’s southern islands is from May to October. This is generally the coolest, driest period of the year, with the cyclone season beginning in November. If you’re visiting the northern islands, the best time to visit is from July to September.
When it comes to theft and personal crime, Vanuatu is a very safe place to visit. Travellers are advised to take precautions in Port Vila and avoid extravagant displays of wealth and walking alone at night.
Given Vanuatu’s geographical location, earthquakes and cyclones occur regularly and tsunamis do happen too.
Cyclone season lasts from November/December through till April/May but they can happen at any time. Local phone numbers are messaged and regularly updated when a cyclone moves into Vanuatu’s waters.
Port Vila has a tsunami warning system and travellers are advised to move to higher ground if there is a long tremor or warning sirens.
Travellers of all nationalities can apply for a visa on arrival in Vanuatu. This visa lasts a maximum of 30 days.
Visas are the responsibility of the individual traveller. Entry requirements can change at any time, so it's important that you check for the latest information. Please visit the relevant consular website of the country or countries you’re visiting for detailed and up-to-date visa information specific to your country of origin. Check the Essential Trip Information section of your tour itinerary for more information.
Tipping is not customary in Vanuatu though tipping loose change or rounding up the bill at a restaurant is always appreciated. A smile and ‘tank you tumas’ (thank you) should suffice. It’s worth nothing that bargaining in shops and markets is not part of the culture here either.
In Port Vila and Luganville there are a number of cafes and bars that offer free wi-fi. Most hotels and resorts will also offer wi-fi, either free or for a small fee. In the villages people tend to use their phones for internet access – if you’d like to be able to access the internet for the entire length of your trip then your best option is to purchase a local SIM with Digicel or TVL.
Some islands will be better suited to a particular carrier so if you are spending the majority of your time in one place, then it’s worth having a chat at the phone shop about which SIM is best for you.
If you’d like to use your mobile/cell phone in Vanuatu your best option is to purchase a local SIM card on arrival. The main villages on most islands generally have good 3G reception, while the larger islands including Efate and Santo have 4G reception. If you wish to use your own SIM then be sure to activate global roaming before departing your home country and check with your carrier for international fees.
The toilets in Vanuatu will vary depending on your itinerary. In hotels, flushable Western-style toilets are the norm, and the same applies for many bars and cafes. The situation will be a lot more basic on the smaller islands – don’t expect a flushing toilet.
Vanuatu’s unit of currency is the vatu (vt). Prices here are approximate and shown in US dollars for ease of comparison.
- Beer in a bar = USD 3–5
- Public transport in Port Vila = USD 1
- A local meal in Port Vila = USD 4–6
- Western-style meal at a bar or café = USD 8–12
- Cappuccino at a cafe = USD 3–4
The tap water in Port Vila and Luganville is generally safe to drink. Outside of these areas, water will need to be treated. For environmental reasons, try to avoid buying bottled water and fill a reusable water bottle instead. Ask your leader where filtered water can be found.
Major credit cards are generally accepted at hotels, supermarkets and restaurants in the main touristed areas of Vanuatu like Port Vila and Luganville. Outside of these cities, as well as in smaller shops, it’s unlikely that credit cards will be accepted so make sure you have cash on you.
ATMs can be found in Port Vila and Luganville but outside of these cities the access is minimal. If you plan on leaving the main tourist areas for an extended period it’s important to be prepared with a good supply of vatu.
From May–October Port Vila sees average temperatures of 17–27°C (63–81°F) with an average rainfall of 105–135 mm (4.1–5.3 inches). The maximum average temperature increases to 30°C (86°F) over the summertime with over 300 mm (11.8 inches) of rainfall. The north sees similar temperature ranges but with a lot more rainfall. Keep in mind too that the humidity makes it feel much, much warmer than it necessarily is.
- 1 Jan New Year’s Day
- 21 Feb Father Lini Day
- 5 Mar Custom Chief’s Day
- Mar/Apr Good Friday
- Mar/Apr Easter Monday
- 1 May Labour Day
- May Ascension Day
- 24 Jul Children’s Day
- 30 Jul Independence Day
- Aug Assumption of Mary
- 5 Oct Constitution Day
- 29 Nov Unity Day
- 25 Dec Christmas Day
- 26 Dec Family Day
For a current list of public holidays in X, including the movable dates noted above, go to:
Though same-sex sexual activity was legalised in Vanuatu in 2007, and those who identify differently are now protected under discrimination laws, same-sex marriage is still not recognised by the government. Public displays of affection are not common in Vanuatu, which is a conservative and very Christian country, so both LGBTQIA+ and heterosexual couples should display discretion in public.
For more detailed and up-to-date advice, we recommend visiting Equaldex or ILGA before you travel.
If you are travelling solo on an Intrepid group tour, you will share accommodation with a passenger of the same gender as per your passport information. If you don’t identify with the gender assigned on your passport, please let us know at time of booking and we’ll arrange the rooming configuration accordingly. A single supplement is available on some tours for travellers who do not wish to share a room.
Absolutely. All passengers travelling with Intrepid are required to purchase travel insurance before the start of their trip. Your travel insurance details will be recorded by your leader on the first day of the trip. Due to the varying nature, availability and cost of health care around the world, travel insurance is very much an essential and necessary part of every journey.
For more information on insurance, please go to: Travel Insurance
Intrepid is committed to making travel widely accessible, regardless of ability or disability. That’s why we do our best to help as many people see the world as possible, regardless of any physical or mental limitations they might have. We’re always happy to talk to travellers with disabilities and see if we can help guide them towards the most suitable itinerary for their needs and, where possible, make reasonable adjustments to our itineraries.
Vanuatu, along with most of the South Pacific, does not have good facilities for travellers with disabilities. Public transport (where it exists) doesn’t tend to have ramp access, the footpaths are often damaged or non-existent, and travelling by boat between islands can be logistically complex. Some of the larger international resorts will have rooms equipped for those with limitations but this is not the norm. That said, the Ni-Vanuatu look after their elders and the disabled and will go out of their way to help travellers that are having issues.
As a general rule, knowing some common words in the local language, carrying a written itinerary with you and taking to the streets in a group, rather than solo, can help make your travel experience the best it can be.
Loose-fitting clothing is best to keep travellers cool throughout the year. Malaria is present on the islands, so long-sleeved shirts and light trousers are great for wearing at dusk and dawn when the mosquitos are about. It can get quite cool in the evenings during the winter (June, July, August), so it’s worth having a light jumper/sweater as well as a light raincoat for rain showers throughout the year.
Intrepid takes the health and safety of its travellers seriously, and takes every measure to ensure that trips are safe, fun and enjoyable for everyone. We recommend that all travellers check with their government or national travel advisory organisation for the latest information before departure:
Go to: http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/
Go to: https://travel.gc.ca/
From the UK?
Go to: http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/
From New Zealand?
Go to: http://www.safetravel.govt.nz/
From the US?
Go to: http://travel.state.gov/
The World Health Organisation also provides useful health information.