One year on from the devastation of Cyclone Pam, Charlot Salwai, Vanuatu’s prime minister, issued a statement on 14 March outlining a two-year recovery programme for the island state. But amid the list of projects for improving infrastructure, there was no mention of the airport.
Yet the isolated Pacific nation has been shunned by international airlines for two months because of fears that lumps of the crumbling runway might be sent flying into the undercarriage of planes landing at Port Vila airport, Reuters reported.
Repairs have now begun on the runway, but the decision of Qantas, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia to suspend flights to Vanuatu graphically illustrated the vulnerability of a small island state’s economy. Tourism generates about 40% of Vanuatu’s GDP and a third of its permanent employment. This reliance is all the more acute after Cyclone Pam left both staples and cash crops badly damaged (coconut palms are expected to take 10 years to recover).
The dire state of the runway, however, was not due to cyclone damage, the Guardian said, but rather ‘degradation over time and government delays in upgrading’. Meanwhile, shortly before flights were suspended, the Vanuatu Daily Post reported that a Virgin flight to Australia had left Port Vila without any clearance or directions—the captain apparently consulted nearby pilots and took off ‘after a prolonged silence’ from the control tower.