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Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005
New chief puts paradise on map
By JEFF HAMMOND
Special to The Japan Times
Many dream of traveling the world and setting themselves up in a tropical paradise, but very few people make it happen. Even fewer get themselves appointed village chief of a remote Melanesian island in the process. But that's exactly what has happened to entrepreneur and art collector Ofer Shagan.
Born in Israel, 40-year-old Shagan has been living in Tokyo for 16 years, the last six of which have seen him flying back and forth to Vanuatu -- a necklace of 83 islands strung across the translucent blue of the South Pacific east of New Caledonia and west of Fiji. Through those visits, Shagan has become increasingly involved in the destiny of the land that has captivated his imagination.
Despite its stunning beauty, and being only a three-hour flight from Australia, Vanuatu remains a remarkably overlooked travel destination. That is not for want of its tourism potential -- with breathtaking jungles, lakes, lagoons, beaches and the ocean, Vanuatu is perfect for trekking, scuba diving, fishing and more -- but because of its underdeveloped infrastructure and inadequate promotion. Only Port Vila, the country's capital on the island of Efate, currently has the creature comforts many tourists require, since most of the population (estimated at just below 200,000) still live in simple, traditional villages, most of which lack electricity or running water.
Shagan has begun shaking things up and is poised to bring holidaymakers and investors into the country, primarily through his brainchild, the Japan Vanuatu Friendship Members Club (VJF-MC), which is in the early stages of developing holiday homes near Port Vila, taking advantage not only of his Web site at www.vjf-mc.com but also of the infrastructure already in place there.
Not wishing to be left out of the action, the village of Tatou on the country's second-largest island, Malekula, has bestowed on Shagan the rare honor of appointing him their village chief. The move is not so much in recognition of his efforts so far, but in anticipation of what he may help them achieve in the future -- boosting the island's economy and tourism industry, while at the same time protecting its culture and environment.
On the occasion of the ceremony proclaiming him chief Apia Nemt Enuanu (the Eyes of the Chiefs), on Nov. 22, the VJF-MC flew myself and a photographer out for a whirlwind tour of the highlights of Vanuatu.
Bouncing off the wooden back seats of a pick-up truck hurtling around the bumpy dirt roads of Malekula turned out to be a great way to get to know the easygoing ni-Vanuatu (people of Vanuatu) in our group. I asked Sam, the cameraman from the Vanuatu Culture Center, about his dreadlocks, and found out he is leaving his hair uncut out of respect for his deceased grandfather. "Actually, it's customary to grow a beard," he said with a laugh, "but it's just too hot" (Vanuatu hovers between 27 and 30 degrees Celsius all year round.) And yes, like many ni-Vanuatu, Sam loves reggae.
Sam came with us to film age-old tribes performing many traditional (or what ni-Vanuatu call "custom") dances, marking everything from circumcision rites to the summoning of the spirits of ancestors. Traditional Vanuatu culture barely survived the onslaughts of French and British colonialism -- under which it was known as the New Hebrides until independence in 1980 -- and it exists today alongside Christianity brought by European missionaries. However, its future is again uncertain, as some villagers begin to turn away from tradition and toward the comforts of modern living.
Shagan believes that tourism, in addition to bringing in much-needed income, can also help in this regard. "If more tourists come to view their culture," he said, "the villagers will have more reason to keep it and continue it."
The ceremony installing him as chief was nothing if not a traditional affair: the villagers dressed Shagan in a nambas (penis sheath) made of pandanus leaf, and with Dona Browning, the island's MP, he then headed a procession of dancing village men and women. Shagan and his delegation were welcomed into the community with the traditional gifts of a mat, symbolizing a place to stay, two yams, symbolizing nourishment, and a white chicken, standing for peace. After the communal drinking of kava (a foul-tasting but pleasantly soporific drink made from pepper plant roots), it was time for the feast -- which centered around the national dish of lap-lap -- steamed meat, fish or vegetables wrapped in banana leaves.
Asked how he felt about his new position, Shagan said, "The title of chief doesn't change anything -- the desire to provide the people of the country with all their needs, and to promote the attractions of the country all over the world stays the same."
He is careful, however, not to come across as a one-man charity. In his speech to the villagers, for example, Shagan promised he would find a solution to the water problem of the village -- but he insisted that they must work together on the project in order to make it happen.
"Many people in the village have told me that they are happy that Shagan has been made chief," said Patricia Tessie, who was brought up in the village. She now runs the nearby Rose Bay Bungalows, her family's business and one of the few accommodations for guests on the island, and organizes trips to custom dances around Malekula.
"Because Shagan has traveled the world, he has experience," she commented, "and he can see the needs of the people clearly. I also hope that his encouragement of tourism will give the people the creative mind to make more tourism activities."
Although villagers in Malekula have many expectations of Shagan, by necessity he has to start out step by step -- beginning with his projects around Port Vila. Aware that "development" can all too easily ruin the natural beauty of a country -- especially when big developers move in -- Shagan and the VJF-MC are being careful about how they go about things. "It is important," he said, "to attract the same right-minded individuals and businesses who love the country's culture and beauty, and wish to protect and promote it."
For those who get in quick, a parcel of paradise comes attractively priced, since the VJF-MC charges $10,000 for membership and a 2,000-sq.-meter plot of land located no more than a 40-minute drive from Port Vila. But as more members come on board and demand for the plots increases, the price is likely to steadily rise. On their plot, members are entitled to build, at their own expense, their dream holiday home. Shagan has flown in architects from Israel to look at the topography, the culture of the country and then draw up house designs, though members are free to use their own architect and build their houses in any style as long as they observe the following rules installed to retain the area's unspoiled natural beauty: any property built on a plot may occupy no more than 400 sq. meters, be no more than 9 meters high, and have no more than two stories.
Part of the idea is to create jobs for the local community and revenue from overseas visitors staying in the country. Rather than agriculture or industry, which could endanger the natural balance, Shagan is convinced that tourism is the key to Vanuatu's future.
"Tourism will make the locals understand the importance of the treasures they are sitting on," he concludes. "If tourists come and say they love the beautiful sea and the nature in Vanuatu, the locals will have a reason to keep it the way it is."