Vanuatu (previously known as the New Hebrides Islands) is an archipelago nation consisting of 83 islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, north of New Zealand and east of Australia.
Vanuatu's total area is roughly 12,274 square kilometres (4,739 sq mi), of which its land surface is very limited (roughly 4,700 square kilometres (1,800 sq mi)). Most of the islands are steep, with unstable soils and little permanent fresh water. One estimate, made in 2005, is that only 9% of land is used for agriculture (7% with permanent crops, plus 2% considered arable). The shoreline is mostly rocky with fringing reefs and no continental shelf, dropping rapidly into the ocean depths.
Vanuatu's population (estimated in 2008 as growing 2.4% annually) is placing increasing pressure on land and resources for agriculture, grazing, hunting, and fishing. Some 90% of Vanuatu households fish and consume fish, which has caused intense fishing pressure near villages and the depletion of near-shore fish species. While well-vegetated, most islands show signs of deforestation. The islands have been logged, particularly of high-value timber, subjected to wide-scale slash-and-burn agriculture, and converted to coconut plantations and cattle ranches, and now show evidence of increased soil erosion and landslides.
The prehistory of Vanuatu is obscure; archaeological evidence supports the commonly held theory that peoples speaking Austronesian languages first came to the islands some 4,000 years ago. Pottery fragments have been found dating back to 1300–1100 BC.
The first island in the Vanuatu group discovered by Europeans was Espiritu Santo, when in 1606 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós working for the Spanish crown, spied what he thought was a southern continent. Europeans did not return until 1768. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence.
During the 1860s, planters in Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia, and the Samoa Islands, in need of labourers, encouraged a long-term indentured labour trade called "blackbirding". At the height of the labour trade, more than one-half the adult male population of several of the Islands worked abroad. Fragmentary evidence indicates that the current population of Vanuatu is greatly reduced compared to pre-contact times.
The British and French agreed in 1906 to an Anglo-French Condominium. Challenges to this form of government began in the early 1940s. The arrival of Americans during World War II, with their informal demeanour and relative wealth, was instrumental in the rise of nationalism in the islands. The belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) promising Melanesian deliverance. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with a member in Parliament.
In 1980, amidst the brief Coconut War, the independent Republic of Vanuatu was created. During the 1990s Vanuatu experienced political instability which eventually resulted in a more decentralised government. The Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary group, attempted a coup in 1996 because of a pay dispute. New elections have been called for several times since 1997, most recently in 2004.
European settlers released several saltwater crocodiles on the island, although today's population on the island officially stands at 2 or 3 medium-sized individuals on the Banks Islands and no breeding has been observed. Despite its proximity to Papua New Guinea, crocodiles do not naturally occur on Vanuatu.
With such a large north-south area, Vanuatu has all the tropical variances possible. From hot and humid in the north, to mild and dry in the south. The Capital Port Vila on Efate can expect 27°C in July to 30°C in January. Nights can drop to 12°C. Humidity from December to February is around 82% and 70% around July.
Rainfall from January to April is around 300mm per month - for the rest of the year around 200mm per month. The Banks Islands in the top North can receive above 4,000mm of rain in a year, yet the southern islands may receive less than 2,000mm.
Cyclones are natural phenomena to understand and respect. Mainstream tourism facilities are solidly built and experienced in cyclone management. Cyclones appear (in varying degrees with plenty of warning) on an average every couple of years from December to March. By following instructions given by the local authorities, you will be in no danger.
Tourism peaks in the months of July to December. The months of January to June are the quietest. Experienced travellers take advantage of these tourism troughs to travel, as airlines, accommodation providers and other tourism related businesses discount heavily during this period.
The months of January to June are a little more humid, but cooled by the occasional tropical down pour. The added bonus is that in this period, tourism numbers are low. You have more opportunities to mingle with locals and carelessly do your own thing instead of being rushed by the crowd (except when cruise ships are in Port).
The traditional music of Vanuatu is still thriving in the rural areas of Vanuatu. Musical instruments consist mostly of idiophones: drums of various shape and size, slit gongs, stamping tubes, as well as rattles, among others. Another musical genre that has become widely popular during the 20th century in all areas of Vanuatu, is known as string band music. It combines guitars, ukulele, and popular songs.
More recently the music of Vanuatu, as an industry, grew rapidly in the 1990s and several bands have forged a distinctive ni-Vanuatu identity. Popular genres of modern commercial music, which are currently being played in the urban areas include zouk music and reggaeton. Reggaeton, a variation of rap/hip-hop spoken in the Spanish language, played alongside its own distinctive beat, is especially played in the local nightclubs of Port Vila with, mostly, an audience of Westerners and tourists.