Formerly known as the New Hebrides, Vanuatu was jointly governed by British and French administrations in 1906, then attaining independence on 30 July 1980 joining the Commonwealth Nations, making Port Vila the nation’s capital city. Port Vila now serves as Vanuatu’s administrative and economic centre, largest city, and location for its most prominent educational institutions.

Foundation of the City

While the area occupied by Port Vila has been inhabited by indigenous Melanesians for thousands of years, beginning in the early 17th century, the archipelago that is now called Vanuatu was colonised by various European powers including the Portuguese, French and British. Initially overshadowed by the settlement and port of Havannah, located on the northern coast of the island of Efate, by the 19th century, the area that is now Port Vila began to assume greater economic importance. The current incarnation of Port Vila was largely shaped by a handful of historical events occurring in the second half of the 20th century:

Vanuatu becomes a tax haven: Beginning in the 1970s, Vanuatu was established as an international tax haven, giving rise to a construction boom and expansion of financial services as a proportion of the local economy. Another consequence of Vanuatu’s tax status relates to commercial shipping registration. Today, numerous merchant vessels and international shipping companies utilise Vanuatu’s open-registry shipping, better known also as “flag-of-convenience registry, in order to enjoy the tax benefits and benign regulations of Vanuatu nationality.

Expansion and modernisation of the port and wharf in Vila Harbour: Sparked in part by a boom in the global price of nickel in the 1970s and transformation of Vanuatu’s economy following is tax status modification, the expansion of the wharf and modernisation of the port led to Port Vila’s emerging role as a tourist destination and solidified its importance to the country’s economy.

Vanuatu gains independence: After a unified government was established in 1978 and new constitution providing the path to independence was passed in 1979, the Vanuatu archipelago formally gained independence in July 1980 and joined the Commonwealth of Nations.

Function of the City

The naturally protected Mele Bay and Vila Harbour was originally utilised for fishing and other local-serving commercial activities. Beginning in the 1880s, the colonial centre of the archipelago now called Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) moved from Havannah to Port Vila following a series of malaria outbreaks and coastal flooding. The relatively minimal colonial commercial interests in the region were based in Port Vila, spurring continued use of the natural harbour and expanding agricultural activity in the surrounding area.

Beginning in the 1970s, following the establishment of Vanuatu as an international tax haven, Port Vila experienced a building boom and corresponding expansion and modernisation of its port and wharf. These economic changes led to the expansion of the tourism industry, continued importance of the commercial port, and rapid growth in population over the following decades. Port Vila now serves as the most important harbour and commercial centre in Vanuatu.