WELLINGTON, New Zealand – A massive cyclone tore through the South Pacific archipelago nation of Vanuatu on Saturday, and officials are still trying to assess the level of damage and number of deaths.
A snapshot of the small country, from volcanoes to snorkeling:
A volcanic island chain that forms a Y-shape, Vanuatu is located about a quarter of the way from Australia to Hawaii. It's made up of more than 80 islands, about 65 of which are inhabited. Its total land area makes it similar to the size of Connecticut. There are regular volcanic eruptions and Vanuatu is home to one of the world's most active volcanoes, Yasur. The archipelago has more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) of coastline and its highest mountain rises 1,880 meters (6,170 feet) above sea level. The country is prone to cyclones from January to April.
Almost all of Vanuatu's 267,000 residents are indigenous Melanesians known as Ni-Vanuatu. About 47,000 live in the capital, Port Vila. About two-thirds of the population relies on small-scale agriculture to provide them a subsistence living. Other industries include fishing and tourism. Per capita GDP is less than $5,000. The country doesn't have many mineral resources, but does export copra, beef, timber and coffee, among other commodities.
While buildings in Port Vila are often made of concrete or other substantial materials, away from the capital, and especially in the remote outer islands, homes and other structures can be flimsy. That's why aid workers are worried about the number of homes that have been blown away by Cyclone Pam. Even in the best of times, telephone networks and other infrastructure can be patchy, and Internet use is relatively low. Since the cyclone, it has been almost impossible to make contact with anyone from the outer islands, making it hard for officials to assess the extent of the damage.
Named the New Hebrides by explorer Captain James Cook in 1774, the country was settled by both French and English missionaries in the 19th century. Britain and France agreed to jointly run the nation under an arrangement that lasted from 1906 until Vanuatu gained independence in 1980. Both French and English are spoken in the country, as well as 100 or more indigenous languages. Life expectancy is about 73 years and the population skews young, with a median age of 21 years.
Vanuatu is off the beaten track, but it is a popular destination for tourists from New Zealand and Australia, with about 200,000 people visiting each year. It's known for its beaches and sparkling waters that provide plenty of snorkeling and diving opportunities. The Lonely Planet travel guide lists other, lesser-known attractions: a luxury ocean liner shipwrecked in clear water; a banyan tree the size of a soccer field; extraordinary cultural ceremonies; one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes, Yasur, which tourists can climb on horseback or on foot.
With a liberal financial regime, Vanuatu fashioned itself into an offshore tax shelter in the early 1970s. Banks set up shop there, and by the late 1980s offshore financial services accounted for 12 percent of the economy. But developed countries that were trying to stop money-laundering put pressure on Vanuatu, and many banks ended up closing. Offshore financial services still contribute to the economy, but not to the same extent they once did.