(The Tyranny of Distance)2 : A visit to the Friendly Islands

September 13, 2010

Welcome to the Friendly Islands

Tonga is very far away. It’s a long way from the Americas and from China. It’s even further away from Europe. It’s nearly 2,000 km from New Zealand and 550 km from its nearest neighbor, the miniscule territory of Niue (population 1,400.) Bits of Tonga are far away even from each other; the country’s 176 islands, whose combined area is less than a third of the size of Rhode Island, are scattered over an Japan-sized piece of the Pacific.

Well, not any longer. Royal Tongan Airlines went out of business in 2004, and today only three international airlines fly to the country.

But it is not only distance that separates Tonga from the rest of the world, it’s also friction of distance. It costs $1.75 per minute to make a call from the U.S. to Tonga, compared to 9c a minute to Australia (which is much further away.)  Expedia lists dozens of different flights to Australia from the US every day, but only one flight a week to Tonga (from Los Angeles, via Samoa, on Air New Zealand.) Shipping a one kilogram package via Fedex to Nuku’alofa from Richmond, Virginia would cost $194 and take a week to arrive. I could send the same package to Sydney for $110, and it would be there in three days.

In his book The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australian History (1977), Geoffrey Blainey argues that it is impossible to understand his country without appreciating the huge impact that distance has played in its history. If distance has exerted a tyrannical effect on Australia’s history, consider how much impact it must have had on Tonga. Geography isn’t destiny, but in Tonga’s case it comes pretty close.

The impact of Tonga’s remoteness was immediately evident when I arrived on the main island of Tongatapu for a short visit in May 2007. Just about everything I used and consumed during my stay at one of Nuku’alofa’s small hotels was imported. My breakfast of cereal, instant coffee, milk, and canned fruit was all imported. Lamb and ice cream at dinner, ditto. Soap, furniture, cleaning supplies, the same. Even the bottled water in Nuku’alofa’s Friendly Restaurant came from Fiji.  As a result, all of these items, and my hotel stay, were expensive. There are few bargains to be had in Tonga for tourists, if even they could be lured here.

A beach, Tongatapu Island. The wild pigs of Tongatapu are reputedly descendants of those left here by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and have over the years developed a taste for shellfish.

Tourism would seem to be a logical way for Tonga to make money. It is a tropical island in the South Pacific, with the requisite balmy climate, palm trees, and, particularly on the remoter islands, some spectacular coastal scenery. But Tongatapu, the most accessible island, has few beaches, just rocky and stony interfaces between sea and land. The most beautiful part of the country, I was told, is the Vava’u island group, described on the Kingdom of Tonga tourism website as “a haven for yachties and is reknown (sic) as both the sailing paradise of the Pacific and one of the world’s great sailing centres.” In other words, it’s not easy or cheap to get to.

Ha'amonga 'a Maui, erected in the 12th century.

Tongatapu Island itself doesn’t have many must-see tourist attractions. Veti, the kindly and hospitable manager of my hotel, took me on a tour on the first day of my visit, and she was clearly hard–pressed to find places that she thought would be of interest. There is Ha’amonga ‘a Maui, a 12th century trilithon, there are the terraced tombs and the rather run-down looking Royal Palace (viewable from the outside only.) And there are blowholes where breaking waves shoot seawater into the air in rather spectacular jets. All very interesting, but hardly enough to attract high-spending visitors from Europe, Asia, the U.S or even New Zealand.

On the second day of my stay, I rented a ten year-old Toyota from the hotel, and headed out to explore the island on my own. (“You don’t need a map,” Veti told me, “You can’t get lost.” I didn’t need to show my driver’s license or sign any paperwork either.) I began by heading into Nuku’alofa’s small downtown. I saw no buildings over three floors in height, and no traffic lights.

Women collecting sea urchins. The cruise ship in the background stayed in Nuku'alofa for a few hours.

But to my surprise, I did see a few dozen tourists, cameras in hand, some of them carrying souvenir mats and baskets made of palm and pandanus leaves. Perhaps my assumptions about the country’s tourist potential had been wrong. But it turned out that all of the visitors were from a cruise ship that had moored offshore in the morning, and set sail again before sunset. None of the visitors spent the night in Tonga, nor did I see any of them eating in local restaurants. Their entire economic impact probably consisted of the few dollars they spent on their souvenirs.

Tonga’s main exports are fish, pumpkins, coconut products, and vanilla beans. The coconut products, I learned, consist largely of desiccated coconut. Transportation costs presumably make it economically unfeasible to export anything bulkier. For the same reason, there isn’t a potential foreign market for the country’s other agricultural products like yams and bananas.

Nukualofa’s port bears testimony to the paucity of international trade. The only vessels in evidence were a few small and dilapidated cargo ships, and some even more dilapidated fishing vessels. There were no container facilities; just one or two small cargo cranes for loading and unloading ships. The total value of Tonga’s exports in 2008-9 was only $5.5 million, $3 million of which came from exports to New Zealand.


But the landscape of Nuku’alofa was replete with evidence of Tonga’s main source of foreign exchange. On billboards, bumper stickers, and signs in shop windows I saw advertisements for Western Union, Moneygram, and other remittance services. Even my rental car keychain bore an ad for Western Union. An ad in a local magazine read “Make your parents happy with a new home. Forget about sending money home to mum and dad every month. Why not send them a kitset home” from Wiripacific? The magazine is clearly aimed largely at Tongans outside the country, who outnumber those who have stayed at home. Another ad was for a store with branches in New Zealand and Tonga; customers may pay for goods in New Zealand and have them delivered in Tonga. The waiter at the hotel restaurant told me that December is the busiest time of year in the restaurant, because that’s when people come back home to see their families.

The name tells the truth. The King really does own most of the company.

For most Tongans who live in the country, subsistence farming is the main occupation, and remittances from family members abroad the main source of cash income.  Most of the country’s money economy is dominated by the royal family and a small group of nobles. The King and close relatives have controlling interests in the country’s only brewery, mobile phone company, and electric utility.

His Majesty King George Tupou V is an eccentric character, to put it mildly. He acceded to the throne in 2006 after the death of his father, Tupou IV, who enjoyed the distinction of being the world’s heaviest monarch. (This was quite fitting in a country where, a Tongan told me, portliness is a sign of prosperity.  On my Air New Zealand flight from Auckland, flight attendants walked around handing out seatbelt extensions to the prosperous Tongans who made up a significant proportion of passengers.) Then-Crown Prince Tupou was educated at private schools in New Zealand and England, and went on to study at Oxford and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He returned home, according to an article in the New Zealand Herald, a “pompous converted Anglophile … speaking and dressing like a character from an Agatha Christie novel.” On occasion he has even been seen sporting a pith helmet and a monocle, and on his rare forays out of his Medici-style mansion atop Tongatapu’s only hill, he rides in a converted London taxi.

...but not quite yet

Political power in Tonga held by the King and a small group of nobles. The parliament is controlled by royals and a hereditary nobility. It appears that an increasing number of Tongans (particularly those educated abroad) are unhappy with this arrangement.  In 2006, the year before my visit, political discontent was responsible for protests and riots during which much of downtown Nuku’alofa was burned.

The world paid little attention to the 2006 riots in Tonga, to the 2009 tsunami which hit part of the country, or to most other news from this remote place. Like most of the small countries and territories, Tonga is not only on the edge of the map, but on the periphery of the world’s consciousness. Every World Regional Geography text I have seen relegates the Pacific islands to the last (and invariably shortest) chapter, and most contain little more information than could be gleaned from a glance at a few Wikipedia entries on the region.

Tongans are just about the most devoutly Christian people in the world. Wesleyans are the largest denomination, with Mormons second. The country's Constitution includes this clause: "The Sabbath Day shall be sacred in Tonga for ever and it shall not be lawful to work, or artifice, or play games, or trade on the Sabbath. And any agreement made or document witnessed on this day shall be counted void, and will not be protected by the Government."

Britain’s Captain James Cook visited Tonga in 1773, naming it the Friendly Islands, a reflection of the reception he received there. (My experience in this respect was very similar to Cook’s. Nowhere on my travels have I ever encountered so many people who stopped to say hello to me as I walked around their city. Not a single one tried to sell me anything, or to offer me any illicit services. They were just being friendly.) Friendly though the locals may have been, the British didn’t deem the islands worth colonizing since they had nothing to offer the Empire strategically or economically. Tonga did, however, enter into a treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom in 1900, in terms of which the UK handled the country’s foreign affairs, and agreed to protect it in the (unlikely) event of an attack. The country gained complete independence in 1970, and remains a member of the Commonwealth.

The very fact that Tonga and its neighbors are peripheral to the world’s consciousness is central to their own existence, their histories, and their future prospects. Getting goods and people in and out of these countries will always be expensive; even getting information in and out is slow and expensive (not too many high-capacity undersea fiber-optic cables are ever likely to come here.) For Tonga, the most obvious effect of globalization has been its increasing reliance on the remittances from its citizens working in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Longitude as a tourist attraction. I took this photograph in 2007.

The world’s neglect of the territories and people of the Pacific has not always been benign. Had they not perceived them as peripheral and unimportant, it is doubtful whether France, United States, and the United Kingdom would have chosen to test their nuclear bombs in French Polynesia, the Marshall Islands, or Christmas Island. Where else in the world could the great powers have got away with such displacement of people, environmental destruction and long-term radioactive contamination? (OK, the Australian outback, Algeria, Siberia, and Xinjiang. But that says something about attitudes toward those places and their inhabitants too.)

It may be, however, that the damage visited on the Pacific region by nuclear testing pales into insignificance by comparison with the destruction that the industrialized work is currently inflicting on the low-lying atolls that make up much of the region’s land area. If global warming trends continue, many of Tonga’s islands will disappear, as will entire countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu.  I wonder whether this would at last get this region onto the world’s front pages.

Note: I have posted more photographs from my 2007 visit to Tonga on my Picasa site.

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9 Responses to (The Tyranny of Distance)2 : A visit to the Friendly Islands

  1. Shirley Martey on July 17, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    It was funny that you ended up echoing my initial assumptions of the tourist attraction of Tonga as well. When I read the first few paragraphs, I thought “How is their tourism even worth anything if people are just on cruise ships stopping at Tonga’s shoreline before they have to get back on the cruise again and go to where they really wanted to go.” Plus the distance…the numbers that you gave in the beginning were really telling. Even after reading the entire article, I am surprised that Tonga even continues to have a tourist attraction of any form that continues to survive. Even so, Tonga has to bring income in somehow… I don’t see how, based on their location and how minimal the scenic attractions are that most would pay for to see would have them charge so expensively. In my mind, one would have to be considerate with the charges just do to their location, and the level of tourism that would actually attract that they have.

    On another note, there was a group of people who I learned about in Anthropology last year. I believe they were the Manjaco who also had an higher amount of people living overseas than the amount of people continuing to stay in the country. I admit were I from Tonga, I wouldn’t want to move away because I would not want to rely on family members outside of the country as one of my main sources of income.

    I was laughing at how they described Print Tupou… I think in many cultures when people leave to be educated and then come back there is a degree of disgust depending on how that person presents themselves when they come back. As well as depending on jealousy from the people who wish they’d had been in his place.

    Just thinking that islands could disappear in Tonga due to global warming just drives home the fact of how much of a problem and major concern that global warming is.

  2. Lauren Ricci on July 22, 2012 at 11:43 am

    I agree with Shirley, in that I was shocked after reading the whole article that Tonga’s tourism even survived. I also found myself wondering if tourism has increased more recently? I would assume not, but who knows!

    I also found the fact about King Tupou being the world’s heaviest monarch quite funny. It would make sense though that being heavier would be a sign of prosperity, because you would have enough money to buy all that expensive food!

  3. Kathie B on July 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    It is very sad that Tonga, and other Island nations like it, have nothing to offer the rest of the world and, therefore, are unable to compete in the world market. What are possible solutions? Should more wealthy countries support support them? If so, why? There is a world wide recession right now. Cold and heartless as this makes me, I don’t see how investing in a country that has no prospects of ever supporting itself is wise. Which is the greater evil: letting Tonga take the natural course and perhaps fade into history, or making the people further beholden to foreign nations through international intervention?

  4. Sherry Loehr on July 22, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    One thing that I found quite interesting is that the cruise ship stopped there. When I go on cruises I expect each stop to offer something of historical significance or a beautiful beach. It also sound like things are expensive here, so, why do you think the ship stops here?

    I also agree with Kathie. I don’t know which would be a great evil either.

  5. Kasey Moore on July 23, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I found this article enlightening. From the beginning of this class we have talked about the world becoming a smaller place, but here is an example of the distance still left in the world. I just don’t understand why the effort to close the distance in the world has not succeed in Tonga. I also thought it was smart to introduce not just physical distance but the economics that inhibit distance. I’ve never thought of that.

  6. Lindsey Clouser on July 23, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    It’s rather interesting how many forget/neglect to realize these islands even exist. You noted how over 176 islands encompass this country, but we fail to even give it the slightest attention. It’s also interesting to see how the country uses imported good moreso (at least what is stated) than their own domestic goods. I’m really surprised that there is a large portion of imported goods for a country that small, as well as that neglected. Like others stated, it’s a wonder how their tourist economy is still surviving. In addition, it’s very ironic that the country that uses all these western goods, but have difficulty with their leaders obtaining a western education. Furthermore, the pictures are largely in English. But it is pretty amusing how the king did obtain large amount of weight, depicting the essence of money. Clearly, the people were fairly dissatisfied with this.

  7. Kristen D. on July 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    All of the money and tourism factors that apply to this island seem to be very dependent on each other (just like multiple other countries/islands). After reading the first couple of paragraphs I was surprised that there was tourism while you were visiting. Although the tourists were just from a cruise ship, that might be because the island needed tourists. I also find it interesting, though, that a cruise ship would go all the way to the island considering the distance. The one thing that is very believable is the fact that the horrible events that occur there are not very well known to others who don’t live there.

  8. Melanie Houston on July 24, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    This article really got me thinking about the attitude of our world politics. For example, in class we always discuss how WE are not alone and that the world is constantly getting smaller. Tonga along with the other Island Nations, are less fortunate, and therefore, have very little to offer the rest of the world. You would think that core countries such the U.S., Japan, and China would would give some attention and aid to Tonga, but the reality is, we do not.

  9. Donald Rallis on July 26, 2012 at 4:35 am

    Looking at the issue another way, what do you think the public response in the US would be if a presidential candidate announced that, if elected, he would provide $100 million in aid to Tonga?

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