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

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.

Update, April 2014. At a formal ceremony on April 11, 2014, the Kingdom of Tonga and the Nevada National Guard signed an agreement vowing, in Tongan, to ” ‘Fe tokoni aki,’ (help one another).” Quite how this might happen, or more importantly why it was deemed necessary, is unclear.



  1. Shirley Martey July 17, 2011
  2. Lauren Ricci July 22, 2012
  3. Kathie B July 22, 2012
  4. Sherry Loehr July 22, 2012
  5. Kasey Moore July 23, 2012
  6. Lindsey Clouser July 23, 2012
  7. Kristen D. July 24, 2012
  8. Melanie Houston July 24, 2012
  9. Donald Rallis July 26, 2012
  10. Brittany McBride June 21, 2015
  11. KenJ September 5, 2016

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