Friday 8 January 2016

On being an un-tourist in Tuvalu

It’s not every day you have to Google a country you're about to visit to find out where in the world it is. 

"Tuvalu" means "eight standing up"
(though there are now nine islands)
All I knew about Tuvalu before going there a couple of weeks ago was that, along with other low-lying island nations (come on down, Kiribati and the Maldives), it's in danger of being one of the first places to be wiped off the map by rising sea levels. (Tuvalu's prime minister was quite vocal about this at the Paris climate conference last month.)

And that’s precisely why I wanted to go: to step off the map into un-tourist territory, and write about it. 

So where is Tuvalu and what's it like? Two hours north of Fiji and just south of the Equator, tiny Tuvalu is made up of nine islands - well, three true islands and six coral atolls (rings of islands of various shapes and sizes). 

A tropical horizon of
cargo ships and fishing boats
It's so tiny that flying in to the main atoll, Funafuti, is slightly unnerving. It feels as if you're about to ditch in the satin-blue sea. Then, seconds before landing, you see whitewater breaking on coral reef, the mop-heads of coconut palms and something I haven't seen in ages: people standing outside their houses WAVING at the plane (that really makes you feel as if you're in the middle of nowhere).

There are no tour guides, organised activities or dive operators. Cruise ships don't stop there (thank goodness). Tourism is a sort of make-it-up-as-you-go, tag-along-with-the-locals deal, which makes for an authentic un-tourist experience.

My "guide", Paufi,
and her little red bike
The day I arrived, for instance, Paufi, the tourism officer, picked me up at the airport and took me on an "island tour" - on the back of her motorbike. 

We rode the island's palm-lined roads, talking and feeling the cool breeze in our hair (I hadn't wanted to ride without a helmet, but no one wears one and there aren't any to rent, and at least everyone rides at a sedate 20kph). 

"Public transport":
carts towed by motorbikes
I stayed in family-run guesthouses, got lifts on the back of more motorbikes (it's too hot and humid to walk anywhere), learned how to weave a basket from palm fronds, went to church (Christianity is big here) and a big family Sunday lunch, was invited to Christmas parties. Around sunset, I'd hang out at the airstrip, which becomes a cross between a public park and a sports ground at the cool(er) end of the day.

The closest thing to a tourist attraction was the Tuvalu Post office, where I perused special issue stamps created for every random occasion from the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Anderson to Charles and Diana's royal wedding.

Tropical bible
A few other fun facts: the local currency is the Australian dollar; there are no ATMs or credit card facilities so you have to carry wads of cash; the people speak Tuvaluan and English (Tuvalu used to be a British colony called the Ellice Islands); and did I mention that it's extremely hot? 

In my pre-trip daydreams, I'd imagined Tuvalu to be a smaller, less developed version of the Maldives, a cluster of jewel-like islands minus the luxury resorts. The main island in Funafuti atoll, Fongafale, was disappointingly not like that: it's densely populated (about 5000 Tuvaluans live there) and polluted (James Michener, who wrote South Pacific, called it "a truly dismal island" when he was stationed there during WWII).

A castaway islets in
Funafuti Conservation Area
But there are perfect uninhabited little "motu" across the lagoon, about 30-40 minutes from "the mainland" by boat. The prettiest of these lie within Funafuti Conservation Area: castaway islands no bigger than a clump of palm trees inhabited by black noddies and crested terns, where you can swim and snorkel in swimming-pool-clear water.

At one motu, my boat driver found a turtle hatching - with two heads, dead. Biological anomaly or consequence of pollution, who can say? We saw adult green turtles in the water too. And two islands on their way to disappearing, not directly due to climate change, but perhaps indirectly: all their trees were knocked down by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, and without them the sand is washing back into the sea.

Two-headed turtle hatchling
I can't see Tuvalu becoming the next “must-visit” destination anytime soon (unless they start running “see it before it’s gone” tours), for a few reasons: it’s not easy to get to (it's a two-day trip from Australia, with an overnight stop in Suva, Fiji, and the outer islands are accessible only by fortnightly ferries), it’s expensive (two very basic rooms I stayed in cost $120 a night) and there’s not much to do.

There's talk of starting up "climate change tours" - there were all sorts of foreign aid-funded climate change adaptation and mitigation projects underway when I was there: earthmovers putting sand back on the beaches of Fongafale, coral reef regeneration (after bleaching events), brand new solar panels on the government building and the power station, and solar street lights even on small islands.

Girls outside church
People were friendly, if a little unsure about what to do with a tourist. More than once I was asked, point-blank, "What are you doing here?" At first I was surprised, but by the end of the week I understood their attitude, because in five days I didn't see another tourist. I did meet some interesting expats though: two British and Australian helicopter pilots working on tuna fishing boats, a Japanese anthropologist who spends up to a year at a time on the outer islands, two Kiwi solar electricians, a Japanese marine biologist and a Solomon Islander fisheries officer.

Learning to weave with Lita,
owner of Afelita Island Resort
Tuvalu won't be everyone's idea of an ideal holiday spot. It's not another Fiji or Vanuatu, and that's a good thing. It's for those with time, curiosity and a sense of adventure, the kind of place that makes you feel like a traveller again and reminds you that we're all dependent on the natural world - whether we live at sea level or not. And the world needs more of those.

(Big thanks to the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, GTI Tourism and Tuvalu Tourism for organising my trip.)


  1. The turtle is really cute. Hope so that you people will help maintain the ecological balance on earth as I can see greenery around you in pics.
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  2. Hi Louise, I was fascinated by our article on Tuvalu because I was there for 5 weeks in June/July 2015. My daughter and partner work for an NZ solar company and won the NZ Aid project to install solar power on 4 of the northern outer islands. The project was massively problematic, especially after the damage caused by cyclone Pam. The team were forced to evacuate, and I had the opportunity to go with them when they returned in June 2015. We stayed for a week at Lita's lodge, where we were made most welcome, and we went out to their island retreat. In fact the team went back to their island in November 2015 and fixed up Pita's solar system, and all the crazy electrical wiring. When were you there - before or after the wiring was fixed up? Anyway, your pictures were very evocative of my time there. But the next time you go there, you should go to at least one of the outer islands, for the "real" Pacific Island experience. You can catch me here or at

  3. Hi Sandy, thanks for your comment, and yes I would have loved to go to at least one of the outer islands; there just wasn't enough time on my solo media trip, unfortunately. I was there the week before Christmas last year, and there were two Kiwi solar engineers at Afelita the day I was there, connecting up some new solar batteries for Afelee. Not sure if you saw my story in Fairfax Traveller too, which ran on Saturday. I'll email you the link. Thanks again. Louise