Located well off any tourist trail – Tuvalu is a collection of nine picturesque, coral atolls, which supports a population of 11,000 friendly, welcoming souls. The country is the third-least populous sovereign state in the world, the world’s least visited country and at just 26 square kilometres (10 square miles), the fourth smallest country in the world.
Unlike Fiji – it’s tourist-savvy neighbour 1,000-km to the south – Tuvalu is well off the tourist radar – it’s the destination that tourism forgot. According to a report by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Tuvalu was the least visited place on the planet in 2016, welcoming just 2,000 arrivals over twelve months – despite being a tropical paradise.
A former British colony known as the Ellice Islands, just three flights a week connect Tuvalu with the outside world (see the ‘Getting There’ section below). About 50% of arrivals are on business (mostly aid/ NGO workers) and almost everyone else is an overseas Tuvaluan returning home to visit family/ friends. Very few tourists make it to this remote corner of the Pacific (I didn’t meet any during my 7 days there) and those few who do make the journey will find they’ll have the country to themselves.
Once there, you’ll find there are no sights to explore, no museums or galleries to visit, no souvenir shops to peruse, no tour guides, no island tours or anything else you might expect from a regular destination. There’s nothing ‘regular’ about Tuvalu and that’s part of its charm. What it lacks in sights, it makes up for in spectacular natural beauty – the turquoise waters of the lagoon are stunning.
There are no ATM’s in the country and Credit Cards are not accepted anywhere, so you’ll need to bring enough cash (Australian dollars) with you for your entire trip. Internet signal is almost non-existent, ensuring you’ll be off-the-grid most of the time.
Accommodation options include one (basic) hotel and a number of simple family-run lodges. There are no café’s and just a few restaurants, serving simple but cheap meals.
Tuvalu is not a destination for everyone – but – if you’re an adventurous soul, looking to travel somewhere that’s well off the beaten track, where a guidebook or an itinerary are not necessary then Tuvalu awaits.
Located 1000-km due north of Fiji in the central Pacific (just below the equator) and approximately halfway between Hawaii and Australia, Tuvalu is an atoll nation consisting of nine islands. Its nearest neighbours are Kiribati, Nauru, Samoa and Fiji.
The main island of Funafuti is a long thin sliver of land with a calm ‘lagoon’ side and a rough and exposed ‘ocean’ side. All activity on the island is focused on the lagoon side with the one main road following its shoreline and all houses fronting the lagoon.
Tuvalu was first settled in the 14th century by Polynesians who traveled from Samoa and later Tonga, the Cook Islands and Kiribati. All eight islands were eventually settled, giving rise to the name Tuvalu, or “Cluster of Eight”.
The Spanish were the first to discover the islands in the 16th century when Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira sighted the island of Nui during a voyage of discovery of the South-west Pacific which had originated in Peru. Spain never made a claim on the islands, which remained a backwater until the 19th century when Tuvalu first appeared on European charts.
In 1863, labour recruiters from Peru kidnapped some 400 Tuvaluan’s, putting them to work in gold mines in Peru, reducing the population to just 2,500 people.
In 1892, Tuvalu – then known as the Ellice islands – became a British protectorate and in 1916 was made part of the Gilbert (present day Kiribati) and Ellice Islands Colony
During World War II, U.S. forces were based on the islands of Nanumea, Nukufetau, and Funafuti, but hostilities did not reach the islands. US forces used their base at Funafuti to launch their strike against Japanese forces, further to the north, in what would become known as the ‘Battle of Tarawa’. For more on this battle and to view graphic front-line footage from an embedded camera team, please refer to my Kiribati Travel Guide.
During the 1960’s, racial tension and rivalries created friction between the Gilbertese and Ellice Islanders. A referendum in 1974 resulted in Tuvalu becoming a separate colony and then, in 1978, fully independent.
While the country today produces very little (GDP is about US$30 million per year) the main challenge for this flat, atoll nation is from Global warming and rising sea-levels which threaten to one day wipe the country off the map.
A Nation Under Threat
Tuvalu has drawn worldwide attention recently due to climate change. The UN included the islands in a list of places that could completely disappear due to rising sea levels in the next century.
With an average elevation of less than 2 metres (6.6 feet) above sea level, Tuvalu is the 2nd flattest country on Earth (after the Maldives) and as such is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by Global warming. Already king tides and storm surges regularly inundate Tuvalu, which leads to a loss of land and a scarcity of freshwater. The Prime Minister, Enele Sopoaga, has been increasingly vocal about the fact that time is running out for his country.
Along with other atoll countries – Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and The Maldives, Tuvalu is a member of the Coalition of Low Lying Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CANCC) whose aim is to focus global attention on the effects of rising sea levels on the member countries.
Currency & Money Matters
The official currency of Tuvalu is the Australian dollar, with both notes and coins in circulation. Additionally, Tuvalu mints its own coins (in Australia), but confusingly the Tuvalu 50 cent coin is very similar to the Australian 20 cent coin and the Tuvalu $1 coin is very similar to the Australian 50 cent coin.
The current (January 2018) exchange rate: AUD$1 = USD0.80
Located opposite the airport, you’ll find Tuvalu’s one commercial bank – The National Bank of Tuvalu (NBT). The NBT is open from 10:00am to 2:00pm Mondays to Thursday and 9:00am to 1:00pm Fridays. It’s important to note that there are no ATM’s in the country and Credit Cards cannot be used anywhere – even at the bank. You need to ensure you bring enough Australian dollars for your entire stay.
There are however a couple of options should you run out of cash:
Option 1: Prior to arriving in Tuvalu, you should ensure you have an online account with either Western Union or MoneyGram. Once in the country, you will find one agent for MoneyGram in the same building as the NBT and one agent for Western Union at Sulani General store. If you require additional funds you can login to your account, transfer funds to yourself (which will be charged to your credit card at home) then take your passport and transaction number to the agent in Tuvalu who will hand over the cash.
Option 2: The Tuvalu Post Office sells Tuvaluan stamps to collectors all over the world through their website. Since credit card transactions cannot be processed in Tuvalu, the PO uses an agent in Australia for completing online transactions. The General Manager of the PO (Ms Sulia Vaelei) has confirmed that a tourist in need of funds can report to her at the Post Office, where she will take their credit card details, forward them to the agent in Australia who will charge their card and once the transaction is approved she will release the funds.
Stamps from tiny, remote Tuvalu are prized by Philatelists around the world. Since most will never make it to Tuvalu, the Post Office sells the bulk of its stamps online. Each year, this country of 11,000 people produces at least twenty stamp issues with each issue having a print run in the millions. All those stamps find their way into albums around the world.
For those who are visiting the island, you can view the Philatelic display at the post office where you can purchase stamps and postcards. The staff, headed by The General Manager (Ms Sulia Vaelei), are very friendly and helpful.
Back in the late 1990’s when internet domain names were allocated by ICANN, Tuvalu was handed a windfall when it was assigned the .tv country code top-level domain name. The domain name is popular, and thus economically valuable, because it is an abbreviation of the word television.
After Tuvalu was allocated the .tv suffix, the Government worked with the International Telecommunications Union to establish a process to select a management partner for the domain suffix. In 1998 the government of established the .tv Corporation to manage/ oversee the domain name business.
A deal involving an up-front payment of US$50 million for exclusive marketing rights to Tuvalu’s domain (until 2048) was signed with a Canadian company – Information.CA.
After failing to make the agreed payment, a California company – Idealab – became involved and assumed the $50 million obligation to be paid over 10 years. With its first $1 million payment, Tuvalu was finally able to afford to join the United Nations.
In 2001, the .tv Corporation was sold to Verisign. In 2012 VeriSign renewed the contract with the Government of Tuvalu to manage the .TV registry through to 2021.
Despite selling the rights to the .tv domain name for US$50 million, it’s clear little investment has been made in the sort of IT/ Telephony infrastructure that would deliver decent internet to this remote corner of the Pacific.
Internet reception in Tuvalu is really terrible and getting a connection is a true test of patience and perseverance!
To access the internet, you first need to purchase a Wi-Fi scratch-card from the Tuvalu Telecommunications Corporation (TCC,) which costs $20. This provides you with 600MB of data which is to be used within 14 days. The problem with all the cards is that the logon name and password are blurred and illegible. The locals seemed to have found a way to decipher the text, so asking someone is the best bet.
Rather than buying a card and trying to decipher the blurred mess, you can purchase your Wi-Fi logon directly from the TCC office, where you’ll be handed a printed strip of paper with the logon and password details clearly legible. The office is on the ground floor of a very non-descript breeze-block building (tucked in behind the green Tuvalu Development Bank building) across the road from the airport. The building has no signage or directory to indicate the tenants but the TCC office is at the end of the hall, past the Fiji Airways office.
Once you have your access details, you can then take part in the national pastime which involves you (and everyone else) trying to get a connection to the outside world. It ain’t easy and some days it’s impossible. The best place to try to connect is directly under the communication tower located across the road from the airport. Once you have a connection, you can open your desired website and make a cup of tea while it loads. Often, the connection will drop before anything loads. Then you start all over again. Welcome to FUN!
If you lose your patience trying to connect to the Wi-Fi, you will find respite, at the TPL Internet Café, which is located inside the Post Office building. Open seven days a week (until 11pm), you enter the café through the door on the airfield side of the building.
Tuvaluan handicrafts include woven products such as fans, mats and baskets, hand-painted bed linens (ask for the Kaica Tapulaa co-operative), woodcarvings and necklaces.
Although there are no souvenir shops in the country, as I traveled around Funafuti I passed different groups of people producing handicrafts who were happy to sell their products.
Whenever a flight departs, ladies selling handmade shell necklaces setup stands outside the airport terminal, selling their wares to departing Tuvaluan’s who love to wear them on the flight as a reminder of home. At a few dollars each, they make for ideal souvenirs.
There are few sights to visit in Tuvalu. One odd spot to seek out is known as David’s Drill. I won’t give away the exact location (that will spoil the fun!) but located in a back street at the eastern end of the runway, you’ll find a very unceremonious white PVC pipe protruding from the grassy footpath, which is surrounded by a concrete disc. Despite the unpretentious nature of the site – the events that took place here in 1896 made Tuvalu famous and, after they had consulted their Atlas’s, made people in other countries aware of Tuvalu’s existence.
It was here that researchers from the Royal Society of London, accompanied by Australian professor Edgeworth David (hence the name), drilled down to 340 metres to test Charles Darwin’s theory of coral atoll formation. The results of the drill were inconclusive but a second drill many years later on the Marshall Islands (and to a depth of 1,300 metres) proved Darwin’s theory was correct.
In their fight against the Japanese during WWII, US marines used Tuvalu as a base and today some war relics remain. On the lagoon side of the island at Tausoa beach (behind the Funafuti Town Hall), a series of broken concrete slabs litter the shoreline. These slabs were once a sea-plane ramp, which was built by the same US marines (‘Seabees’) who built the main runway. In the water beside the slabs is the rusted up-turned remains of the bulldozer that was used to pull the planes up the ramp.
If you travel to the northern end of the island, you’ll pass the rusted remains of another war relic. Built by Northwest Engineering of Chicago, this piece of heavy equipment was one of many used all over the world by US Forces to construct runways.
At the northern end of the island, the tarmac road ends at the gates of the island’s dump site. If you continue on the gravel road through the dump, you’ll end up at the northern tip of the island where the track becomes soft and boggy (challenging on a motorbike). If you follow the walking trail to the end of the island, you’ll come to the channel which separates Funafuti from neighbouring Amatuku. In the channel is the concrete foundation remains from a WWII installation, which was possibly used to protect the entrance to the lagoon.
Back in town – opposite the runway is Tafola (meaning ‘Welcome’), the unpretentious residence of the Prime Minister, Enele Sopoaga.
Next door is Government house, the residence of the Governor-General, which was being repaired at the time of my visit.
Not so much a site but something quirky is the abandoned Filipino Jeepney which is rusting away on the shore of the lagoon north of the port – a long way from Manila. No one could tell me why it was there.
There is just one hotel in Tuvalu, the Funafuti Lagoon Hotel. (formerly the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel), which is a 2-minute walk from the airport, overlooking the lagoon. The hotel is very old and tired and would be rated 2-stars anywhere else, but on Tuvalu it’s #1 and the place where visiting VIP’s are housed. During my stay the US and Japanese Ambassadors (paying a brief visit from their Embassies in Suva) stayed at the hotel.
I stayed at (and would certainly recommend) the comfortable and homely L’s Lodge. Located in a quiet neighbourhood at the eastern end of the runway, L’s provides reasonably priced rooms with either shared bathroom or en-suite bathroom. For an extra charge, L’s offer a cooked breakfast (bacon, eggs, toast, plunger coffee) which is the best breakfast on the island and, for Australians missing home comforts, they also provide Vegemite.
Directly next to the airport is the popular Filamona Lodge which offers rooms in an upstairs house with a lively bar and restaurant downstairs. Elsewhere in town, you’ll find Esfam Lodge, Militano Lodge, Vailuatai Lodge, Wamasiri Lodge and Talofa serviced apartments.
Ten minutes by boat from Funafuti on Mulitefala Island is Tuvalu’s only resort – the basic, four-room Afelita Island Resort
The cuisine of Tuvalu is based on the staple of coconut and the many species of fish found in the ocean and lagoons of the atolls. Generally speaking, Tuvalu is no culinary hotspot. There are very few restaurants in the country and produce is imported. With an average yearly income of around USD$3,000, Tuvaluan consumers are very price-sensitive, therefore cheaper food items tend to be imported, with unbranded, generic items dominating supermarket shelves.
Fresh local produce includes bountiful seafood (Tuna is king), papaya, plantain, breadfruit and coconut. There are many pigs kept in (very fragrant!) stalls around the island, providing an abundance of pork, which is mainly consumed at celebrations.
Growing produce in the limestone soil of a coral atoll is impossible – but – thanks to a Taiwanese aid project (which has seen raised planter boxers installed alongside the runway), some vegetables are now being cultivated on the island. When I visited the project, the planter boxes were full of cabbage and cucumber, which would explain the presence of cabbage in every meal I ate on the island.
As for alcohol – all beer is imported with popular brands being Fosters, VB, San Miguel, Red Horse and Pure Blond. Some wine and spirits are also available. Bars can be found at Filamona Lodge and the Funafuti Lagoon Hotel. According to Tuvalu law – alcohol can only be served for lunch and in the evenings from 6:30-pm to 10:00-pm, with bars promptly closing at 10:00-pm.
Not all alcohol however is imported. A local version of Palm wine – ‘Coconut Toddy’ – is produced in Tuvalu by extracting the sap from the cut flower of the coconut palm. Bottles are placed beneath the cut to collect the white sap. You can see ‘tappers’ in action as you travel along the main road. The white liquid is initially sweet and non-alcoholic but once fermented, an aromatic, mildly intoxicating, sweet wine (with up to 4% alcoholic content) is produced.
As for coffee – there are no cafe’s in Tuvalu and nowhere did I see a coffee machine. The best coffee I found was at my guest house (L’s Lodge) who offer plunger coffee – very nice!
Of the restaurants, the Funafuti Lagoon Hotel offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. I tried their grilled Tuna steak (served with mashed potatoes and cabbage) for dinner one evening which was one of the tastiest meals I had on Tuvalu. Another evening I ate local roast pork with chips (and a side of cabbage) with was also very good.
If the government has a function, catering will be provided by the hotel (which is government owned).
Across the road from the airport is the Filamona Lodge , the favoured haunt for the tiny ex-pat community. The staff are friendly and, if there are a few expats around, the atmosphere will be livelier than anywhere else in town. Beers are often served on the warm side and the meals are hit and miss. One night I had a delicious roast chicken dish (with a side of cabbage), another time I had something that was totally unremarkable.
There are two low-key Chinese restaurants on Tuvalu. The Blue Ocean Restaurant (on the main street) specialises in preparing poor versions of standard Chinese classic dishes. loaded yup with lots of cabbage.
One hundred metres further along the same road (back towards the airport) is another Chinese restaurant – simply called Fast Food Restaurant which does better tasting food.
One of my favourite places to eat was the tiny Fish ‘n’ Chip takeaway shop (no cabbage here), which is attached to the convenience store opposite the USP (University of South Pacific) campus. You can pay either $3 or $5 for a portion of breaded local tuna and chips and join the locals for lunch under the shade of the tree outside.
Most nationalities are granted a free 30-day Visitors visa upon arrival, with Schengen-zone passport holders receiving a 90-day stay. You can check your requirements here.
International flights into Tuvalu arrive at Funafuti International Airport, which has the groovy IATA airport code of ‘FUN’. The airfield occupies 16% of the total land area of the island. It was built during WWII by US Marines (‘Seabees’) who destroyed nearly half the coconut trees on the island (22,000 out of 54,000) during the construction phase.
The only airline providing scheduled services to the FUN is Fiji Airways, which flies every Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday, departing Suva (FJ281) at 09:00, arriving on Tuvalu at 11:35. The same plane (FJ280) departs Tuvalu at 12:20, arriving in Suva at 14:50. There is no time difference between the two countries.
On approach to Funafuti airport, the best views of the islands are from the left side (seats A & C) of the plane. Upon departure there are views immediately from the left side, then – after a right-hand turn – the plane passes back over the island, providing panoramic views from the right side of the plane.
The arrival of the thrice-weekly flight causes quite a buzz on this otherwise sleepy island, with a crowd of locals gathering around the terminal to meet-and-greet returning relatives, say goodbye to departing ones or just watch the commotion.
It all starts with the fire brigade truck sounding a siren from the runway when the plane is approaching. This is to warn everyone that a flight is due and to clear locals off the runway, which occupies the widest part of the island and is normally used as a recreation space. There are also several roads/ paths crossing it. The main road running alongside the runway is also closed to traffic during landings and take-off.
New Airport Terminal
Currently construction of a new, World Bank funded, terminal is nearing completion.
Fiji Airways Office
Fiji Airways take full advantage of the fact that they operate in a monopoly environment, charging very high prices for flights to/from Tuvalu. Most locals cannot afford the extortionate airfare, with many forced to travel on the monthly government boat to Suva (a 1,000-km, slow sea voyage).
Across the road from the airport, you’ll (hopefully) find the well-hidden office of Fiji Airways, which is on the ground floor of a very non-descript breeze-block building (tucked in behind the green Tuvalu Development Bank building). The building has no signage or directory to indicate the tenants but the Fiji Airways office is behind a door which is simply labelled ‘Travel’. You can contact the office via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone (+688 20 737)
Next door is the office of TCC and it’s here where you can purchase Wi-Fi access.
Two cruise ships visited Tuvalu in 2017, docking at the container dock.
There are no domestic air services in Tuvalu.
There is one taxi on Tuvalu which can be booked in advance through any hotel or guest house.
There are no buses in Tuvalu.
Rental cars are available at $40 per day from L’s Lodge.
A Motorbike is the best way to navigate the one narrow road which follows the lagoon side of Funafuti from end-to-end. Bikes are available to rent through guest houses and some shops and cost from $10 – $15 per day. Fuel is sold in one litre units ($1.80/L) from numerous little shops along the main road.
Inter-island & International Ferries
The government operates two Inter-Island ferries – the MV Nivaga III and the MV Manu Folau, with the former also connecting Tuvalu to Fiji (Suva). Tuvaluan students studying in Fiji travel there by boat, rather than paying for the expensive flight. Shipping schedules can be obtained from the ‘Shipping Clerks’ office which is on the ground floor of the Government building. A noticeboard outside the office indicates the next schedule
Author: Darren McLean
Author of taste2travel.com and an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer, diver and adventurer.