Abgelegen | Remote Insel | Island

Island #5: Tuvalu – the sinking nation

Tuvalu is famous for being among the first nations doomed to sink and for renting out its top level domain, .tv. But the tiny country offers much more than catastrophe tourism: Tuvalu is remote, exotic and full of peculiarities found nowhere else.
Fakavae Aliki-Malo i Tuvalu
Capital: Funafuti Atoll
Inhabitants: 11.200
Area: 26 km2
Inhabited islands: 9 (Tuvalu means “eight atolls”, Niulakita doesn’t count)
Languages: Tuvaluan, English (official languages), Gilbertese (on Nui Atoll)
Around the island: ca. 8 km (from the North tip of Fongafale island to the South tip)



The Passport Party

See separate article “Border #49 Tuvalu: The remote airport”.

What makes Tuvalu unique

  • Tuvalu is considered to be among the nations doomed to sink in this century. Indeed, it is easy to observe the erosion of some coasts, where trees are falling into the water. Declining levels of groundwater and the growing probability of cyclones add to the problems caused by climate change. However, most islands are actually not shrinking, but shifting: They lose land on one side, and gain new land on the other. Nowhere else before I could observe a growing coconut grove! So the islands will most probably survive. Heavily urbanized islands such as Fongafale (with Tuvalu’s capital) will, however, experience problems with this position shift.   P1190750.JPG Obvious erosion: Falling trees on Fualopa Island
  • On all Pacific Islands I visited, blue Tsunami Evacuation Route signs were very present. Not in Tuvalu: The atolls are too low to offer an evacuation route in case of a Tsunami.
  • There are no inland flights in Tuvalu. The only connection to the outlying atolls is by slow cargo boats which have no fixed schedule. Travelling there requires a huge time buffer: You’ll never know when they return to the main atoll, Funafuti. And if you leave the boat on one of the outlying atolls, you might wait several weeks until the next turns up. Even Funafuti has only three flight connections per week, all to Fiji – Tuvalu’s lifeline.
  • Tuvalu is not a touristic destination, and the travel infrastructure is basic. There is only one hotel with 20 rooms on Fongafale, the main island. Usually, it is fully booked. Three or four small guesthouses complete the picture. The few restaurants all serve mediocre Chinese food, the best being 3TS – which however has no sign and is hard to find. Somewhat better is the food in two of the accommodations, Vaiaku Lagoon Hotel and Filamona Lodge. There is not much public transportation on Fongafale, apart from some trucks along the main road. But with a road network of 8 kilometres and rental scooters readily available, that is hardly needed.
  • The state infrastructure is equally minimal. Fale i Fono, Tuvalu’s parliament has no assembly hall. The 15 parliamentarians usually meet in a maneapa (traditional meeting pavillon) next to the airport or somewhere else in the country. All ministries and government offices are located in a three storey building right behind the airport building. To its right sits the National Bank, whose main task is to receive and distribute the remittances of Tuvaluans working abroad.
  • Tuvalu’s top level domain is .tv. It is a substantial source of income for the tiny nation: Verisign, a Canadian company, yearly pays large fees for the marketing of it. With that money, Tuvalu could pay the accession fee of the United Nations, and do some infrastructure investments. Even now, the top level domain revenues constitute a significant part of Tuvalu’s budget.

P1190307The white building in the background is Tuvalu’s government building. The members of parliament meet in the orange „maneapa“ pavillion in front of it. To its right, Funafuti International Airport.

My best experience

…was meeting helicopter pilots and marine observers in Vaiaku’s hotel. I did not even know that such jobs exist in deep-sea fishery. So the helicopter pilots accompany the fishing boats to roam the airspace around of it and spot tuna swarms. Most pilots are retired army pilots from the Philippines, Venezuela and the like. The marine observers, meanwhile, are citizens of Pacific nations. It is their duty to collect marine data and to make sure the fishermen don’t catch protected species. Both are not member of the crew, which typically hails from East Asia, and therefore they hang out quite a lot at remote ports such as Funafuti. Apart from drinking a lot, they tell each other stories about other remote ports, and I loved to listen to them talking about Tarawa or Majuro as if it was London or Paris. (Tarawa, by the way, seems to be the sexually most liberal place in the South Seas…)

My worst experience

I agreed with some of the helicopter pilots to go together on a boat excursion to the other end of Funafuti Atoll, so that we could split the fix rate of 200 Australian Dollars per boat. I was not very surprised that eventually they did not show up the next morning. In the afternoon, back from my excursion, I found them again in the hotel restaurant, severely hungover. Their night must have been rough. Apparently, two of the marine observers had even spent the night in a cell at the police station – which was no further than their hotel rooms anyway. They were seamen, after all – I wasn’t mad.

National symbols

P1190890.JPGTuvaluan coins. Their value is equal to the Australian dollar, which is much more frequently used.

P1190832Tuvalu has no formal car plates – everybody paints it according to his/her own gusto.

P1190879.JPGTuvalu’s coat of arms, on display at the government building.

Did you know that…

…the beer sold on Tuvalu is from the Philippines? There are three types: San Miguel, San Miguel Lite, and Red Horse – San Miguel’s strong beer and the seamen’s favourite.

…Tuvalu Telecom has run out of SIM cards? When I arrived, I could neither use roaming (since foreign operators have no contract with Tuvalu Telecom), nor buy a SIM for the local network.

…the runway of Funafuti International Airport is the main leisure area of the capital? With only three planes landing per week, it is mainly used for sports or just hanging around with friends.

…on days with a plane landing, the island’s social life focuses on the airports? Friends and relatives are seen off or welcomed, and the souvenir stalls outside the building sell their traditional Polynesian necklaces mainly to locals.

…Tuvalu’s post office mainly lives of the export of postage stamps? They are produced in England, shipped to Tuvalu and then exported to philatelists, mainly back in Europe.

…there are no real petrol stations in Tuvalu? Instead, a couple of shops sell fuel directly out of the barrel. Filling up a tank is no option, as you need to announce the exact amount you want to buy.

P1190597.JPGA fuel station on Funafuti, Tuvalu’s main atoll

Practical Information:
See separate article (forthcoming)

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