In contrast to even more modest Nauru, Tuvalu has at least one “classical” tourist sight: The Funafuti Conservation Area. Its white sands and turquoise water would attract the masses, would it not be in such a remote corner of the world. The beaches there were probably the best I saw in my life. But I am no beach bum and therefore hardly a reference. I am more of a reference for remote, desolate or fucked up places, and here I can tell that Tuvalu plays in the top league.
Let’s start with the things that are actually beautiful. The Funafuti Conservation Area is kind of a national park in the West of Funafuti lagoon, consisting of a handful of tiny islands. Nowhere else in the world, dark tourism gets that beautiful: It’s a true tropical paradise – think all the kitschy descriptions typically applied on such places, as I’m not good in writing them myself. Apart from their beauty, the islands are also a symbol for climate change. The threat it poses on Tuvalu made the Conservation area a destination for sensational journalists and activists – the same bunch which goes to Greenland to see the glaciers melt.
On islands such as Fualopa or Tepuka, erosion is pretty obvious with trees falling into the water due to the shrinking land. But on the other side of those islands, they are growing and new coconut groves are emerging. So the islands are actually shifting, not disappearing. That’s not too bad for uninhabited places as here, but for more urbanized islands, it certainly is a threat.
The Ground Zero of Tuvalu is an island called Tepuka Vilivili, which has been devastated by Cyclone Keli in 1997. It swept away all of its vegetation and sand, leaving just rocks in the sea. – Travelling to the Funafuti Conservation Area is possible only with a government permit. Funafuti’s accommodations can arrange that. A day trip on a motorboat costs 200 AUD flatrate per boat (up to 8 persons).
Beside Fongafale, Funafuti’s main island, just two more islands of the atoll are inhabited. Amatuku is an islet and hamlet just north of Fongafale. Funafala, at the southern end of the atoll, was once densely populated: During WWII, the Japanese occupiers evacuated all of Fongafale’s population to Funafala while they fortified Fongafale for battles. A couple of families have remained on Funafala, which is now a weekend destination for the few expats in Fongafale.
A famous sight of Tuvalu is its marine fauna, particularly the sea turtles. I’m not a big fan of diving or snorkelling, but luckily, Tuvalu’s coins show them as well.
One day I rented a motorbike and went up to Fongafale’s northern tip. About two kilometres before the tip of the island, a fence cuts the road and I had to continue by foot. I first came across a large garbage dump. Apparently, all of Funafuti’s garbage is simply deposited here to rot – it is neither burnt nor recycled. At least not as bad as Thilafushi, the garbage island of the Maldives. After crossing a small section of forest, I finally reached the tip. On the left was the turquoise lagoon, on the right the ocean, and in the middle the remains of a Japanese WWII cannon position.
A bit further south, there is a point where Fongafale gets that narrow that there’s even no vegetation. Such places show how fragile the island is and explain the fear that it might be swallowed by the sea one day.
I’ve rarely seen a national capital as compact as Vaiaku. According to the constitution, the whole Funafuti Atoll is Tuvalu’s capital. But de facto, all state institutions are grouped around the airport, within a couple of meters in the village of Vaiaku. All ministries, the Prime Minister’s office and the country’s complete bureaucracy are located in a modest three-storey-building behind the airport, which is Tuvalu’s largest structure. The Immigration Department fits into a tiny room under the staircase – in my own country, the same office has more than 1.000 employees in seven locations.
Rather unique in the world: Tuvalu’s parliament has no assembly building. Instead, the parliamentarians meet in traditional assembly pavilions called maneapa. One of those is located just outside of the government building and next to the airport’s runway. On the other side of the airport is the National Bank, whose main task is to pay out the remittances which the Tuvaluan diaspora sends home from New Zealand and Australia. The bank also exchanges money, but the production of Tuvaluan coins has ceased in the 1990s, so it’s only Australian Dollars you’ll get. A couple of the Tuvaluan coins are still circulating and make a great souvenir, but they’re rather rare. The “National Library and Archives” in a backstreet south of the airport fits in two big rooms and comprises about the same amount of books as the primary school I went in Rebstein, my home village.
The business concept of the Post Office is again typical for the small nations: It deals more with philatelists than with the local population, which apparently rarely sends letters and post cards – at least I’ve never seen any local client in the post office. The office, however, has branches in the outer islands and thereby also ensures postal services within Tuvalu.
Leisure and Culture
The Tuvaluan’s favourite spot to spend leisure time is the airport runway, which mainly functions as a local recreation area. In the late afternoon, groups of locals gather on the tarmac. There they play Tuvalu’s national sport Te Ano (kind of volleyball), ride up and down on motor scooters or simply hang out with friends, while a nearby bar blares out loud music. I heard a tragic story of a man who fell asleep there and was run over – by a car, not a plane! There are only three airplane landings/departures per week. For that purpose, shortly prior to the landing the firemen’s truck drives along the runway to chase away the people, and just minutes later, the plane lands.
Tuvalu’s national stadium (Tuvalu Sports Ground) seems modest, but it does have a tribune with a capacity of 1.500 people and nice views onto the ocean on one side and towards the airport runway on the other. Tuvalu also has a football (soccer) national team which is surprisingly successful. At the 2017 Pacific Mini Games in Vanuatu, they beat both Tonga and New Caledonia – nations much bigger than Tuvalu.
Like all Pacific countries, Tuvalu is full of churches. Most impressive is Fetu Ao Lima Church (Morning Star Church), the main church of the autonomous Church of Tuvalu. One strange feature I discovered about Tuvaluan churches were small pavilions with hanging empty gas cartridges inside. These cartridges are used as church bells: Before the worship services, someone hits these cartridges with a stick to call to church.
Tuvalu has a branch of the University of the South Pacific, whose main base is in Fiji’s capital Suva. The compound is tiny, but allegedly, the library is better than the National Library (which again is no big achievement).
See separate article. Read also my blog entry on Tuvalu’s border and a couple of personal impressions.