07 October 2012

The True South Pacific

Clear water and sailing in Vava'u
The tourism industry in Tonga has always seemed to me like a two headed dog with each head eying warily and distrustfully at the other. You can take one look around downtown and see that Tonga is blissfully not a tourist trap - and that's why most tourists come here. Tourism numbers are generally low, but out of the major economic sectors, agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, and a few others, tourism is the only one showing a bit of growth as potential to support small businesses and families all around Tonga. On the other hand, it's viewed by some as a culture-eroder and as a blow to personal pride to work in customer service.

In my job, one of the major areas I look after is NZ's support to tourism in Tonga; a large and complex programme that is fraught with differences of opinion, politics, and barriers at every level - because in many ways, both heads of the beast have a good point.

Dancing in the cave at 'Oholei resort

The last thing Tonga needs is millions of tourists every week, overrunning the city centre and making it unbearable and exploitative for the people who actually live here. But, that isn't going to happen any time soon, if ever. Even if Tonga had billions to market itself, the smallness and remoteness of these lovely islands are going to naturally deter much of the world outside the Pacific region from visiting. The best sort of tourism for Tonga might just be that already demanded by many visitors who come here; culturally-sensitive, environmentally friendly, historically rich.
Delicious feast food: limu (seaweed), ota ika (coconut fish ceviche), octopus, roast pork, shellfish, and lu
In fact, the vast majority of people who come to Tonga are from Australia and NZ (cheaper flights than from the rest of the world), and a large portion of these visitors are coming for fairly sustainable reasons: to experience Tonga's unique cultural aspects in a nice package of food, dancing, and performance, to see the only Kingdom in the Pacific, and less sustainably, to see the humpback whales migrating through the area from July to October. Tonga is only partially set up for tourism, and part of the charm (and occasionally the frustration) for tourists is this element: often visits are a "make your own adventure," filled with interesting people and surprising events- if you're flexible enough to let it happen. Many of Tonga's visitors are repeat tourists; they liked it so much the first time, they decided to come back.

During the last two years, the Government of Tonga has done several interesting things in tourism, funded by the NZ programme; last year, Tonga was rebranded as a destination as "the True South Pacific," a www.thekingdomoftonga.com website was launched, and an accommodation star-rating system just finished it's first year, rating the roughly 70 backpackers', hotels, and resorts all around the archipelago.

Hiking to a deserted beach on 'Eua
The goal, the hope, is that tourism will be an environmentally and socially friendly source of revenue to a country that faces yearly declining remittances from friends and family overseas and that is unsustainably propped up by donor funding. If the industry, the government, the donors, can get this right, tourism could provide a great source of cultural strengthening, jobs for unemployed recent graduates, revenue for government services, and an industry of growth in Tonga. Of course, all this is only my personal view, but the reason I work hard to manage this area of support is becuase of these hopes. It's a tricky industry to walk, but one with potentially big social payout.

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