Tuvalu what?

Tuvalu is a South Pacific nation, comprising nine islands and home to about 11,000 people. You can find more information on Wikipedia or similar sources, so I wonít bother you with the basics here. Instead, I will comment on my visit, which took place in May 2007. Like the majority of visitors to Tuvalu, I came with Air Fiji from Suva and headed back there after one week. The scheduled bi-weekly flights with Air Fiji have made Tuvalu very easy to reach, provided you have the money (the 2 Ĺ hour flight on the turbo-prop doesnít come cheap, at 1500FJD round trip). I can provide first-hand comments for Funafuti only, the main atoll and centre in Tuvalu. The other islands can only be reached by ship. A regular service exists, but runs only every fortnight so itís not an easily available option for tourists. You can check out a number of pictures from my trip (with comments). I do not earn anything from this web site, and I have not been supported in anyway by anyone for my trip, so I feel free to express my opinions based on my real experience. I hope this does not cause offence to anyone, and that it might be useful for other travellers. On the other hand, they are only my opinions, so be advised to double-check somewhere else.

Worth a visit?

This depends on your expectations. Tuvalu is a peculiar, small, mostly unknown nation (however see also my comments further down). As such, it will provide an exotic stamp in your passport Ė though not especially flashy or colorful, see picture. It will also provide a nice conversation subject, sure to make you an adventurous traveller. Most importantly, it will give you a nice experience of life in a typical small place in the South Pacific. It seems that a lot of the recent interest in Tuvalu is actually connected with the subject of global warming, and the prospect that Tuvalu may be one of the first nations to go if the ocean levels will rise according to the worst predictions. More about this further down in this page.

 

However, do not come to Tuvalu if you are looking for an unspoiled, pristine tropical paradise. I donít know if any such place still exists, at least on a sizeable scale, anywhere in the South Pacific, but Tuvalu ainít that. In terms of wildlife, either under the sea or above, Tuvalu is in fact quite impoverished. Also, do not think of finding a one-of-a-kind place, far from the world, with a unique character. Tuvalu is nothing more and nothing less than a lot of other places in the South Pacific. Itís got satellite TV, itís got long-distance calls, itís got internet, itís got cars and air-conditioning. And itís got a rather large, long, paved airport runway. So much for isolation.

 

Funafuti, a crowded place

Statistics on the Funafuti population are not very exhaustive, to say the least. First of all, the last census is several years old. Secondly, people that move to Funafuti from one of the outer islands in Tuvalu will often stay with some relative, without necessarily registering with the authorities. After asking local people, including some well positioned ones, it was obvious that nobody has much of a clue. My guess is that Funafuti has more than the 4,000-6,000 people that seems to be the official figure. Add to that a small but non-negligible number of foreigners with permanent or semi-permanent residency. Since the available land on Funafuti is tiny indeed, this makes for a rather crowded situation. One thing that strikes the visitor to Funafuti is the large number of vehicles, be it private cars or motorbikes or scooters. There is also a surprisingly high number of taxis (at affordable prices), a public bus, and of course all kinds of trucks, tractors, trailers, and similar work vehicles. As a result, the traffic is impressive for such a small place. Remember that the only road is about a dozen km long (plus a few paved alleys in the main village of Vaiaku). On the good side, people drive mostly very cautiously and slow.

 

It was my impression that Tuvaluans donít like much walking or cycling. This is surprising, when you consider that the climate is very favorable at least to the second activity (some might argue that itís a bit hot and humid for walking, but actually most places are only a block away). On the other hand, one has to consider that the average physical size of Tuvaluans does not seem to encourage physical exercise (though the connection might actually be more in the reverse). I donít know the cost of gasoline and if it is subsided by the Government, but certainly driving seems to be an easily available and very much liked option.

Global warming or global fishing?

I argued above that Tuvalu, or at least Funafuti, is actually quite average among the Pacific islands. However, it has recently featured in the media much more than one would have guessed just from the size of its surface, economy, or touristic attractions. The reason is connected to global warming: the highest point in the whole country is a mere 4 meters above sea leveal, and most of it is actually even lower. In the public imagination, the whole nation could soon disappear as a modern Atlantis, if global warming will indeed rise the ocean levels. This scenario is a possibility which scientists will keep debating for some more time, but meanwhile it comes as a blessing for Tuvalu (in addition to the much coveted .tv internet domain). It provides an increase in the flux of tourists, but more importantly the interest (and partly the sense of guilt) of industrialized nations is fuelling a flow of aid through both government and non-government organizations.

 

If one walks around Funafuti, it is frequent to see a large number of buildings and facilities which are provided by this or that country. The hospital, the air terminal, the fisheries, the wharf, the government building, the hotel, to name a few. It is also striking to see the number of aid agencies which have a presence of one sort or the other. For a country which is endangered, if at all, in several tens of years in the future, this is quite impressive. The more cynical may ask why Tuvalu seems to receive much more aid pro capita than other countries, which are faced by much more real and urgent emergencies. One possible answer, as cynical as the question, is that Tuvalu extends its territorial waters over an amazingly vast area of the South Pacific Ocean. The fishing permits are certainly highly coveted by the fishing fleets of several countries. Also not to be forgotten is that Tuvalu is a full member of the United Nations, and its vote on some matters can be of interest to some.

SubmergedÖ?

Whether the ocean levels will rise enough to submerge Tuvalu in the foreseeable future is a hot question, but a brief look around Funafuti shows that a more concrete threat could be represented by the rising levels of garbage. A number of open-air dumps are found along the few km of road on the atoll. Especially the one at the northern end is impressive for its size. Trucks come several times in a day, and all sorts of garbage are thrown in indiscriminately: food remains, house garbage in plastic bags, soda cans, plastic bottles, along with old air-conditioners, televisions, computers, fridges, furniture. A few small fires can be seen, black smoke rising slowly. Some of the dumps are actually in between family houses.

 

I donít know how this compares to the garbage dumping practices of other countries, and I would not want to pass a hasty condemnation. However, itís clear that with the tiny land size on Funafuti, there is a definite risk of disappearing under a tide of garbage well before than under the ocean.