Off the Beaten Track – Tuvalu

Tourism development

So, if you thought Kiribati had not many tourists, Welcome to Tuvalu.  Apparently there are less than 1000 tourists per year!  Actually Tuvalu is delightful, and I did meet an American aid worker there who was in charge of building the tourist industry.   His challenges will be numerous

  1. Air Fiji flies only twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday) and only from the secondary airport of Suva (not Nadi).  And it would be a bit of a stretch to say they fly twice a week as the flight is regularly cancelled for weeks at a time……  I flew up and back with one of the Air Fiji staff and they hate flying to Tuvalu as the runway is not maintained properly – his job was to come up and check it periodically.  On the bright side the airport code for Funafuti is FUN
  2. Food shortages are rife on the island.  I went everywhere trying to buy cake, ice-cream or chocolate.  There was no cake!  There was no cake because there had been no eggs on the island for a few weeks.   There were no eggs because the ship hadn’t come and there was never room on the plane for food.   A whole country with no cake – my definition of a bad day.   I did manage to track down ice-cream and chocolate at the ‘chinese supermarket’ (how the locals describe it), after visiting the other ten shops that were closer to my hotel.  It is always amusing in almost all the countries I visit to hear the locals complain about ‘the chinese’ stealing their jobs and customers.  Well, hard not to be stolen as a customer by the only shop in town that has ice-cream and chocolate (albeit out of date)
  3. The hotels need a little development – I stayed at Filamona’s moonlight lodge.  I think the cleaning and design staff were moonlighting somewhere else.  The bathroom suite was salmon pink.  The mattress was new, and came complete with the plastic still wrapped around it – it made for a slippery night’s sleep.  And the window looked out over the living room, with a sheet for a curtain so everyone could see in.  (the pictures on the website aren’t doctored but are definitely misleading)
  4. The only tourist operation in town – the town boat that takes you to marine zone is a tin dingy with no chairs or shade.  It was fun, but can’t imagine any posh tourists using it

That said, I found Tuvalu perfectly touristy enough for me.  The locals were friendly, the beaches were beautiful, and you could swim!  I had a blast and I would go back, but I would make sure to take more food with me

So, what are the tourist highlights?

Meet the locals at the bar

The main bar in town was at Filamona’s so I pretty much met everybody.  Well by everybody, I mean all the men, as all the women were probably off doing more productive things like working or feeding their kids.   My favourite interaction was with an 80 year old Tuvalan who had come home for a month for christmas.  He gave me a long lecture on why I would never find a husband (I didn’t bother to correct his assumption that I didn’t have one).  Apparently I looked too bony and therefore I must come from a poor family that didn’t feed me enough.   I was also not going to be any good as a wife as I wouldn’t be able to dance given I didn’t have hips.  Bummer for me!

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The view from Filamona’s balcony of the airport…. We landed, and I was at the hotel 4 minutes later (including clearing immigration)
I was also very entertained for an hour by a french tuna boat captain and has alcoholic alaskan helicopter pilot.  I only learned this when I was in the pacific, but all Tuna boats have helicopters that they send out to look for the fish.  This pilot had clearly had enough of the job and was desperate to get off the boat and out of the islands.  Six packets of cigarettes and countless beers later, the French boat captain abandoned him and the pilot spent the night in the hammock as he couldnt figure out what to do next.  I am still mildly curious as to whether he went back to the boat, I am assuming he did as he wasn’t on our flight, and it was the only flight for the next week

Tuna boat - if you look closely you can see the helicopter
Tuna boat – if you look closely you can see the helicopter
head out on a boat to the marine reserve

You rent a boat from the town ‘hall’, anyone can drop you off there.  It was AUD 150 including the gas.  For that I got two personal guides and we went to 3 different islands.  They didn’t bring any lunch, but I had packed enough over processed carbs for us all (its pretty much all you can buy to eat in Tuvalu).  The islands were divine, the water the clearest I had ever seen.    The snorkelling would be terrific if you weren’t terrified of fish.  I don’t know why, but I don’t like it when scaly fishy things swim towards me, so I am a bit of a snorkelling failure.  Even without the snorkelling, it was a magical day

The guys trying to start the boat....
The guys trying to start the boat….
Marine reserve
Marine reserve
Marine Reserve - storm coming in
Marine Reserve – storm coming in

Hang out on the run way

The runway, which only gets used twice per week for a plane, is the central hub of social life in Funafuti.  When the sun starts to go down, and it gets a bit cooler, it is the location for speed walking, rugby and quite a bit of volleyball.


Boys on the runway
Boys on the runway
go for a run

As well as the runway which is a pleasant run, you can also run from one end of Funafuti atoll to the other – well almost all the way to the end as you have to stop at the rubbish dump – it is a nice round 10k ish.  At some points the atoll is only about 4 metres wide so you have the waves crashing on one side and the lagoon on the other.   The highlight of the run will almost certainly be the kids yelling “Palagi, Palagi”, to warn everyone that there is some weirdo foreigner running past.  For those of you who didn’t grow up in the Pacific, Palagi means white person.  (well literally it means a bang from the sky, and thats what Europeans were called as they came with guns and wiped us all out, but now they use it to mean white person).   I am sure I amused some of the adults at least as I ran by and corrected them that I wasn’t a Palagi, but a Maori.

The 'highway' to the edge of the atoll
The ‘highway’ to the edge of the atoll
Additional tips
  • There is a tasty, albeit greasy, cafe in the airport.  Good fried random things.   After my cake disappointment I needed some fried stuff and this did the trick
  • Ask for fish for dinner – no-one local actually likes the tuna as it is the food of last resort.  Everyone eats ramen noodles, fried rice and chicken that was rejected from Australia.  I preordered fish and it was always amazingly fresh tuna!
  • Take food with you if you are coming from anywhere with good fresh fruit and veg
  • There are no ATMs in Tuvalu and no-one takes cards.  Bring boatloads of Australian dollars!  The National Bank can’t help you
  • You can rent a moped for $10 a day, but you can walk everywhere in five minutes.  Also if you are walking everyone will think you are nuts and stop and try to drive you wherever you want to go.
  • Learn a bit of Samoan, it helped break the ice.  Hello (Malo) and thank you (Fa’afetai) would be a good start.