Tonga, the "Friendly Islands", is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, consisting of 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited. The tourist industry is relatively undeveloped. Cruise ships often stop in Vavaʻu, which has a reputation for its whale watching, game fishing, surfing, and beaches.
The country is divided into five island groups, or regions.
home of the capital, Nuku'alofa.
an unspoilt island just southeast of Tongatapu
a popular yachting destination.
the least populated group.
remote islands to the north of Tonga: Niuafo'ou, Niuatoputapu, and Tafahi are collectively known as the "Niuas."
- Nukuʻalofa ㅡ Tonga's capital.
- Neiafu ㅡ Barely a city even by Pacific island standards, Neiafu is the administrative centre of the Vavaʻu group.
|Currency||Tongan paʻanga (TOP)|
|Population||108 thousand (2017)|
|Electricity||240 volt / 50 hertz (AS/NZS 3112)|
|Time zone||UTC+13:00, Pacific/Tongatapu|
|Emergencies||911, +676-922 (police), 933 (emergency medical services), 999 (fire department), +676-927 (fire department), +676-928 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The archipelago was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga acquired its independence in 1970 and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It is one of the few surviving indigenous monarchies in the Pacific. Tonga is one of the last absolute monarchies in the world (although in the past years, it can be considered quasi-constitutional) and is based upon an essentially feudal system where the king disburses land and positions without recourse to an elected body. Although Tongan royalty is largely loved and revered by Tongans, younger people often have an appetite for stronger accountability and a more modern constitution (although there are still many die-hard young monarchists). An election was held in November 2010. This was planned to lead to a major reduction in the powers of the King and the land-owning nobility in favour of a more democratic form of governance; however, of the 26 seats in Parliament only 17 are elected with the rest being allocated to the nobles. After some horse trading, a noble emerged as the Prime Minister.
Tonga has an economy with none of the corporate chain stores and with local small businesses providing all necessary goods and services.
There were pro-democracy riots in Nuku'alofa in November 2006 which left 8 people dead and large portions of the town centre burnt out. Rebuilding after the riots in Nuku'alofa has been more or less completed and there are abundant tourism facilities.
Tourists were not a target during the riots and you will find Tonga a friendly and appealing place to visit although don't expect the same level of infrastructure as in more developed countries.
Tonga was thought to have been colonized by the Lapita around 1500-1000 BC. Polynesian societies developed in 500 BC and from 1200 CE, the Tu‘i Tonga Empire gained its hegemonic control over the central Pacific. Captain James Cook visited Tonga in the 1770s and called it the Friendly Islands. In 1845, Tonga was unified into a kingdom and later a constitutional monarchy in 1875. Under the Treaty of Friendship, Tonga maintained its autonomy under a British protectorate until independence was declared on 4 June 1970.
Proof of vaccination against COVID-19 at least 14 days before arrival is required. Testing may be required for teavellers with symptoms of COVID-19. (Jan 2023)
Visa exemption is in place for citizens of any Schengen country (including Faroe Islands and Greenland), who do not need a visa for a stay of 90 days or less within a 180 day period. Visa is also not required for citizens from China, Israel and United Arab Emirates.
Citizens of the following countries can get a free, one-month visitor's visa on arrival if they can prove they have a return ticket to leave Tonga at the end of their stay and sufficient funds to cover their stay: Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Cook Islands, Dominica, Fiji, Ireland, Japan, Kiribati, South Korea, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Samoa, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Turkey, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.
Visitor's visas can be extended at the immigration department in the capital.
- Fua'amotu Airport (TBU IATA) is on Tongatapu around half an hour from Nuku'alofa. The largest airport in Tonga and the only one on Tongatapu. There are several flights a week from Auckland, Sydney, Suva and Nadi.
- Lifuka Island Airport (HPA IATA).
By private boat
Lots of people arrive by private yacht since Tonga, particularly Vava'u, is a common stop on the around-the-world circuit.
To get between island groups, you basically have to fly (or sail).
Motorbikes, scooters and cycles can be rented on Tongatapu, Vava'u and Ha'apai. On Tongatapu you can hire a car. There are also taxis. To get around the main island, Tongatapu, Teta Tours and Toni's guest house offer day tours of all the main tourist sights. The speed limit is usually 40km/h and this is stuck to by the local drivers. You're meant to also buy a local Tongan driving licence on top of your existing licence before you drive (25 pa'anga). The roads are good in and around Nuku'alofa but deteriorate the further from the town and the further south you travel. Most cars in Tonga are in a terrible state, maintained on a budget and held together by a combination of 'Western Union' stickers and prayer. The low speed limit helps to keep accidents down. There are buses to various points on Tongatapu from Nuku'alofa although there are no timetables.
The official languages of Tonga are Tongan and English.
Tongan is the most widely spoken language in Tonga. English is also widely understood because many of the high schools teach exclusively in English. Even natives who speak exclusively Tongan will know at least a bit of English, because of the latter's cultural and linguistic influence. As is common on some other Pacific island nations, many Tongans, when asked a question they are unsure of or don't understand, will reply with a "Yes". In this case, ask a follow up question and if the reply is still "Yes", ask someone else.
- Tongatapu. Tongatapu is Tonga's largest island with over two-thirds of the country's small population. It is a coral island surrounded by coral reefs. The capital, Nuku'alofa, on the north coast, has a relaxed air, despite the troubles of a few years ago. There are some interesting places to visit, such as ancient tombs and coastal blowholes, and some nice beaches with good snorkelling. Tongatapu also provides a good opportunity to view a unique culture. There are several small islands to the north of Tongatapu that have been developed into resorts. Nuku'alofa has good quality accommodation and guest houses within range of the backpacker.
- 'Eua. 'Eua Island is located only 17.5km east southeast from Tongatapu. It is the highest island in Tonga and is not related geologically to the other islands, being much older. It has beaches on the western side but dramatic cliffs on the east coast, with Tonga’s largest tropical rain forest, which is a great place to go trekking. There are a few small guest houses.
- Vava'u. Vava’u is a group of more than 50 islands, about 150 miles north of Tongatapu. They are either raised coral limestone or coral atolls. The beautiful harbour opposite the main town of Neiafu is a common destination for yachties sailing the South Pacific, attracting about 500 yachts every season. The waters of the islands are known for their clarity. The area attracts many humpback whales between June and November and there are organised tours to see them. Other things to do include diving, renting a yacht, kayaking; game fishing and kite surfing. There are some good walks on the main island. There are many places to stay both in the capital Neiafu and on the outlying islands.
- Ha'apai. Ha'apai is a group of about 60 islands, south of the Vava'u group and north of Tongatapu. Only 20 islands are constantly inhabited. This is where the Mutiny on the Bounty occurred in 1789. The total population is approximately 5,500. There are plenty of sandy beaches plus good diving and snorkelling and the opportunity to see some whales. Ha'apai offers the whole range of accommodation, from budget to upmarket resort.
- The Niuas. The Niuas are reachable by weekly flights from Vava’u. Niuatoputapu is 240km north of Vava’u and has a population of around 1400. It has beautiful white beaches, particularly on the north-west side of the island. Niuafo’ou is the northernmost island of Tonga. It is known as Tin Can island from the fact that in earlier times mail was delivered and picked up by strong swimmers who would retrieve packages sealed up in a biscuit tin and thrown overboard from passing ships. Niuafo’ou is the tip of an underwater volcano. The last eruption was in 1946, after which the whole island was evacuated for ten years. Accommodation on both islands is limited.
- Beaches. With over 419 sq km2 of coastline, the beaches of Tonga are a tropical paradise and the variety of sandy beaches around a forest landscape with palm trees.
Apart from a few historical sites on Tongatapu most things to do in Tonga reflect its island nature. Diving, snorkelling, fishing, boat trips, kayaking and kite surfing are all possible. There are some lovely beaches if you just want to laze around. Tonga has some good restaurants and this is the place to come if you like lobster.
Take time to learn a little about Tonga's fairly feudal culture and its many traditions. Go to church. Even if you are not religious the singing can be very moving. Watch tapa cloth being made from mulberry bark and try a drink of kava, the traditional drink, which is mildly psychoactive.
As in other Pacific Island nations, Rugby football is very popular in Tonga.
Exchange rates for Tonga pa'anga
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The national currency is the pa'anga, or Tongan dollar, denoted by the symbol "T$" or sometimes "PT" (ISO currency code: TOP). Denominations are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 seniti and 1 pa'anga coins and 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 pa'anga banknotes.
Costs and shopping
Although Tonga is a developing country, prices for many things are comparable to or slightly greater than New Zealand or Australia. Most of what you eat, apart from fish, lobsters, roots and tubers, fruits and vegetables will have been imported. A good meal out will cost T$30-50, a beer in a restaurant or bar costs about T$5-6, hiring a car is about T$50-60 a day and cigarettes are T$7-8 for a pack of 25.
- Tapa. Tapa cloth is made from the bulk of the paper mulberry tree. Although tapa is found throughout Polynesia, Tonga is the only country where it is still a part of daily life. The bark is stripped from the tree trunk and the outer bark is then scraped off from the inner bark and discarded. The inner bark is first dried in the sun before being soaked. It is then beaten into strips of 25 cm using wooden mallets. The continuous beats of the tapa mallet are still a common sound in Tongan villages. The narrow strips are then beaten together into a wider sheet and decorated.
Tongan feasts are a must-do. Tour companies and hotels organize feasts, together with traditional dancing, on several nights of the week on Tongatapu and in Vava'u. You should try Ota (marinated raw fish) and Lu (meat wrapped in taro leaves).
Tonga is lively well into the evening, generally becoming suddenly very quiet at around 11PM. Expect to see people walking around until late. Beer and liquor are available from many outlets, including Fijian, Australian and New Zealand imports to complement the local brews. If you are keen to check out native drink, try Kava (something like liquid novacaine) at least once.
The local beer is called Ikale and is sold in 330 ml bottles in most restaurants and bars (T$4.50-5). Or you can buy the same bottles from one of the many 'Chinese' roadside shops or a supermarket for T$2 or less. Imported beers are mainly from Australia although there are also some from Europe. Most are sold in 330 ml cans or bottles.
There is a wide range of accommodation in Tonga, ranging from luxurious to budget. Most have relatively few rooms, though. The Tonga Visitors Bureau[dead link] has a full listing. See detailed listings on the pages for Tongatapu, Vava'u and Ha'apai.
There are many opportunities for skilled trades from the streets to the shops, in the schools to the churches and yes from the markets to the office. This is a hot spot for skilled navigators spanning throughout 169 villages and 150 islands. Some major exports include vanilla, handcrafts and specialty pumpkins grown for export to Japan. Other agriculture sectors include root crops like taro, tapioca, sweet potatoes, yams, coconuts, bananas, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, watermelons and even peanuts.
If you are on a visitor's visa, you cannot be involved with business or take up employment while in Tonga. You also cannot take courses from an educational institution. It is mostly illegal to try to change a visitor's visa into a visa that allows for employment, so if you intend to have a job while in Tonga, make sure you have an employment visa in advance. Apply for your visa at least one month in advance. If you are already in Tonga and would like to extend it, contact the immigration department one month in advance about the extension.
While employment visas are available, the immigration department will probably be reluctant to grant you one as Tonga has a high unemployment rate, and would prefer that jobs be taken up by Tongan citizens as opposed to outsiders. If you're coming to Tonga for humanitarian or volunteer work, you need an employment visa for that.
Tonga is generally a safe country.
Since the whole country is situated on the Pacific Ocean, there are many sharp corals on Tonga's beaches. It's a good idea to wear some footwear while walking around.
Tonga is vulnerable to a number of natural hazards due to its location.
The whole archipelago is situated around the "Ring of Fire", an earthquake zone situated in the Pacific Ocean. Earthquake activity typically takes place underwater. Depending on the intensity of an underwater earthquake, a tsunami can very easily be triggered.
It is estimated that there are up to 36 undersea volcanoes surrounding Tonga. Although the chances of an eruption are rare, they are still a possibility. Depending on the intensity of an underwater volcanic eruption, a tsunami can very easily be triggered. The massive Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai eruption of January 2022, the largest in the 21st century so far, caused major damage to Tonga through a tsunami and ashfall, resulting in a few deaths, a shortage of water, and a loss of communications with the outside world.
The official cyclone season is from November through April. During this time, winds can be strong, the risk of flooding will increase, and you can expect to face heavy rainfall. The various tips found in the cyclones article are of immense help.
Two resources to consult are as follows: World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and Tonga Meteorological Service. Newspapers and radio stations can also prove helpful during a cyclone.
An outbreak of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne disease, started in 2014, so take precautions against mosquito bites. An outbreak of Dengue fever was also reported in early 2015. There is no malaria in Tonga though.
Exercise the usual caution when snorkelling, as the coral can be dangerous.
Tap water is generally safe, though its quality might vary by location.
Tongans in general tend to have a relaxed attitude towards life. They place a lot of emphasis on humility and hospitality. Being a conservative, highly religious country, Tongan culture is heavily influenced by Christian values and principles.
Social etiquette and breaches
- To get the greatest amount of respect, dress modestly. Some people (usually coming from cruise liners) have been arrested for walking around topless.
- Tongans observe the Sabbath. This means that on Sunday, most people will rest instead of working. Some facilities (hotels, restaurants, beach resorts) will be open.
- Religion plays an important role in the lives of many Tongans. Christian shows and programmes are common, and many Tongans follow a breadth of Christian denominations. Many of the services are very enjoyable. Strike up a friendship with some locals and you will have no problems having an enjoyable Sunday experience.
- Tongans consider it important to respect figures of authority and their seniors. Try to behave sensibly in front of someone older/senior than you, and try not to do something that would make them feel challenged.
- Although talking behind someone's back is common in many parts of the world, Tongans frown upon gossip and consider it incredibly disrespectful.
- Tongans value humility and sensibility. Even the Tongan royal family is held to the same behavioural standards. Bragging or boasting about your accomplishments is not taken positively.
- Don't criticise or speak badly of the Tongan royal family; they are venerated in Tongan society and criticising them as an outsider could very easily offend people.
Telecommunications in Tonga are handled by two operators; Digicel Tonga and Tonga Communications Corporation. The latter operates a 900 MHz GSM-network.
WiFi hotspots are how people connect to the Internet in Tonga and you should expect slow connection speed, data limits and high prices. Given the country’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean it’s not surprising.
Tonga Post handles international and domestic mail in the country.