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Travel Guide Oceania Polynesia Tonga



Downtown Nuku'alofa

Downtown Nuku'alofa

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Making up the southern flank of Pacific island nations (if a flank it could be called), Tonga sits on such a longtitude to have given it the honor of being the first nation to welcome in the new millenium. Tonga is also the only Pacific kingdom. The local tourist board will try to convince you that theirs are the Friendly Islands, but this is a distinction that is a little more doubtful: Tongans were historically a war-like people who looked down on pacifists, and the person who originally dubbed them the Friendly Islands, the venerable Captain Cook, was unaware of the Tongan plot on his life.

Gorgeous and culturally fascinating it is, however. Alongside the usual Pacific fun of swimming, snorkelling and diving, Tonga awards caving opportunities both underwater and on land. Local music and dance are somewhat modernized but stylistically as close as it gets to traditional Tongan styles. Kava, the local inebriant, is as popular among travellers as it is among the locals.



Brief History

An Austronesian-speaking group linked to the archeological construct known as the Lapita cultural complex reached and colonized Tonga around 1500–1000 BC. By the 12th century Tongans, and the Tongan paramount chief, the Tuʻi, had a reputation across the central Pacific, from Niue to Tikopia, leading some historians to speak of a 'Tongan Empire'. In the 15th century and again in the 17th, civil war erupted.
Into this situation the first European explorers arrived, beginning in 1616 with the Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire, and in 1643 with Abel Tasman. Later noteworthy European visitors included James Cook in 1773, 1774, and 1777, Alessandro Malaspina (Spanish) in 1793 and the first London missionaries in 1797.

In 1845 the ambitious young warrior, strategist, and orator Tāufaʻāhau united Tonga into a kingdom. Tonga became a protected state under a Treaty of Friendship on 18 May 1900, when European settlers and rival Tongan chiefs tried to oust the second king. Within the British Empire, which posted no higher permanent representative on Tonga than a British Consul (1901–1970), Tonga formed part of the British Western Pacific Territories (under a colonial High Commissioner, then residing on Fiji) from 1901 until 1952.

The Treaty of Friendship and Tonga's protectorate status ended in 1970 under arrangements established by Queen Salote Tupou III prior to her death in 1965. Tonga joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1970 and the United Nations in September 1999. While exposed to colonial pressures, Tonga has never lost indigenous governance, a fact that makes Tonga unique in the Pacific and gives Tongans much pride, as well as confidence in their monarchical system. As part of cost cutting measures across the British Foreign Service, the British Government closed the British High Commission in Nukuʻalofa in March 2006, transferring representation of British interests in Tonga to the UK High Commissioner in Fiji. The last resident British High Commissioner was Paul Nessling.




Tonga is an archipelago consisting of 169 islands, 96 of which are inhabited. It is located in the South Pacific, south of Samoa and about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. The islands stretch for some 800 kilometres from north to south. The largest island, Tongatapu, is 257 square kilometres. Its islands, 36 of them inhabited, are divided into three main groups – Vava'u, Ha'apai, and Tongatapu - and cover an 800-kilometre-long north-south line. The largest island, Tongatapu, on which the capital city of Nukuʻalofa is located, covers 257 square kilometres. Geologically the Tongan islands are of two types: most have a limestone base formed from uplifted coral formations; others consist of limestone overlaying a volcanic base. There is over 400 kilometres of coastline and the highest point is 1,033 metres above sea level.




Tonga consists of several main island groups.

  • Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, can be found
  • 'Eua - an unspoilt island just southeast of Tongatapu
  • Ha'apai - the least populated group.
  • Vava'u - a popular yachting destination.
  • Niua - remote islands to the north of Tonga: Niuafo'ou, Niuatoputapu, and Tafahi






Sights and Activities


Tonga has some excellent possibilities to go out whale watching and offers the unique chance to go swimming with them as well. The best places to go are the Vava'u group of islands which are an attractive tropical paradise of clear warm turquoise waters, beautiful coral reefs and white sandy beaches fringed with and coconut palms. In the waters there are at least 7 different types of whales and an encounter with sperm whales or the big humpbacks in these tropical waters is a memorable experience. The best time is from July to September. The trips are well organised and there are restrictions regarding what agencies can or can not do. It is not cheap, but for more information you can start reading over here.

Mapu'a 'a Vaca Blowholes

The Mapu'a 'a Vaca Blowholes ('Mapu'a 'a Vaca' means 'Chief's Whistles') stretch for 5 kilometres along the southern shore of the island of Tongatapu. The Blowholes are best viewed on days when there is a strong wind and at high tide. Then the maximum amount of water is forced up through natural vents in the coral limestone, thus forming geyser-like fountains of seawater up to 30 metres high.




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Tongatapu has more to offer than the blowholes. Take your time on the biggest island in the east of the Tonga chain to admire the archaeological sit of Mu’a. It contains the richest concentration of archaeological remnants in Tonga. Here you will see pyramids which once functioned as royal tombs. The Ha’amonga ’a Maui Trilithon is a large gate of stone. There are marks on this gate which function as a way to see when the sun sets and rises and when the longest and shortest days of the year are. This means people living here in the past were already aware of the presence of a certain form of time and were actually quite developed back then. Nowadays, the people here are a big draw still and it is a very relaxing island to visit.

Other sights and activities

  • Kava - Drink kava with the locals, without a hangover
  • Tongan National Centre - Vaiola



Events and Festivals

‘Eua Tourism Festival

Held on the island of ‘Eua, this is one of the first festivals of the annual calendar. It is held in the second week of May and attracts visitors from around the globe to experience and learn about traditional Tongan culture.

Ha’apai Tourism Festival

Held in the second week of June every year, this festival showcases the islands’ finest culinary and cultural delights. It is designed to attract tourists, and plenty come to experience the relaxed atmosphere and to enjoy and learn about traditional Tongan cooking and culture.


The largest festival in Tonga is celebrated nationally. On July 4, Tongans celebrate the birthday of their king, which is then followed by a week-long festival. Almost like clockwork, this time of year coincides with the flowering of the heilala, which is Tonga’s national flower. The locals are proud of this beautiful tropical flower that unfolds a pink, cross-like shape, and as part of the festival, they adorn themselves in heilala necklaces.

Vava’u Festival & Regatta

This week-long festival is held in the last week of September every year. Different activities are scheduled each day, including boat races around the island, although possibly the best day is a culmination of the week’s events at the traditional Tongan Cultural Feast at Ano Beach, which turns into an all-night party.




Tonga has pleasantly warm but humid tropical climate. Daytime temperatures are around 30 °C while night are still wel above 20 °C. The wet season lasts from November to April while the period from May to October sees less rain and more sun. Still, some heavy showers are possible during this time but it is the best time to visit Tonga if you want to avoid most of the rainy days.



Getting there


Visitors will arrive at Fua'amotu International Airport (TBU), not far from the capital Nuku'alofa on the Tongatapu Island group. There are direct flights with Polynesian Airlines from Apia in Samoa and several cities in New Zealand, as well as with Air New Zealand from Auckland. In addition, Fiji Airways and Pacific Blue fly from Nadi onFiji and Australia respectively. Air Fiji flies from the Fiji Islands as well, serving Suva.

By Boat

There are no regular passenger services to and from Tonga, so your only option are the rare berth on a cargoship, an expensive cruise or hoping to find a yacht in the big Pacific to take you here.



Getting Around

By Plane

Chathams Pacific are currently the only airline providing inter-island flights.[1] They operate from Tongatapu to Eua, Vava'u, and Ha'apai, and flights are soon to commence to the Nuias. They are a New Zealand company, which provide an excellent and reliable service.

By Car

You can rent cars at the airport or Nuku'alofa, but some are not in a good shape. Although main roads are tarred, there are potholes and many secondary roads can be in terrible shape. Traffic drives on the left and you need a local driving permit which can be obtained the Police Traffic Department in Nuku'alofa after showing your national driver's licence or international permit and your pasport and fee.

By Bus

Some buses and minibuses ply the main routes on Tongatapu and a few other islands, but services are not timetabled and are infrequent during the evenings and even late afternoons. It is cheap though and as distances are not to big, it is a great way to get around and travel the way locals do. Other local ways include renting a horse by the way.

By Boat

Local ferries sail between all the island groups, but services are erratic and not comfortable at all. There are regular sailings though from Queen Salote Wharf in Nuku'alofa to Ha'apai and Vava'u. Ferry schedules are subject to change and are subject to demand or weather as well. To the Northern Islands, the following are the main options:

  • The MV 'Olovaha is operated by the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia in Nuku'alofa ( runs a weekly service between Tongatapu (Nuku'alofa), Ha'apai (Ha'afeva and Lifuka Islands) and Vava'u (Neiafu).
  • The same ship also services the Niuas every two months but as it relies on government subsidies for the trip, it may run more or less frequently to these remote islands. From Vava'u to Niuatoputapu it takes about 24 hours, and an additional 12 to 15 hours to Niuafo'ou.
  • The MV Pulupaki is operated by Uata Shipping Line ( and travels between Tongatapu and Vava'u.
  • The trip across to 'Eua from Tongatapu takes two to three hours. The return leg from 'Eua to Nuku'alofa is usually a little quicker. A one-way fare is T$20 and tickets are sold on board the ferries.
  • The Uata Shipping Line also operates the MV Ikale, the fastest ferry between Tongatapu and 'Eua. The ferry leaves Nuku'alofa at 12:30pm and returns from 'Eua around 5:00am the next day. It travels daily, except Sundays.
  • Finally, the MV 'Otu Tonga, run by Tofa Shipping also travels between Nuku'alofa and 'Eua. It departs around noon on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Sometimes, the MV 'Alaimoana makes this trip.



Red Tape

Visitors from the following countries can enter Tonga without a visa for up to 30 days:

Australia, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Cook Islands, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Estonia, Micronesia, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kiribati, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Norway, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Romania, Russia, Samoa, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sweden, Switzerland, Bahamas, Turkey, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Vanuatu.

Ohter nationalities need to obtain a visa in advance. Check the Tonga Visa Information online.




See also Money Matters

The paʻanga is the currency of Tonga. The paʻanga is subdivided into 100 seniti. The ISO code is TOP, and the usual abbreviation is T$ (¢ for seniti). In Tonga the paʻanga is often referred to in English as the dollar and the seniti as the cent.

Coins come in 5¢, 10¢, 20¢, 50¢ (1¢, 2¢ rarely used) and banknotes come in denominations of T$1, T$2, T$5, T$10, T$20, T$50 and T$100.




If you don't work you don't eat. Tongans don't want to hear that it's hard on the coral beaches lined with palm trees and emerald lagoons. 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 technically 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.




Tongan is the most widely spoken language in Tonga. English is also widely understood because many of the high schools teach exclusively in English.




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.




There is a wide range of accommodation in Tonga, ranging from luxurious to budget. Most have relatively few rooms, though. The Tonga Visitors Bureau has a full listing.




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 (4.50-5 pa'anga). Or you can buy the same bottles from one of the many 'Chinese' roadside shops or a supermarket for 2 pa'anga or less. Imported beers are mainly from Australia although there are also some from Europe. Most are sold in 330 ml cans or bottles.




See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Tonga. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Tonga) where that disease is widely prevalent.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Tonga. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B is also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccinations, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.




See also Travel Safety

The islands that make up Tonga are generally very safe for visitors with few real problems. One thing to remember when going for a swim is that there are many sharp corals near the beach, especially near Tongatapu and PangaiMotu. It is a good idea to wear a cheap pair of sandals while in the water. There are jelly fish and they do sting! They are also hard to see. It is a good idea to have a bottle of vinegar handy in your bag to help treat any stings.



Keep Connected


WiFi hotspots are how people connect to the Internet in Tonga and you should expect slow connection speed, data limits and high prices.


See also International Telephone Calls

Tonga's international telephone code is 676. Telecommunications in Tonga are handled by two operators; Digicel Tonga and Tonga Communications Corporation. The latter operates a 900 MHz GSM-network.


Tonga Post handles international and domestic mail in the country.


Quick Facts

Tonga flag

Map of Tonga


Tongan, English
Calling Code


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Tonga Travel Helpers

  • Odinnthor

    Malo e lelei.
    Ahh Tonga. I was a member of the Entertainment Staff on the very first cruise ship that moored off the island of Tonga. Along with the top officers, the E/Staff was also invited to a Royal Feast prepared for us by the king's chefs. This was done in the gardens of the Royal Palace, and it was magnificent. Int'l Dateline Hotel, on the island has the distinction of being squarely on the Int'l Dateline. Back then it was said that it was Sunday in one end of the hotel, and Monday in the other. Bottom line, I have been to Tonga several times in the past and am fairly well versed in the Tongan tourism. My claims that, ".....I have dined with kings!......", I am really talking about the King of Tonga.........d:o)

    Ask Odinnthor a question about Tonga

    I was born in Tonga and have lots of family in Tonga I can probably help you out with any information about Tonga.

    Ask SUSIQ a question about Tonga

    Known as the,"Friendly Islands", since Captain Cook's time there. I spent 2 and 1/2 months there in 1999 and fell in with the locals, learned some Tongan, traveled a lot, learned many customs. Will give advice from many angles, this is a very safe and beautiful place with 170 islands, most uninhabited.

    Ask SLOAN a question about Tonga

Accommodation in Tonga

Use our map of places to stay in Tonga to explore your accommodation options and to compare prices across the country at a glance. To narrow the results down by budget category, use the links below.

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