March 2023: Before this trip, I really knew nothing about Tuvalu, and I suspect the same is true for most of the world. It is a rare moment when the country of Tuvalu is mentioned in the news and if it ever is mentioned it is in the context of disappearing beneath the rising global warming induced sea levels. Tuvalu might very well be the country with the least number of foreign visitors. Nauru receives less tourists but because there are quite a few foreign contractors working in Nauru and far fewer in Tuvalu, Tuvalu likely takes the crown as the least visited nation in the world by foreigners.

For 3 days, Paula and I visited Tuvalu via Suva, Fiji as part of a larger “Baby Moon” Pacific Island trip. This is the story of our visit.

 

About Tuvulu

Tuvalu on map

Tuvalu is a tiny island archipelago along the equator. The population is small and consists of mostly Micronesian people. It is the least visited country in the world and currently only has 3 flight per week via a 2.5-hour flight from Suva, Fiji Airlines. Flights are so scarce that the runway is used as a playground by the children in between flights. For a country, Tuvalu has one of the strongest communal spirits that I have experienced in my travels. Everyone is friendly and seems to know each other. The island is kept clean, little garbage is discarded on the ground and the streets and houses are well kept. There isn’t a lot to do on the little island, but we definitely felt comfortable and enjoyed our stay in Tuvalu. The economy is small, but Tuvalu was enterprising enough to snatch up some popular internet domains early on in the internet era and this has allowed the country to lease out the domains for north of 50 million dollars. Because Tuvalu has a small population this revenue has paid for social programs and health care for the country. Tuvalu has also developed a niche market of selling rare stamps to international collectors. When I visited the post office, one of the nicest buildings in the country with blasting cold air conditioning, found almost nowhere else, I understood why. There were old, rare and incredible stamps posted all over the walls for sale and these as well as other stamps are also for sale online. 

 

The Runway

We flew to Tuvalu on a ATR turbo prop plane from Suva, Fiji. The flight was 2.5 hours and we landed in a small tarmac runway located in the middle of the island close to both shorelines. Immigration was brief and moments after departing the airport we were at our hotel, the Filamona Hotel, which felt more like a homestay than a hotel. There are no resorts and luxury hotels in the country. Accommodations are basic but comfortable. The Filamona is located alongside the runway adjacent to the airport. The distance from the airport is so short I likely broke a record for getting from the plane to the hotel. The whole process was over and done with in less than 20 minutes.  From the hotel, I watched from the balcony a beer on hand as my plane departed back to Fiji leaving us a few other intrepid tourists for the next three days until the next international flight returned to the island. Until then we would remain in the small island atoll in the middle of the pacific.

Tuvalu might have the only international airport runway that I am aware of that is also used as a playground. After the plane departed and only an hour later after the sun started to descend and cool off, the runway was full of children playing anything from volleyball, soccer, to dodgeball, or riding their bikes. Locals also use the runway as a shortcut to ride their motorbikes and on occasion their vehicles.

Paula and I loved walking the runway in the afternoon when the sun started to set to watch all of the children enjoying themselves in game. I even tried to join a dodgeball game until I realized I am old and feeble and couldn’t hit any of the 10-year-old kids with the ball and even almost threw my shoulder out trying.

I also learned that most people on the island are protestant Christians and take their religion very seriously. As a result, every afternoon a loud siren would be played at the airport to alert the kids that it was prayer time, and all of the children would pause their games to pray for 15 minutes before resuming.

 

Our plane departing after dropping us off

Kids playing volleyball on the runway

I won’t lie the sun is intense in Tuvalu, and it was hard to explore on foot while trying to avoid overheating and Paula was starting to feel unwell and combined with her pregnancy, she was careful to not overexert herself. The streets were also narrow, and it was hard to walk along them with all of the motorbikes buzzing by along the narrow shoulders. But we did manage to explore some of the island and watch a sunset. Everyone we met was friendly and kind and exchanged a smiling glance with us.

 

Local girls holding a puppy

Kids playing on a boat in the ocean with a sand dredging boat in the background that is dredging sand to counter the erosion and rising sea levels. 

Sunset

Funafuti Conservation Area 

I love tropical deserted islands and if Paula a nearby marine reserve has a cluster of them. If Paula wasn’t pregnant, I would have arranged for us to camp on the island but instead we settled on just a day trip. The highlight of our trip to Tuvalu was traveling to the marine reserve, a group of protected deserted islands in the lagoon about an hour from Funafati by small boat. I heard from a previous traveler about the islands and arranged it with the manager of the hotel. Together with a few other travelers from the hotel, we shared the cost of the boat. Torrential downpours falling during the night and again the morning put the trip in jeopardy, but we did manage to find a small window of relief from the rain to journey to the islands. But the relief was temporary because even larger and darker storm clouds gathered all around us leaving us feeling pretty vulnerable in the small open top boat with a small outboard motor. We were being driven by a local fisherman and not surprisingly no lifejackets were available. What was supposed to be a 20-minute ride was a 40-minute ride with the choppy waves from the storm. Soon the clouds enveloped the main island, and we couldn’t see behind us, and it seemed that soon we would be swallowed by downpours. Luckily the rain waited for us to arrive on the first of the protected islands in the marine reserve just on the outskirts of the lagoon before the outer rim of the coral demarcating the lagoon from the open ocean. We raced into the cover of the jungle to get protection under the trees and some WWII looking rusted metal structure to wait out the worst of the rains. Then we relaxed on the beach, swimming and walking around the length of the island, a good 40-minute walk. The island was paradise and even though the storm ruined the calm of the waters, it did create a beautiful dark blue backdrop over the ocean. After spending a few hours on the island, we visited a few more before returning to the main island.

 

Deserted island in Funafuti Conservation Area 

Deserted island in Funafuti Conservation Area 

Deserted island in Funafuti Conservation Area 

One of the deserted islands had a lush and well preserved jungle forest infested with small forests that I really thought was beautiful 

Deserted island in Funafuti Conservation Area 

Paula Talking to Our Daughter to be on a Deserted island in Funafuti Conservation Area 

On the 3rd day of our stay in Tuvalu we waited in anticipation for our plane to arrive. Kids were still playing on the runway, and we were interested to see how the authorities would clear the runway. But there were no issues. it seemed everyone on the island knew the routine but just to be sure there were a series of audible sirens that were spaced apart by 10 minutes to alert every one of the incoming planes. The first was to let everyone know they had to leave, and authorities cleared any stray dogs or pigs off of the runway and coned off the entrances. The last siren was to let everyone know the plane was just 10 minutes out and then finally the plane arrived. In my experience in the remote pacific island, the arrival of a plane was a huge ordeal, and the airport would be jam packed with people either receiving/sending off relatives that could be gone for years or they were shipping off cargo or receiving cargo. The check in experience was one of the best. We left our luggage at the hotel, walked 20 feet to the airport around check-in time, there was no line and a few Tuvalu police officers also part of the Tuvalu national forces greeted us and asked us a few questions out of curiosity about our country. When one of them learned we were from the USA he commented that we are lucky to be from the world’s most powerful country and that he had visited Norfolk, Virginia when he was working on a ship and loved our country. After the brief, and maybe the most pleasant airport check-in I have ever had at an international airport, we walked back to our hotel and had lunch and a beer and waited an hour before boarding our plane back to Fiji.

 

3 + 8 =

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