The Kingdom of Tonga, also widely known as the Jewel of the Pacific, is one of the most unspoiled and scenic of all the South Pacific Island Nations. The Kingdom is comprised of an archipelago of 171 islands, 48 of which are still uninhabited. With the only sovereign monarchy among the island nations of the Pacific, Tonga has the distinction of the being the only nation to have avoided formal colonization.
In the Polynesian language, the word “Tonga” means “South.”
Many scholars believe the natives of Tonga originally came from the chain of island to the north known as Samoa and archaeological artifacts offer evidence that the islands have been settled since as far back as 500 B.C.
In 1616,the Dutch were the first Europeans to discover the Tongan Isles. Tongatapu, the main island was first visited by Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer, in 1643. Continual contact with Europeans, however, did not begin until more than a century later, when Captain James Cook visited the islands. It was during his first visit that Tonga became known as the “Friendly Islands” because of the warm reception toward their European visitors.
In 1789, the famous mutiny on the British ship, Bounty, took place in the waters surrounding the Kingdom of Tonga.
For most of the 20th Century, Tonga remained somewhat isolated from the developments taking place throughout the rest of the world. However, an increasingly pro-democracy movement has formed, demanding more rights for the common people of Tonga and curbing the influence of nobility.
Tonga’s first official political party, the People’s Democratic Party, was formed in 2005; its candidate was one of those elected to parliament in special May by-elections held to fill the two people’s representational seats vacated by the king’s cabinet appointments. This by-election also resulted in the election of the first woman to sit in the Tongan parliament in 24 years. When the princely prime minister resigned from office in early 2006, the king appointed People’s Representative, Feleti Sevele, as the first commoner prime minister in modern times.
Tongan culture is quite diverse. Old beliefs have been abandoned in many cases, and new traditions adapted. People of modern Tonga have strong overseas ties and often migrate to seek employment. Traditional Tongan livelihoods include fishing and farming. Vanilla is one of the most important cash crops of the islands.
Tonga is also known as a land of unique arts and crafts, including:
Tonga has also evolved its own style of Western-influenced clothing, painting and jewelry making. Often, these beautiful crafts are made for sale to Western tourists.
Tongan song and dance is of the traditional variety and usually saved for church and special ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.
The national sport of Tonga is rugby union, which enjoys a passionate following despite the fact that Tongan rugby struggles internationally, due to the nation’s small population base. Other popular sports include surfing, soccer, volleyball, judo and cricket.
Traditionally, the women of Tonga have long been looked on as of higher importance than the men, with the daughters of the families coming first in line regarding inheritance, despite order of birth. Remarkably, crime among the native inhabitants of Tonga is still quite low, even today.
The Kingdom of Tonga is located in Oceania, and encompasses a chain of islands stretching from directly south of Samoa to about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. This island chain is approximately 800 kilometers in length.
Tonga is made up of volcanic and coral islands. The warm, subtropical climate is home to widely varied geographical environments including lush rainforests, humid wetlands and luxurious white sandy beaches, free from overdevelopment.
Many species of bats and iguanas call the islands home. It is also home to various exotic birds such as lorikeets, pacific pigeons, kingfishers, musk parrots and tropical sea birds. While visiting or enjoying a wildlife excursion, one may encounter a Pacific Boa Constrictor or the Hawksbill Turtle. Sea Turtles are also still abundant on the beaches of the islands. For whale watchers, this area is a haven, as the waters surrounding the islands are the breeding ground of the humpback whale.
Tongan cuisine includes chicken, pork and fish that is usually eaten with taro and sweet potatoes. Rice is available and squash, breadfruit and tomatoes are cultivated. Traditionally, suckling pig is roasted in an underground oven or umu.
Tropical fruits grown include bananas, citrus fruits, mangoes, pineapples and watermelons. Coconut milk, a popular drink, is also used in cooking. Coffee is grown and beer is available. Kava, made from the roots of piper methysticum, is the traditional drink.
Tonga enjoys a subtropical climate with a distinct warm period from December to April, when the temperature often rises above 32 C (90 F). A cooler period, from May to November, sees temperatures drop to about 27 C or 80 F, on the average. There is an average yearly rainfall of between 65 to 120 inches, with the wettest period falling in March.
The government of The Kingdom of Tonga is a constitutional monarchy, which includes a chief of state or king, a Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and fourteen-member cabinet. Ten members are appointed by the monarch for life; four appointed from among the elected members of the Legislative Assembly, including two each from the nobles’ and peoples’ representatives serving three-year terms. The monarch is hereditary; prime minister and deputy prime minister appointed by the monarch
Noteworthy facts of potential visitors
Tonga is one of the most budget-friendly destinations in the South Pacific, but if you are planning a vacation to the Kingdom of Tonga, there are a few things to keep in mind. The currency is Tonga is he pa’anga. The official languages are English and Tongan, and most importantly, the dress code is modest. Topless sunbathing for women will result in a fine. Men are discouraged to be shirtless, except on the beach.
There are a variety of accommodation options from resorts to family-owned guest houses.
Visitors can enjoy an array of water sports, from snorkeling to boating, as well as guided and non-guided hiking and backpacking adventures.
Passports are required.