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Tips for Travelling to Tonga

Published 15th Jul 2021

Tonga has earned itself the name as the Friendly Islands, it was given way back in 1773 due to how they received Captain Cook and still holds true today. The people of Tonga are welcoming, relaxed and deeply traditional. It is an experience like no other and one you will only encounter in those destinations where tourism is not heavily relied upon by the locals. We have compiled a few handy hints to help you enjoy your Tongan holiday and save you from any embarrassing gaffes or misunderstandings whilst in the country.

History & Culture

Despite embracing many elements of the contemporary world, Tongans still proudly retain their authentic culture and traditions. Couple this with a Polynesian monarchy that dates back many centuries, and you have a country that remains as close to the ‘true’ Polynesia as you’re likely to find. Many Tongans still live in village communities following traditional customs, especially on the outer islands. The distinctive traditional dress ‘ta’ovala’ – woven waist mats – are still commonly worn, meals are still cooked in an underground oven called the ‘Umu’, and the tradition of kava drinking is very much a part of the Tongan lifestyle. Tonga has remained true to its ancestral roots, partly because it is the only Pacific Island nation never colonised by a foreign power, and uniquely because it has also never lost its indigenous governance. This is one South Pacific nation where you will not find big chain fast food outlets and retail shops, where modesty and covering up in public is the norm and being polite and humble is expected.

Sundays are sacred

Tonga is a very Christian country, meaning that Sunday is devoted to family and church - Sunday Law prohibits all types of activities, from playing to working to even doing the washing, even the airports and cruise terminals are closed. The country closes up shop midday Saturday and reopens Monday morning. Nobody works for money, except to cater meals to the limited tourists on island, furthering Tonga's reputation as the Friendly Islands. Avoid being topless (even for men) or wearing black clothes (it means you're mourning) on Sundays to prevent embarrassment for you and the locals alike.  If you want to truly experience life as a local then head along to a Sunday church service to hear the spectacularly tuneful, heart-felt singing and be part of the social gathering in the churchyard afterwards. Be warned hierarchies are strong in Tonga, so don’t be shocked to see that men are more powerful than women in the public scene and segregation will be obvious. You may even witness within families that sisters are ranked higher than brothers and the older sister makes all the decisions and the younger siblings can't rebut.

Accommodation Standards

Tonga appeals to those travellers wanting to escape popular South Pacific destinations frequented by luxury seeking and budget conscious tourists alike. While it’s relatively easy to get to Tonga, a visit is recommended for only those willing to forgo the comforts of hotel living and embrace the incredible adventures of the unspoiled beauty of this hidden gem. There are no hotel chains or big resorts offering a multitude of facilities, instead you will find small boutique resorts and family run properties. The most common type of accommodation offered is the Fale or Bungalow, large open spaced freestanding rooms with lots of natural light and a balcony for admiring the ocean views. When you head further afield to Tonga’s outer islands your accommodations may also only offer shared bathroom facilities. However, this is a small price to pay for staying in one of the most beautiful untouched destinations in the South Pacific. Your room may be simple but it is clean, comfortable and the people of Tonga will do whatever they can to ensure your stay is memorable.

When to visit

The tropical climate allows you to enjoy Tonga and all its small islands throughout the year. Snorkelling, diving, sunbathing and other outdoor activities can be fully enjoyed from May to October (the driest season). On the contrary, if you are planning to go from November to April – known as the wet season – be aware that heavy rainfall and cyclones hit the island and most of the outdoor activities are cancelled.

The dry season is also the most popular time of year to travel as it is when the Humpback Whales migrate to Tonga’s Vava’u island group to give birth. What is slightly different about trips to see these majestic creatures while in Tonga is that you get to plunge into the sea in fins and snorkels to witness these animals in their natural environment. Instead of seeing just flukes and breaches, you'll observe mothers and calves gliding through the ocean, gracefully interacting. Regulations keep a tight control on the encounters - trips can be done only with licensed whale-watching operators and only four snorkellers are allowed in the water at a time, so pre-booking is highly recommended.


Island Time

Somewhat universal to the South Pacific is Island Time and in Tonga it is no exception, in fact it is more obvious and exaggerated when compared to the likes of Fiji or the Cook Islands. Don’t expect things to happen on time or anything that you feel needs immediate attention to occur with any expediency. Plan for things to take longer than you are used to and enjoy the slow pace for all it is worth. Going hand in hand with this laid back pace you will also find that internet connections are limited, slow and expensive, credit cards are accepted but you may have difficulty in finding places that will accept them – cash is still king in this destination – and getting around may be tricky if you do not want to drive yourself as taxis are sparse and resort transport cannot always be relied upon. One last bit of advice we have for you is this, Tongans do not like to disappoint so when a misunderstanding or disagreement occurs things can get interesting. Tongans don’t like to say no and you may not get a straight answer if something is not possible. Please keep this in mind when asking about excursions or you have an unusual request. If the answer doesn’t seem clear, that might be an indicator that it’s not possible, but they won’t say no.

You are now armed with some crucial information to ensure your Tongan holiday won’t be marred by a silly mistake or misunderstanding. The next step is to start planning and that is where our South Pacific specialist can assist, they can create a holiday package for you, answer your travel queries and help you discover one of the South Pacific’s best kept secrets.

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