Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is one of the smallest countries in the world. The country has only one proper hotel and that has just 9 rooms.
Once you visit the country, there is no car rental service, there isn’t an ATM machine anywhere in the country, and the entire country doesn’t take credit cards.
Oh, and good luck trying to get online.
Learn more about Tuvalu, the least visited country in the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To start, let’s get the pronunciation of the country out of the way. It is pronounced TuVAlu, with the accent on the second syllable, not Tuvalu, with no syllable accented.
Tuvalu lies in the South Pacific, about 700 miles due north of Fiji, and about 7 degrees south of the equator.
The entire country consists of nothing but coral atolls. In fact, the word Tuvalu means “eight together” in Tuvaluan, a reflection of the fact that eight of the nine islands in the Tuvalu archipelago were originally inhabited.
Tuvalu was settled by Polynesian navigators, and here I’ll reference my previous episode on the topic, who probably came from Samoa which is located about 700 miles to the southeast. One island, according to legend, also might have come from Tonga.
The remoteness and small size of the islands meant that they had little contact with the outside world, even as Europeans began mapping the Pacific Ocean.
A Spanish ship first sighted the islands in 1595 but never bothered to stop. They just made note of the island in their log.
It was 160 years until another European ship passed by in 1751 when a British Royal Navy ship sailed past, but they too never bothered to stop.
In 1819, a British ship captained by American Arent Schuyler de Peyster sailed through and named the islands the Ellice Islands.
Through the 19th century, there were American whalers that stopped, and there were some Europeans who established small trading posts on some of the islands.
In 1892, the Ellice Islands had become a British protectorate as part of British Western Pacific Territories, and in 1916 it became part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.
In World War II, the Ellice Islands were spared a Japanese occupation. The Americans eventually came to the islands and built the first airstrip on the island of Funafuti as well as a port facility.
Funafuti served as the staging point for the Battle of Tarawa which took place in November 1943.
After the war, the airstrip and port facilities built by the Americans became the basis for Tuvalu’s only airport and their main facility for shipping.
In the aftermath of the war, there began a process of decolonization of British Territories.
In 1974, the Ellice islands had a referendum on if they should separate from the Gilbert Islands to form a separate territory. An overwhelming 93% of the electorate favored separating. The Gilbert Islands went on to become the independent country of Kiribati.
As part of the separation, the revenue-producing phosphate islands remained in the Gilbert Islands.
In 1976, they became the Ellice Island Colony.
The Ellice Island Colony was only a transitionary institution. The eventual plan was to become independent, which happened on October 1, 1978.
If you remember back to my episode on the country of Nauru, they had a heyday from the 1960s through the 1980s, where the country, very briefly, was the richest country in the world per capita from their phosphate reserves.
Tuvalu never even had that. The islands which make up the country are literally all sand. The country is 100% coral atolls. The highest point in the country is 4.6 meters or 15 feet above sea level.
In terms of land area, the country is only 26 square kilometers or 10 square miles making it larger than only Nauru, Monaco, and Vatican City. However, its territory extending out into the sea is significantly larger. Its exclusive economic zone is approximately 750,000 square kilometers or 289,000 square miles. Almost 29,000 times larger than their land area.
The population of Tuvalu today is only about 11,000 people, which makes it the second smallest country in the United Nations, with only a few hundred more people than Nauru.
With so few people, and so little in the way of resources, the economy of Tuvalu is very small. Its entire GDP is about $40 million per year, which to put that into perspective, is less than the annual salary of the Kansas City Chief’s Patrick Mahomes. In fact, Mahomes could double Tuvalu’s GDP and still have $5 million left over for himself.
What little economy they do have comes from a few sources: selling fishing rights and foreign aid are two big ones. A third major source of revenue comes from a quirk of the internet.
A full one-twelfth of their economy consists of selling rights to the .tv domain. There are currently over 85,000 domains registered using the .tv domain, usually for TV stations or sites doing video.
Revenue from this source is expected to increase significantly over the next few years.
While Tuvalu makes quite a bit of money off the internet, it doesn’t mean that the people in the country have good internet. I visited Tuvalu and stayed several nights there back in 2016. The internet was…..bad. That is putting it mildly. Given their location in the middle of the ocean, it is very difficult and expensive for them to connect with the rest of the world.
There are plans to install a fiber optic cable to Tuvalu, which would radically improve life for its citizens.
Life in Tuvalu is different.
The largest island in terms of population and area is Funafuti, which is also the capital of the country.
By far, the largest feature on Funafuti is the airport runway. Because it takes up so much land, and because there are so few flights, people just use it throughout the week. People might dry clothes on the runway, play games, or ride their bikes.
About an hour before a plane is about to land, a siren goes off warning everyone to stay away from the runway.
As I noted in the introduction, Tuvalu is considered to be the least visited country in the world. It gets only about 500 actual tourists per year.
Nauru, which is similar in size, has its own airline and there are regular flights with fly through their airport. It is also much close to Australia.
Tuvalu, on the other hand, is really far away from anything. The only flights to the country come from Fiji, and then only twice a week. Fiji Airways is the only airline that services the country, so flights are expensive.
Once you are in Tuvalu, commerce can be challenging. There isn’t an ATM anywhere in the country and no place takes credit cards, as processing them is so difficult because the communications with the rest of the world is so poor.
There is only one real hotel in the country, and that only has 9 rooms. It is on a par in terms of quality with a roadside motel in the United States. There are a few other guesthouses where you can stay as well.
To top it all off, Tuvalu uses the Australian Dollar as its currency, but all its flights come from Fiji, which doesn’t use the Australian Dollar. When I flew to Tuvalu I had to take out Fijian money, then covert it to Australian Dollars at the Nadi Airport which was expensive to do.
Everywhere in the country is no more than about 200 meters from the ocean, no matter where you are. I rented a motorbike one day and literally drove as far as I could from one end of Funafuti to the other and you were never far from the shore. If you don’t bother to stop, you can probably get from end to end in 15 or 20 minutes.
There is one issue that tends to overwhelm all discussions of Tuvalu. If you do a search on Tuvalu, many articles will pop up on the same topic: global warming.
Tuvalu is in danger of disappearing entirely. Because the entire country is coral atolls, most everything is just one or two meters above sea level. The tides have been rising about 3.9 millimeters per year.
It is entirely possible that at some point in the future Tuvalu could get wiped off the map.
Australia and Fiji have both offered to relocate the citizens of Tuvalu, but the government says that would only be a last resort.
So if you truly want to do something different, to go someplace where no one else goes, consider a trip to Tuvalu. Just get yourself to Fiji to catch a flight and make sure you have enough Australian currency with you.
Also, you might not want to wait too long, because you never know how much longer Tuvalu is going to be around.