18 Jul 2019

Tuvalu seeks to attract climate change tourists

8:38 am on 18 July 2019

From New Zealand you could go half way around the world for the price of a flight to Tuvalu.

Funafuti lagoon, Tuvalu

Funafuti lagoon, Tuvalu Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

After stopping in Fiji, you fly due north for three hours on a small turboprop plane and drop down on a sliver of land in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

There may be two attempts if there's a dog on the runway.

When the few flights aren't due in or out, the tarmac becomes a sports pitch, a walking and jogging strip and children's playground.

Tour operator Susana Taafaki

Tour operator Susana Taafaki Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

But a tour operator Susana Taafaki says tourists do come from all over the world, some to visit historic world war two sites and others who've heard about Tuvalu's fight against the impacts of climate change.

The UN World Tourism Organisation reports the low lying coral atoll nation of just under 11,000 people is the least visited country in the world.

Just 2000 people visited in 2016, many of them business people and those involved in aid and development.

Tuvalu's government now wants to develop a tourism policy that embraces the fight against climate change, getting tourists involved in protective planting for example.

Tourism Minister Taukelina Finikaso told a conference in New Zealand last week the new policy should incorporate a rebranding of the country's tourism sector in response to the climate crisis.

"We're trying to brand our tourism according to climate change in such a way that we can also develop some responses to climate change like when tourists come to Tuvalu, for them to participate in planting of mangroves and other trees that can help save the landscape from being washed away," he said.

Expensive airfares, limited digital access and difficult entry to the lagoon for cruise ships were challenges for Tuvalu, he said.

The minister said Tuvalu was hoping for assistance from other countries like Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand to develop a tourism policy.

Fogafale, gateway to Tuvalu

Fogafale, gateway to Tuvalu Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

But can Tuvalu's battle against rising seas attract more than the intrepid travellers visiting at present?

Michael Sinzer was among the few tourists on the main atoll Funafuti last week.

He had sailed his boat there from Europe on his way to Fiji after googling Tuvalu to see whether it was worth the stop.

What he read had piqued his interest.

"The islands will sink soon, it may be the last chance to visit them, it's small," he listed.

"OK we have to go there to figure this out."

He was seeking permission to get out to remoter spots away from the motorbikes and crowded dusty capital.

He was sure the diving at the passes into the lagoon would be rich with marine life and he was keen to sail to a conservation area but the fee to get there was off-putting.

Curiosity had also tempted an Eastern European couple spotted walking the length of Fogafale, the main island of Funafuti, on their two day trip to Tuvalu.

Expecting to find an idyllic beach they had come across the rubbish dump but were still glad they'd made the trip and could add Tuvalu to their list of unusual destinations.

"I told my friends and my family, you know it's the island who may be like the first on the earth will sink under water so we have to visit it before this happens," Zuzana said with a laugh, adding she would recommend it to their friends even though she found the locals' living conditions shocking.

Philatelist Hugh Bennet from Scotland was there to meet local stamp experts and visit the former British colony which had attracted interest from collectors worldwide during its stamp-producing heyday after independence.

"It's somewhere you think you might never get to and fortunately I have," he smiled, noting tourists need to be prepared for a non five star experience.

Philatelist Hugh Bennet, pictured touring Tuvalu with his wife, Gwyneth, has long been interested in the remote island nation because of its notable stamps.

Philatelist Hugh Bennet, pictured touring Tuvalu with his wife, Gwyneth, has long been interested in the remote island nation because of its notable stamps. Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

World War II relics on Tuvalu's atolls draw other intrepid tourists like retiree Steve McKinlay who had been to visit the atoll of Nukufetau.

His father, a Seabee during the war, had helped build a three kilometre long runway using coral mined from the lagoon.

"I went to follow up and see what was left of the air base."

The take-off spot for B-29 bombers, "a magnificent airstrip" was now overgrown with breadfruit and coconut trees and only one man was left on the island, Mr McKinlay discovered.

"His children are gone, his wife has passed away, he has a few chickens, three or four hogs."

Mr McKinlay said the island had potential to draw commerce and visitors.

A refurbished runway and "tremendous" harbour there for cruise ships could be the key, he said.

Good sport fishing and fantastic people meant it was ripe for tourism, he felt.

"I consider climate change a bunch of bunk. It's hype by a bunch of scientists trying to raise research dollars," Mr McKinlay said when asked whether climate change curiosity was a way to attract tourists.

Sally Round travelled to Tuvalu on a Pacific journalism grant funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade