Tuvalu is a tiny independent country in the South Pacific made of nine atolls that achieved its independence from the UK in 1978. Despite being one of the top-5 least visited countries in the world, it has a lot of unique features that made it one of the most special places I have ever been to.
For one, Tuvalu is the second smallest country in the world in terms of population, closely following Nauru at just 11,000 citizens, and measures just 26 square kilometers, making it the fourth smallest in terms of size, after Monaco, Nauru and The Vatican.
However, it felt much smaller than these three. The main island, where most of the Tuvaluan live, has one road that crosses it end to end and measures just 11km long, and the island is just a few meters wide at times.
I have been to narrower countries, Kiribati is sometimes just the width of the causeway, but the fact that you can walk the entire length of Tuvalu in two hours makes it feel terribly small, even smaller than Nauru whose circumference road is 19km.
If you want to see how Tuvalu looks like from the air, see the video below which shows the last minute before landing on Tuvalu.
Tuvalu is also the least developed country in the world and one with the smallest GDP at just over $40 million in 2018, that is less than any of the publicly traded companies in most European stock exchanges. Yet it runs on a budgetary surplus.
Tuvalu does not have the natural phosphate resources of neighbouring Nauru or the wealth of the Church in The Vatican, and it is not a haven for the rich and famous.
The country’s main income sources are the the sale of stamps to philatelic collectors (they have some curious ones for sale too), fishing licenses and the income from the sale of copra. It also famously leased the country’s .tv domain to a Canadian company.
Then there is The Tuvalu Trust Fund, set up years ago as a safety net in case the country does indeed sink. Sadly, this is what Tuvalu is known to most: a country slowly disappearing under rising sea levels.
Like the Maldives or Kiribati, the country is largely flat, the highest point is about 4m above sea level, and the risk of disappearance is high. Locals tell you about patches of beach that once were, or islands that have been submerged, like it has happened in the Solomon Islands.
It is common to see palm trees practically horizontal, as the sand they grew on has been washed away by the sea.
Where is Tuvalu
Tuvalu is located a 2h flight away from Fiji and about 3h flight away from Tarawa in Kiribati, the only two airports with three weekly direct commercial flights (jointly). Geographically speaking, Tuvalu is half-way between Hawaii and Australia and right next to the Equator so temperatures are the same all year round.
History of Tuvalu
Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is a group of coral atolls geographically located in Micronesia but of Polynesian descent that was a British colony until 1978.
Polynesians populated the islands in the 14th century and words like Talofa, used in Tonga and Samoa, are also part of the local Tuvaluan language. The country shares a lot of its cultural heritage with Samoa even if geographically, and politically, it was administered together with Kiribati.
The island was first spotted by Western explorers in the 16th century when Spanish Alvaro Mendana de Neyra saw it but the original name of the islands was after a ship owned by a British MP called Edward Ellice who arrived in 1819.
During the 19th century, the islanders were kidnapped and used as slaves until the UK declared it a protectorate in 1892 together with the Gilbert Islands, today’s Kiribati.
In the 21st century, Tuvalu makes the news regularly because of the effects of climate change. The country is sinking, literally, and it is thought the population will become the first climate-change refugees, having to flee Tuvalu because the rising sea levels will swallow the islands.
Population relocations are not new, they happened with some Tvaluans after WWII and with a Kiribati island in 1945, but never because of climate change. The country is also trying to protect itself with programs to avoid erosion and sea walls.
If it were to sink, would Tuvaluans hold rights to the waters? Would the country still have a seat in the UN? These are some very complex questions to answer.
Things to do and places to see in Tuvalu
Before the country disappears, you can visit Tuvalu and see for yourself.
The main island of Fongafale is a really really small place and, as you read from above, there is little development so, as expected, there are few things to do.
Most visitors will stay in this island, because that is where the airport is. Going to the other atolls is hard because there are no flights and the boats depart every two weeks.
Tuvalu has no ATM and credit cards are not accepted anywhere either, so you need to bring all your cash with you. You can however exchange foreign currency, Australian Dollars, USD and Euro, at the only bank branch, right by the airport.
This means that you need to plan what you will do ahead of time so you bring enough cash to pay for it. Things like renting a scooter or a car, or going on a trip to the Conservation area are extremely expensive activities.
Do […] on Tuvalu’s runway
Tuvalu’s main feature is the open runway which is a unique institution from WWII and the only place in the world where a country’s international runway is used for anything else during most of the week.
The airstrip was built during WWII by the American forces who conquered the island before the Japanese did and built an airstrip to be able to land military planes and other equipment.
Since then, Tuvalu has maintained it as the lifeline of the country, making it more accessible than other islands in the Pacific that have remained colonies and can only be reached by unreliable ocean routes.
Tuvalu is not the only country with an open runway, Nauru has it too, but you can’t use for anything else when there is no air traffic, it simply sits idle and empty.
In Tuvalu, you have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of playing volleyball, football or simply watching the Milky Way from the runway and that is a pretty cool thing, especially for aviation geeks.
As soon as the evening comes, locals flock to the runway for anything and everything and when the night falls, you will find people sitting on the pavement, or laying down. This is quite an experience.
This unique experience is the result of the country’s isolation. Tuvalu receives only three flights a week, usually even less as the Air Kiribati flight from Tarawa is almost always cancelled (as some friends of mine noted).
The Fiji Airways flights from Suva lands and departs in the middle of the day and the police will ring a siren about 15min before their arrival to warn everyone. The road accessing the runway will then be guarded by policemen stopping car traffic and you can watch a plane land mere meters from you.
Pro tip: for an extra dose of fun, drive your scooter down the runway, totally allowed and you’ll see the local doing so.
Funafuti Conservation area
The Conservation Area was the highlight of my trip to Tuvalu.
After having visited almost all the Pacific countries, I knew that not all them have the white sand, powdery beaches we dream of, many of them, including Tuvalu and Nauru, are mostly atoll islands with rocky shores, aggravated by global warming, and the beach is an elusive idea.
What is more, despite many of them having beaches, laying on the beach like we are used to in the northern hemisphere is not really a thing there, the locals don’t want to get a tan and it’s really hot.
Plus there are no beach facilities per se, since people only go down in the evenings when it is less hot, just to play. In the Funafuti Atoll where the capital of Tuvalu is, there is only a small patch of sand at end of the runway, along with a few concrete picnic tables and benches, but it is not very inviting because the port is nearby.
For the real South Pacific feel, head to the Conservation Area where you will spot fluffy pink and white coral beaches, swaying palm trees and no other human in sight.
The conservation area includes six islands, Tepuka Savilivili, Fualopa, Fuafatu, Vasafua, Fuagea and Tefala, and tours usually take you to Fualopa because it is the largest and nicest.
The government protects this area and fishing or staying overnight is not allowed. Visitors also must pay $70 fee to enter the reserve and there are ongoing efforts to protect the area from further erosion from weather and rising sea levels.
During your trip to the reserve you can snorkel on the clear waters and see colorful reef fish and large clams. On land, there are lots of nesting birds and millions of small hermit crabs and larger coconut crabs. Turtles also nest on the beach and we spotted dolphins. If you are lucky, you can also see manta rays.
Fualopa is between 25min and 1h by boat from Vaiapu but this depends on the sea. We took 25min to get there and over an hour to return because of the large waves.
The tour is made with a guide and a boatman. The guide will stay with you, the boatman usually goes and returns to pick you up. Tours run from 8,30am until lunch time, you can stay longer if you request it.
You should bring everything with you, and take back any trash. There is nothing on the islands and the weather is unpredictable so I suggest a dry bag to put your belongings so they don’t get wet on the boat or on the island. The lodges usually rent snorkelling equipment and will give you towels.
This is not a cheap activity. We spent a considerable amount of money for the excursion. You need to pay the following:
- $5 per person for snorkelling equipment (to the lodge you stay at)
- $70 to the Conservation Area
- $150 for the boat ride
- $20 per person to the guide
- Total for two people: $270 for half a day
As you can see, this is as expensive as a dive trip but at least you know a bit chunk goes to the conservation of the area. Fuel is expensive in Tuvalu as it needs to be imported, so the boat ride is costly.
If you have time or prefer to see more than one, you can ask the guide and you can stop at more than one island. We were quite happy to stay at Fualopa enjoying the area, taking photos, flying the drone and snorkelling, but she mentioned there were other islands we could visit.
Alternatively, the best thing to do would be to ask for a full day tour which would probably cost more on the guide but the same for the rest. This way you can go island hopping. Make sure to bring lunch.
Walk (or drive) the length of the island
Because the weather is permanently really hot, we decided to rent a car to get around. You will soon realise it takes about 15min to drive the length of Funafuti, you could also walk it and that would be around 3h return. It is small.
Renting a car can be done from the lodge. We rented our RAV4 car from L Lodge’s owner, and this is usually how things work, you just borrow someone’s car for a fee, in this case, $75 per day. You needn’t worry about petrol because you can’t really use much of it.
Nobody checked our driving license or got us to sign anything, this is just how it works. Tuvalu has no crime and if anything happened, everyone would know within minutes.
If you drive along the main road, you can reach the farther point from Vaiapu and realise that is the island’s landfill.
See the sunset
The island of Fongafale sees great sunsets from the lagoon side and it pays to buy some snacks and a drink from the supermarkets in town and then drive to a spot of your choice to see the sun set. You will be absolutely alone and the colors are just always stunning.
I could suggest to go to a bar instead, but there is only one, and is in town, so it has no views. It also does not get going until later in the evening.
Buy stamps and send postcards
Thanks to my very persistent travel companion, I got to visit the Post Office.
We had to go four times to be able to finally get someone to sell us some postcards and stamps but it was well worth it.
While postcards are something that regularly runs out (we were lucky a shipment had arrived the day before), stamps are always available and Tuvalu has some really weird and unique ones that make for collector’s pieces.
Go to church
Even if you are not religious, like me, Sunday in the Pacific is the day for church. Most of the countries do not allow for work on Sunday and all businesses will be closed, so the only thing left to do is to put on your best dress and join the locals at church.
Churches in the Pacific are for everyone and they are are full of singing, so they make for a truly cultural and fun experience. Chances are a local will invite you for lunch after, this happened to me in every country.
Watch a Fatele performance
As we were leaving the airport after out nocturnal visit to the runway, we heard the singing and dancing at the community hall, the maneapa.
We got closer and saw all the locals dancing and singing, some wearing grass skirts, others in their regular clothes, and everyone clapping and dancing along.
Unlike other countries in the Pacific like the Cook Islands, Fiji or French Polynesia, the dances in Tuvalu are authentic, there are tourists to perform for, and are the way the locals have fun. If you are interested, just ask the lodge you are staying at where you can find one.
The two main ones are the large yellow maneapa next to the airport as well as the one along the runway.
Marvel at beautiful cemeteries
One thing that impressed me the most about Tuvalu are the beautiful cemeteries. Tombs are often covered with permanent wooden huts which are decorated with flowers outside and sometimes inside. They look beautiful and are very visibly seen as the country has limited land.
Walk to other islands
If you want the truly remote South Pacific experience, you can even visit some of the other islands in the Funafuti Atoll. Most of them can be reached either by boat (like the Conservation area) or by foot at low tide.
If you continue walking past the runway on the southern part of Fongafale at low tide, you will be able to walk to one or even two islands on foot. Crossing to other islets at low tide is common in the area, I also did it in Kiribati, you just have to be careful not to be caught at high tide because there are no boats to bring you back.
Stay at an even more remote island
If you want to feel truly remote and have the real castaway feel, then you should book a room at the idyllically quiet Afelita Island Resort, located in the north part of the atoll and reachable on a 10min boat ride.
Explore WWII Wrecks
The island was bombed by the American and Japanese forces but it did not suffer as much as other parts of the Pacific because the population did not resist. What you can find here is heavy infrastructure equipment left behind after the war.
Along the island you can find a few abandoned wrecks including a rusty treaded vehicle. In the sea, a Van Camp wreck near an abandoned and rusted bus.
Chill and relax
As you might have realised, there is not that much in the way of active things to do in Tuvalu. The country is laid back, has a limited amount of tourist attractions and is very small. So do as locals do and take it easy.
Maybe find a stretch of sand and lay down under a palm tree to read, or use one of the many hammocks hanging around for a nap (ask the local owner first). Relaxing and disconnecting is one of the best, and easiest things to do in Tuvalu, mostly because there is little internet and you are far from the noises of urban centers.
Tuvalu restaurants and bars
Restaurant options in Tuvalu are limited and there are only a couple of options, both run by Chinese families and with long menus with any possible pseudo-Chinese dish you can think of.
The usual suspects are fried chicken, fried fish, grilled and stewed meats, fried rice and noodles. The menus are quite extensive but heavy meat and fish based with carbohydrates. It is very difficult to find fruits and vegetables on any menu, in particular, it’s practically impossible to see vegetables.
Tuvalu has very limited arable land with locals growing some fruits in their backyard for their own consumption and the vast majority of the foods are imported. As a result, fresh vegetables rarely make it and if they do, are very expensive.
Even the vegetables in dishes are mostly frozen (peas, corn, carrot) and fresh options limited to cabbage. This makes it hard for the locals to have a balanced diet and Tuvaluans are one of the most obese populations in the world.
This restaurant on the first floor of a concrete building that is the closest Tuvalu gets to a mall, serves Chinese food with a more sophisticated feel than any other place in the country. This probably is the most formal of all the restaurants even if it still serves food on plastic tables and chairs.
On the menu all sorts of dishes, from sizzling grilled meat to chop suey (a very popular Chinese dish in the Pacific), curry, noodles, soups, rice, stir fried meats and vegetables, etc. with generous portions and prices ranging from AUD18 to AUD30.
Similar to 3Ts, Ocean Blue also serves Chinese food but with a more limited menu and in a more modest setting. Blue Ocean is however known for its fish and chips, which is actually pretty good and made with locally caught fish.
There are also a long list of other dishes, fried rice, stir fry, chop suey, etc.
Tuvalu hotels and other accommodation
Like with restaurants, there are limited accommodation options in Tuvalu and only a handful of hotels. The best ones are Esfam and L’s Lodge which is where I stayed.
I went to visit all the rest of the places to check them out and compare and also asked a few other travelers, most notably Taiwanese doctors who were staying at L’s Lodge and had visited Tuvalu many times for extended periods, and these two are the best.
Things to note when booking a hotel in Tuvalu:
- Remember that you can’t use credit cards anywhere on Tuvalu so try to book and prepay before arrival or bring lots of cash with you.
- There is no hot water anywhere on Tuvalu, all hotels have cold water and the only place with hot water is the Australian compound. Hotels are no exception so get ready for cold showers.
- It is extremely hot in Tuvalu all year round so I highly recommend booking a room with AC or you will struggle to have any rest.
- Mosquitoes are everywhere and during my visit, there was an outbreak of dengue too so make sure to close the windows and if you spot any, use repellent.
Ls Lodge is a cozy small guest house near the end of the runway. The rooms are spread over two floors, three on the ground floor and the rest upstairs.
On the first floor there is a living room with sofas and a TV as well as a kitchen and table where breakfast is served. On the ground floor there are also some sofas and the reception from where you can book a tour to the conservation as well as rent a car or scooter.
L’s Lodge is available on Airbnb and you should indeed book in advance and prepay because you can’t pay with credit cards at the hotel (they’re not accepted anywhere in Tuvalu) and bringing so much cash is a hassle.
Esfam is a slightly larger lodge located nearer to the airport and has similar facilities and rooms. It is also a family-run business.
Esfam is also available for booking on Airbnb but beware, my travel companion was asked to book outside the site and pay at the hotel, you should make sure to use Airbnb instead because of the protection that gives you and the fact that you don’t have to carry cash.
Filamona is located right by the airport and is usually cheaper than the other two options above. The guesthouse does not receive great reviews from friends but it is far more affordable than the other options.
It is also the only one which has a bar where foreigners and sometimes local politicians and other important people congregate for drinks. There is also a colorful tomb at the entrance, a rather unusual sight anywhere else but common in Tuvalu. You can book Filamona on Facebook by messaging them.
Funafuti Lagoon Hotel
The government owned hotel is the only real hotel in Tuvalu. Located right by the airport and sea-facing, the hotel was undergoing refurbishment when I was there and adding new bungalow rooms.
Visa and other practical information
Tuvalu is a very unique country with lots of limitations, hence you need to properly plan your trip ahead of time.
How to get to Tuvalu
Tuvalu is reachable by plane on a twice weekly service by Fiji Airways from Suva in Fiji, and the occasional weekly flight from Tarawa operated by Air Kiribati that is notoriously unreliable and usually cancelled.
The 2h flight from Suva is the safest bet to make it to Tuvalu but it is also quite an expensive option. Flights are served by a propeller plane that can fit 68 people with their luggage. If you are flying from another city connecting in Suva you will have to collect your luggage and re-check in.
Because the flights only run twice weekly you will either spend two or five days in Tuvalu. Most people spend two and if you had five you would probably be quite bored, which is why you should then consider staying at one of the island lodges for a couple of days.
The airport in Tuvalu has no luggage belt, instead, the suitcases will be brought over by the staff directly from the plane. Check in commences about 2h before the flight and the staff are unable to issue any onwards boarding passes.
Boarding passes are hand written and luggage weighed on regular scales. There is no bar or cafeteria at the airport and the boarding lounge only opens half an hour before the flight. There is no AC inside either but there are lots of fans.
Best time to visit Tuvalu
Tuvalu is a tropical island and as such, it sees a lot of rain. Even the driest months enjoy short downpours and that is necessary because Tuvalu has no natural water sources so the only way for the population to stock on water supply is by collecting rainfall.
The following graph illustrates the monthly rainfall and you can see how even in the drier summer months rainfall is very high. For reference, Tuvalu’s dry months’ rainfall see more rain than most countries in their rainy season.
Case in point it rained every day I was there even though July is supposed to be a dry month.
At the same time, temperatures are constant all year round between 25 and 31 degrees. But don’t let this fool you, humidity is also high, making the heat sensation worse than the thermometer may indicate.
Because the rain can put such a damper on your holiday and make the roads and the trip to the conservation area difficult, I highly recommend visiting Tuvalu from June to September.
This is the most essential part of the planning because Tuvalu is the only country in the world without ATMs. Other countries require you to bring all your cash with you because of embargoes (e.g. Sudan) but Tuvalu just has no place to get money once there so you need to plan well how much you will need.
Firstly, Tuvalu’s currency is the Australian dollar and there is one bank office only in the whole country located by the airport where you can exchange foreign currency. The counter for this is on the first floor and is open in the morning only.
Alternatively, there is Moneygram in the same bank office, which you can use to send yourself money before the trip or get a relative to do so should you need.
How much will you need? Here is a rough budget for Tuvalu for two people traveling for two nights:
- Trip to the conservation area: AUD270.
- Cost per meal: AUD25 pp x 4 meals = AUD100 per person, AUD200 for two.
- Car rental: AUD75, try to get them to rent you the car for two half days so you go to the conservation area on Day 2 in the morning and have the car on the afternoon of Day 1 and 2.
- Postcards, stamps, water, snacks, etc. AUD50 pp = AUD100.
- Drinks for sunset: AUD15 pp x 2 days AUD60.
- TOTAL: AUD630, without including hotels which you should try to prepay by booking on Airbnb.
Visa for Tuvalu
Most nationalities can go to Tuvalu without a visa. You can find the visa requirements via the Emirates website which uses IATA information.
You will have to fill in a four part arrival card with sections on customs, agricultural quarantine, health and immigration which the airline staff will hand out before landing. Upon landing, there will be four people taking each of the papers and then you can collect your luggage.
Immigration for foreigners is swift as the planes don’t carry a lot of passengers and the majority are local.
What to pack and bring to Tuvalu
The country’s remoteness means that a lot of the things that you would regularly and easily find in most places may just not be available in Tuvalu so you should bring everything you need with yourself.
Because this is a beach holiday, I would suggest to pack the usual suspects. Plus, not to exacerbate the country’s garbage management efforts, I highly recommend taking your trash with you when you leave.
Chances are this just means a couple of plastic bottles but just imagine how hard it is to dispose of that when your country’s total size is just 26 square kilometers.
Here is a list of the things you should take with you to Tuvalu.
This is a must, the sun is hyper strong in the Pacific and you are right by the Equator so bringing high SPF sunblock and applying it regularly and continuously is a necessity. I always love and use Biore which is non stick
A hat or cap
This one for women is good, and this one for men. I would usually think that a cap is enough but after severely burning my neck I know that you need to make sure to cover that part too so a wide brim option is best.
Mosquitoes in the Pacific are vicious and ever present. When I visited, Tuvalu had both Zika and a Dengue outbreak so proper protection is a necessity. I used three pots of repellent in my ten days in the area and just moderate spraying did not protect me, I had to literally douse myself in repellent.
You really need a repellent that has DEET in Tuvalu. OFF is a reliable brand I use often (I brought it to Tuvalu) and this one has 25% DEET. Or if you are really prone to mosquito bites try Coleman which has 40% DEET. Make sure to thoroughly wash hands after applying it, DEET is really toxic and will upset your stomach.
I am practical in this department, just like with the mosquito repellent and hat. You can wear designer glasses to the luxury resort in Taormina, but you need to bring heavy duty sunglasses to Tuvalu.
Because the sun rays are strong and you need to protect your eyesight from the sun and the wind. I am a big fan of Oakley, they are heavy duty, they last, they are polarised and not too expensive. I have been using them since I was a lifeguard at age 16 and spent 8 hours a day staring at the ocean, sand and sun.
Although I will admit I have bought the same black Oakley sports model for years and love it because it holds my hair when I place them on my head and doesn’t let any sun or sand get into my eyes because it covers them all the way.
Clothes and swimwear
In terms of clothes, I highly recommend shorts and t-shirts and long sleeve cotton or linen shirts which both protect you from the sun and the mosquitoes.
A sarong is useful for many things and helps you if you want to get in the water in the main island. At the Conservation Area you will most likely be the only one, but in Funafuti, you should cover up as a women and not wander in the beach in your swimwear. Swimwear is to be used on your trip to the conservation.
Given how strong the sun is, I strongly suggest bringing a rash vest, I always wear them to protect from the sun when snorkeling so I don’t sunburn without realising it. Make sure it is long sleeved and has SPF protection.
For women, they make some really cute ones these days and I like the ones with a zipper which can be taken on and put back on easily. This flowery one is very cute and ticks all the boxes and this black one is more plain and goes with everything. Or get a super sexy onesie or Billabong’s silver shiny one (beware it does not cover your arms).
Other things to pack
You should bring any medical and personal hygiene products with you because the range of options available is very limited and regularly runs out. Any prescription medication should also be carried with you because it may not be available on the island.
Tuvalu has limited medical facilities and only one anesthesiologist shared with Kiribati. That is, the doctor spends six months in each country. While the Government of Taiwan has had a long term aid program where they send doctors to Tuvalu to help train and perform procedures, you are best making sure you don’t need any help.
You should never leave home without travel insurance and remember that this needs to be bought before your trip.
World Nomads is a very widely used insurance company with affordable prices. You can get a quotation and purchase insurance pretty quickly and easily with the box below.
- Check if you need a visa, get help processing it at iVisa.
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