13 things to know before visiting Tuvalu

Because Tuvalu is one of those off-the-beaten-track destinations (most of your friends won’t know where it is when you say you’re going there), it can be handy to have a bit of pre-travel information up your sleeve before arriving.

1. Tuva-who?

Tuvalu is a remote island nation in the Pacific Ocean. It’s just south of the Equator, west of the International Date Line, two hours by air north of Fiji and part of the Commonwealth. It consists of nine islands and atolls (three true islands and six coral atolls), of which the main one is Funafuti, an atoll with the country’s only airstrip. Visitors are issued with a free 30-day tourist visa on arrival, and there’s no departure tax.

2. Cash is king.

The local currency of Tuvalu is the Australian dollar, with Tuvaluan coins featuring Queen Elizabeth II on one side and local marine life (turtles, octopus, flying fish) on the other. There are no ATMs and credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere, so it’s cash-only even at hotels and guesthouses.


3. Speak easy.

Most Tuvaluans speak English, even if they’re shy of using it, and all signs are in English. Still, it’s a good idea to learn a few words of Tuvaluan as an icebreaker, such as “talofa” (hello), “fafetai” (thank you) and “fetaui” (see you later).

4. A tourist-free zone.

Only about 1600 tourists visit Tuvalu each year (mostly from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand) plus a few expats (mostly foreign aid workers), so you really do feel you’re off the tourist track. As a result, there’s little infrastructure: no tourist information centre, no tour guides, no organised activities. But there’s a hotel and about a dozen guest-houses in Funafuti, and homestays on other islands, and there are still sights to see and things to do (see 10 things to do in Tuvalu).


5. Getting around.

In Funafuti, the best way to get around on the main island (called Fongafale) is by motorbike – rent one for $10 a day or hitch a ride on the back of someone else’s. No one wears a helmet, and there don’t seem to be any available for rent, but people tend to ride slowly and there’s little traffic. There are no flights to Tuvalu’s outer islands; they’re accessible by passenger ferry from Funafuti, and it can be a long trip (overnight or multi-day trips aren’t uncommon).

6. Keeping cool.

The weather doesn’t vary much throughout the year: it’s always hot (a little over 30C) and humid. It’s a good idea to bring cool, loose clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, and rest during the middle of the day (it’s called “Pacific exercise” in Tuvaluan).


7. Safety first.

There’s little crime in a country made up of small communities and few visitors, but because you’re travelling with cash it’s a good idea to always lock your room (you can leave the money-belt at home). There’s no malaria, no poisonous snakes or spiders, and no rabid dogs, but there are plenty of mosquitoes and flies (particularly on Funafuti’s smaller islands).

8. Flight mode.

If you hear an air-raid siren, don’t panic! It means one of the twice-weekly Fiji Airways flights is about to land (they usually arrive Tuesday and Thursdays mornings); it’s a way of clearing the unfenced airstrip of pedestrians, motorbikes and cars.

9. WiFi-free.

You can buy a pre-paid internet card at some guesthouses, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to use it. WiFi is notoriously slow even in Funafuti, when it is working. For peace of mind, why not put on your out-of-office reply before you leave home, and enjoy a holiday from connectivity?


10. Tropical bibles.

Christianity is big in Tuvalu, which has several implications for travellers: don’t start eating before someone says grace; be prepared to be invited to a church service if you’re there on a Sunday, followed by a traditional family lunch at someone’s house; shops are generally closed on Sundays; and there’ll be a bible at your bedside wherever you stay. It’s also a good idea to dress modestly, like the Tuvaluans.

11. Simple shopping.

Because there are so few tourists, there are no souvenir shops. You can, however, buy locally made handicrafts from the Women’s Handicraft Centre, which is basically a stall under a tree outside the airport (on flight days), selling woven fans, shell necklaces and baskets. Ask for a “Certificate of Inspection” if you’re returning to countries with strict quarantine regulations such as Australia and New Zealand.


12. Swim time, maybe.

Despite the intense heat, Funafuti’s main island, Fongafale, has few good swimming spots. The lagoon can be polluted and there can be strong currents, sharp coral and rough surf on the ocean side. Try the northern end of the island, or do a day trip to Funafuti Conservation Area, where the water is clean and swimming-pool clear.


13. Eat local.

Tuvaluan food is predominantly simple, local and tasty. Think fresh fish, fried chicken, coconuts (prepared in various ways), papaya, pork and taro, with imported flour, sugar, soft drinks and beer (Red Horse from the Philippines is popular, but it’s not marked “extra strong” for nothing). When eating with Tuvaluan people, be prepared to sit on the floor and eat with your hands.

All the photos credited to: Louise Southerden

For more information, see www.timelesstuvalu.com and Louise Southerden’s blog post On being an un-tourist in Tuvalu

By Louise Southerden

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