People are wearing woven mats as skirts, directions are based upon “the next coconut tree” and the friendliness of the people just can’t be beaten. Let me share a bit of of Tonga with you, which was my home for a month and probably the most memorable chapter in my life so far.
For the last phase of the Master of Tourism Destination Management, the dissertation project, I am collaborating with the Centre for Tourism and Services Research of VU, Australia. The centre leads the Pacific Tourism – Climate Adaptation Project, a three-year project funded by AusAID. As part of this project I am conducting a case study in the Vava’u Island group of Tonga, which aims to get an understanding of the vulnerability and resilience to the impacts of climate change on the nature-based tourism sector. Prior to this study I have spent three months of hands on field research with the master of TDM, in Melbourne, Cambodia and Bali. This has left me with a substantial skill base that appeared to be of great help during my Tonga field trip.
After four weeks of field preparation in the research centre in Melbourne, I was off to transportationally challenged Tonga. A week of flight delays due to the Chilean ash cloud didn’t keep me from going.The remote archipelago of 176 Islands has the distinction of never having been colonised and to be the last remaining monarchy in the Pacific. Not many cultures are still so much intact as the Tongan culture, which makes it one of the most genuine destinations to experience. Life in Tonga is about the same as it was 100 years ago. Much of its culture and traditions still play an important part in daily life. For example, they still follow the moon for planting. Apart from getting close to the culture and the monarchy,many of the attractions are nature-based. These include the native flora and fauna, particularly the rich marine life and a range of nature-based activities like sailing, diving, whale watching, deep sea fishing. Tonga is also one of the few places in the world that allows humans to swim with the whales. The tourism sector in Tonga is small by regional standards and a relatively new concept to the locals. However, with only few development options this sector contributes significantly to economic growth and employment.
The substantial tourism sector is threatened by the effects of the dominating global environmental phenomenon: Climate change. As at the moment most of the tourism products in Tonga are based on natural resources, consideration of climate change’s impacts on these resources is crucial. How vulnerable is the Tongan tourism sector to the impacts of climate change? What are the risks and opportunities associated with climate change facing the tourism industry in Tonga? And what are possible adaptation strategies to minimize impacts of climate change? In order to find answers to these questions, it is necessary to identify the underlying causes and processes that generate vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and that’s what my research aims to do. Vulnerability varies greatly between destinations. During my field research I was looking to identify these processes and to get a comprehensive understanding of Tonga-specific needs and capacities to deal with the uncertainty of climate change. Thanks to great assistance of the Ministry of Tourism, I have managed to conduct 28 interviews with government, the tourism businesses, NGOs, donors, and held three group discussions. With the abundance of data collected from the field trip I’m hoping to provide the public and private organizations in Tonga with directions so they can prepare themselves for future changes in climate. If exposure and sensitivities to risks are better understood, the Tongan tourism sector will be able to better manage climate change events which at the end comes down to a better protection of the local residents’ livelihood.
During my field research I’ve been trying to put myself in Tongan shoes as much as possible so I was able to put some grasp on their perspectives. Tonga, from a western perspective, is a dot in the Pacific Ocean, a remote paradise destination, far away from civilization surrounded by endless blue seas. For a Tongan the sea just means “fish”. A western person, from a Tongan perspective, is a “Palangi”, which means “person from the sky”. It’s how people perceived the westerners in the past. People coming from beyond the skies because not only they are different but they also come with superior technology. At present the more educated population looks at foreigners more as partners on equal terms with who better results on development can be produced when working together. Tongans are community kind of people and I think as a westerner we can learn a lot from that. For instance, it’s in their nature to share and everything has to be for the benefit of the group. As a result there are no hungry or homeless in Tonga. Where in many places in the world everyone else runs to catch the time, in Tonga it is not seen as important. Tongans live on the so-called “Tongan time”. They appreciate life. They say about themselves that they are crazy in a happy way and rather do not take things too seriously. Tonga is peaceful, not overdeveloped and it should stay that way. That is what made my trip to the Kingdom a rich, educational and unique experience. After spending a whole month in Tonga I have a good feeling for what Tonga is all about and how it is different from other destinations. I may be a “Palangi”, but I certainly have taken a bit of the Tongan piece of mind home with me. Malo ‘Aupito.