On the night I met the young lady who later would become my wife, we engaged in a conversation about world travel. I, of course, boasted of my desire to find an island to call my own; something in a tropical location, with pure white sands and emerald seas. I was mortified and the bubble that was my dream was burst when she informed me that every man says he wants his own island in paradise. That conversation did two things: one, it woke me up to the fact that I am in no way unique when it comes to a need for adventure and escapism; and two, it ignited a determination to accomplish what so many of those other dreamers never do; actually achieve the dream.
In the years since, I have kept an eye open and an ear to the water for beach-front opportunities in tropical settings. Notice I didn’t specifically say “island” this time. I learned along the way that, while there really are many islands available around the world, it is exceptionally rare to find one that is accessible, livable, self-sustaining, secure and affordable. So I subsequently broadened my parameters of acceptability to include a “slice” of an island; sizeable enough to provide privacy and room to roam, yet affordable and close to civilization.
My search ended two years ago in the Kingdom of Tonga; a long string of island jewels east of Fiji, south of Samoa and west of Tahiti. The archipelago, which Captain Cook referred to as "The Friendly Islands" remains the only monarchy in the Pacific. With three major island groups plus a few sparsely scattered islands to the far north, I was particularly attracted to Vava’u, the northernmost of the island groups.
Vava’u is located approximately 240 kilometers north of the capital of Tongatapu and offers incredible and uncrowded white sandy beaches; colorful coral reefs teeming with wildlife; and crystal clear waters in every shade of turquoise, emerald and blue. Sailing among Vava’u’s 60 or so islands is world class for novices and veterans alike. The extremely deep waters surrounding the islands are a big game fisherman’s paradise and the scuba diving opportunities are amongst the best anywhere on the globe. But what makes Vava’u really special is the whale migration.
Every year from July through October, humpback whales enter the warm Vava’u waters to mate and calve. Whale watching alone—witnessing the gentle, 50 ton behemoths launch themselves out of the water; or seeing a mother whale nudge her newborn calve to the surface for that first breath—can be an incredible experience. But Tonga happens to be one of only two countries worldwide that allow people to actually enter the water and swim with the whales. Talk about spectacular photo opportunities!
But, enough of that. I did manage to find my personal paradise in Tonga and I owe a great deal to an American expat by the name of Robert Bryce. Robert has established a nice life for himself and his family in Vava’u. In doing so, he has exercised his entrepreneurial skills to become somewhat of a land and real estate guru for the islands. In need of a quaint little restaurant on a cliff overlooking the main harbor? Contact Robert. In search of a long strip of private beach to call your own? Robert’s the man. Dreaming of your own island? That’s right…call Mr. Bryce.
Anyway, my dream property came to me in the form of a run-down resort on a 7 acre parcel with approximately 300 meters of beach front. The resort has not operated for over three years and all of the structures require considerable work. By western standards, some would call it a dump. To me, with my entrepreneurial drive and vision, it’s beautiful! The question was not, ‘Do I want it?’, but rather, ‘What do I do with it?’
In the end, I decided to form a Tongan company and pursue a property that can operate as a very exclusive resort, while also serving as a private getaway for my family. I have learned much from my experience and am happy to share 10 things anyone would need to know before making a long-term commitment to property in Tonga. To have a bit of fun with this, I’ve compiled my list in descending order; from what I consider the least of concerns, to what I believe should be your primary concerns should you decide to venture the way of Vava’u.
10 – Critters—I should begin by sharing that Tonga is barren of poisonous creatures; the lone exception being a small black and white coral snake that can be found occasionally on the surface of warm, shallow waters near rocky outcroppings. Oh, and while not poisonous in the life-threatening sense, there is an indigenous centipede that can grow quite large and deliver a very nasty sting that can cause swelling and considerable pain.
If neither of those critters cause you alarm, then you will likely find Tonga quite agreeable. Unless you suffer arachnophobia. There is a wide variety of spiders in Tonga. Big ones. Some about the diameter of a tea saucer. It helps to carry a big stick with you. No, not to kill them! You can use the stick to knock down the webs which invariably seem to block every path through the bush. The spiders tend to be prolific, too. Knock down the webs on your way to the beach and then knock them down again on your way back to your fale.
Then there are ants and roaches and coconut rats. And those smoking coils that they used to sell at the drive-in movie theaters—back when there were drive-in movie theaters—are still useful in driving away the Tongan mosquitoes. My personal favorite critter, however, is the flying fox. Yes, they do look like a furry fox with bat wings. It can be very enjoyable, if not mesmerizing, to sit along a cliff at dusk and watch them fly along the coast. Their wing spans can exceed six feet but they are, for the most part, harmless.
9 - Palanges—If you are not a native Tongan, then you must be a palange (pronounced pah-lahn-gee). While there are many rights-based and equality-driven organizations in the states that would take serious offense to such a categorical moniker bestowed upon a select group of individuals, it’s actually okay to be a palange. As long as you’re happy and nice and friendly and considerate and polite and…well, you get the point. Be like the Tongan people and you’ll fit right in even if you aren’t one of them. Just get used to the fact that you are a palange.
8 - Food—What’s for dinner? Don’t expect to order a Dominos pizza. Or a Chipotle Grilled Stuft Burrito from Taco Bell. In the mood for a burger? Okay, but it’ll be served unbranded and crowned with a fried egg.
In actuality, the Tongan cuisine is much the same as found in any tropical island locale. As you would expect, seafood tops the list with a wide variety of fresh fish and even lobster available at markets, in restaurants; or you can catch your own. Pigs are given free reign to roam nearly anywhere they’d like in Tonga and, being held in such high regard; you wouldn’t expect pork to be on the menu. But it is. And it’s quite tasty; most often cooked in an underground oven called an ‘umu. Beef is available, too, though not as popular and not of the quality you might find at a fine steakhouse stateside. Then there’s chicken; always plentiful, always good. For the vegetarian—or well-balanced table—fruits and vegetables abound. You’ll find bananas, coconuts, papaya and bread fruit growing wild on most islands. Squash, as well as potatoes and other root vegetables are easily grown in the rich inland soil.
The bottom line? You can eat very well in Tonga. Just don’t expect any chain restaurants or drive-through fast food outlets.
7 – Transportation—One thing that has kept Tonga such a hidden gem is the fact that it isn’t easy to get there. Until recently, flights—mostly from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Samoa—flew only into the capital of Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu in the southernmost island group. Visitors wishing to reach Vava’u would then have to board a 60-year old DC3 for the one-hour flight north. Recently, direct flights into Vava’u from Fiji and American Samoa have begun, making the trip much more convenient; especially for visitors from the states. Be aware, however, that these flights are infrequent; often just once a week.
So now let’s say you’re in Tonga and you have your own piece of paradise. How do you get around? If you’re on a main island such as Tongatapu or Vava’u, you’ll want or need a vehicle with wheels. Don’t plan to ship your own in as the customs duty you’ll have to pay will make it cost prohibitive. Your best bet is to purchase something used; most likely brought in from Japan.
For getting from one island to another you will, of course need a boat. Your best bet to find something reasonable and seaworthy might be in Nuku’alofa, but getting a small craft from there up to Vava’u will be problematic. Expect to settle on a very used 14-16 ft. v-hull with a 15-horse outboard. They’re most common and, therefore, most likely to be available.
6 - Building Materials—If you’re facing a construction or renovation job on your new home in Tonga, you’re going to need building materials. Don’t expect to find a Home Depot or a Lowe’s to make life easy, though. They don’t exist in that part of the world. Unless you ship a container of materials in from New Zealand or the states—and pay the hefty customs duty—your choices are going to be limited.
Remember the story of the three little pigs? Like them, you will choose from straw (thatch), sticks (coconut trees and other indigenous hardwoods) and brick (cement block) for exterior construction. Using traditional Tongan building materials and methods, however, can result in a beautiful and durable structure. You’ll also find the most skilled labor going this route. And, if you’re building in Vava’u, you’ll be interested to know that there is an operational sawmill that can serve a as source for lumber. Note: check with Robert as, at the time of this writing, the sawmill was for sale!
Interior fixtures and appliances are available in the port towns of Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu, Pangai on Ha’apai and Neiafu on Vava’u, but expect selection to be very limited.
5 - Skilled Contractors—Unless you are a building contractor or architect by trade, you will probably require some assistance with managing any construction projects undertaken in Tonga. As with most things, resources and choices are again limited. The best advice is to make inquiries and seek introductions to qualified contractors in person. Plan to spend some time in the main city nearest your property to do this. In Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu, you will likely find multiple individuals and/or business that can help you. In Vava’u, however, it will be much more difficult to find help in arranging and managing construction, electrical, plumbing and finishing projects. This is where cultivating personal relationships and developing contacts such as Robert Bryce can be invaluable.
4 – Water, Power and Telephone—Is your piece of Tongan paradise on a main island, or remote location? If you are on one of the few main islands—such as Tongatapu or Vava’u—you will benefit from the local power company for electricity and telephone company for land line phone service. Electrical power is 220 volts, not 11 as in the states. On remote islands, solar power or wind power with battery storage is the norm for electricity; with gasoline-powered generators for back-up. Normal telephone service is available on most islands via a signal relay system and cell phones are becoming quite popular.
As for potable water, rainwater collection by use of metal roofs and a cistern system for storage is most common on all islands. The larger main island cities have a sewage system; however, remote island inhabitants must rely on septic fields with tanks. Any way you look at it, remote island living will come at a price for all of the equipment needed for self-sufficiency.
3 - Cyclones—The hot, wet summer months of December through April, when temperatures range from 24º-29º C, bring with them the possibility of tropical cyclones. And every few years, the magnitude of a storm may be adequate to cause severe damage to structures and trees, as well as to cause flooding in low-lying areas. A wise homeowner will budget for the replacement of a thatched roof, or the reconstruction of a fale every few years, accordingly.
2 - Land Ownership—Nothing seems to provide a true r sense of security than “owning” a piece of land; whether it’s as grand as a ranch in the Rockies, or a three acre island in the South Pacific. Problem is—and this is certainly true of Tonga—outright land ownership in many foreign countries is an anomaly. Land in Tonga is almost always owned by either the government or Nobles who were granted rights to the land. Native Tongan people were, in turn, given plots of land in the form of tax allotments; rights to pieces of land with defined borders in exchange for the government’s ability to tax the “owner”.
So, how does a foreigner “acquire” property in Tonga? It can be quite a complicated transaction, to say the least. It has recently become common for a Tongan in possession of a tax allotment to lease it for a specified period of years. The government must approve all such lease agreements and, by law, they cannot exceed 20 years. A way around required government approval and the 20-year restriction is the “rental agreement”. This is similar to a lease and can be written for longer periods; typically 30 or even 50 years. In both cases, the owner of the tax allotment will also own any structures built on the land during the lease or rental period. And, in both cases, the financial transaction consists of a lump sum of cash up front and a monthly payment made throughout the term of the agreement.
A third and perhaps more desirable means for acquiring land in Tonga is the long-term government lease. This requires that the owner of the tax allotment surrender it to the government—or to the Noble, if that’s the case—which allows the government—or Noble—to lease the land to a new party for up to 99 years. The owner of the tax allotment will typically receive greater financial compensation as inducement for surrender of his allotment and he will usually have to provide written explanation of his need or circumstances in a letter of surrender that gets presented to the Minister of Land for approval by cabinet.
This all sounds complicated because it is. There is a limited amount of land in Tonga and it’s not likely that any more will spring up from the depths of the ocean. It's more likely the opposite will occur. Land use, conservation, free-hold ownership and taxation are among many challenges facing the Tongan people and their government. Which leads to the number one concern for those considering a move to this archipelago.
1 - Political Uncertainty—After centuries of living under the rule of a king, and as a constitutional monarchy since 1875, there has, in recent years, been a pro-democratic movement seeking to reform the government. Various proposed constitutional amendments and new models for government have been discussed and even presented to the Palace for review. Most seek to establish a democratic parliament fully elected by the people. A successful public servants strike in 2005 seems to have gained the attention of the governing minority and has provided the common people of Tonga with their first sense of political power.
So, what affect will this have on an investment in Tonga? If the current government balks at change, the result could be widespread civil unrest. That could be ugly for palange and Tongan alike. And no matter what form the Tongan government takes, it will need to address many of the ills that fanned the flames of change to begin with; including low wages, unemployment and a weak economy. Solving these issues requires economic growth which can be accomplished through encouraging new business development, if not offering incentives to new enterprise. That could be good for palange and Tongan alike.
Time will tell what happens in the end, but for the adventurer and entrepreneurial spirit, uncertainty breeds opportunity and opportunity knocks but once. The time to decide which side of the door you want to be on is now.
The list presented here is not, by any means, meant to be all inclusive of the concerns any escapee to paradise should be aware of. A smart person will undertake his or her due diligence and, in the end, make a decision as to what he or she can live with…and without.