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Tonga Country Facts - Tips

Thu, 8 Jul 2010 00:41:49

Tonga Country Facts Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
October 2007

Background Note: Tonga

Tonga flag is red with a bold red cross on a white rectangle in the upper
hoist-side corner.


Kingdom of Tonga

Area: 747 sq. km. (288 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Nuku'alofa (pop. 34,000).
Terrain: 171 islands, mainly raised coral but some volcanic; 48 inhabited.
Climate: Tropical, modified by trade winds. Warm season (December to May),
cool season (May to December).

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Tongan(s).
Population (2006 census): 101,169.
Age structure: 37.1% below 14; 4.2% over 65.
Annual growth rate (2002 est.): 1.94%.
Ethnic groups: Tongan 98%, other Polynesian, European.
Religions: Christian.
Languages: Tongan, English.
Education: Literacy (2004)--98.9%.
Health: Infant mortality rate (2004 est.)--20.4/1,000. Life expectancy at
birth--68.56 yrs.: female--72.14 years; male--67.05 years.
Work force (2003) 36,500: Agriculture--65%.
Unemployment (2003): 5.2%.

Type: Constitutional hereditary monarchy.
Constitution: 1875 (revised 1970).
Independence: June 4, 1970.
Branches: Executive--monarch, prime minister, and cabinet.
Legislative--unicameral Legislative Assembly. Judicial--Court of Appeals
(Privy Council), Supreme Court, Land Court, Magistrates' Court.
Administrative subdivisions: Three main island groups--Ha'apai, Tongatapu,
Political parties: People's Democratic Party, Friendly Islands Human Rights
and Democratic Movement.
Suffrage: Universal at age 21.
Central government budget (2006/2007 est.): $85 million.

Economy (all figures in U.S. dollars)
GDP (2003/2004): $148.9 million.
Per capita GDP (2004 est.): $1,287.
GDP real growth rate (2004/2005 est.): 2.3%.
Natural resources: Fish.
Agriculture (30% of GDP): Products--squash, vanilla beans, root crops, fish,
other marine products.
Industry: 10% of GNP.
Services: 60% of GDP.
Trade (2005): Exports--$24.65 million; squash, fish, vanilla beans, root
crops. Major export markets--Japan, New Zealand, U.S., Australia, Fiji.
Imports--$136.80 million; food, machinery and transport equipment, fuels,
chemicals. Major import sources--New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, U.S.,
Fiscal year: July 1 to June 30.

Tonga is an archipelago directly south of Western Samoa. Its 171 islands, 48
of them inhabited, are divided into three main groups--Vava'u, Ha'apai, and
Tongatapu--and cover an 800-kilometer (500 mi.)-long north-south line. The
largest island, Tongatapu, on which the capital city of Nuku'alofa is
located, covers 257 square kilometers (99 sq. mi.). Geologically the Tongan
islands are of two types: most have a limestone base formed from uplifted
coral formations; others consist of limestone overlaying a volcanic base.

The climate is basically subtropical with a distinct warm period
(December-April), during which the temperatures rise above 32oC (90oF), and a
cooler period (May-November), with temperatures rarely rising above 27oC (80o
F). The temperature increases from 23oC to 27oC (74oF to 80oF), and the
annual rainfall is from 170 to 297 centimeters (67-117 in.) as one moves from
Tongatapu in the south to the more northerly islands closer to the Equator.
The mean daily humidity is 80%.

Tongans, a Polynesian group with a very small mixture of Melanesian,
represent more than 98% of the inhabitants. The rest are European, mixed
European, and other Pacific Islanders. There also are about 500 Chinese.

More than two-thirds of the population of the Kingdom of Tonga live on its
main island, Tongatapu. An increasing number of Tongans have moved into
Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital and only urban and commercial center, where
increasingly Western and indigenous Polynesian cultural and living patterns
have blended. For instance, the extended family lifestyle is declining, with
young couples choosing to live on their own. Nonetheless, village life and
kinship ties continue to be important throughout the country. The Christian
faith that has dominated Tongan life for almost two centuries is still
influential. All commerce and entertainment activities cease on Sunday from
midnight, and the constitution declares the Sabbath to be sacred, forever.
However, within the past five years, an unsuccessful attempt was made in
parliament to amend the Sunday law.

Primary education between ages 6 and 14 is compulsory and free in state
schools. The state owns and operates 99% of the primary schools and 44% of
secondary schools. Higher education includes teacher training, nursing and
medical training, a small private university, a women's business college, and
a number of private agricultural schools. Most higher education is pursued

The word Tonga means "south" in numerous Polynesian languages. Some scholars
believe the inhabitants originally came from the islands now known as Samoa.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Tonga islands have been settled
since at least 500 B.C., and local traditions have carefully preserved the
names of the Tongan sovereigns for about 1,000 years. The power of the Tongan
monarchy reached its height in the 13th century. At the time, chieftains
exercised political influence as far away as Samoa.

During the 14th century, the King of Tonga delegated much of his temporal
power to a brother while retaining the spiritual authority. Sometime later,
this process was repeated by the second royal line, thus resulting in three
distinct lines: the Tu'i Tonga with spiritual authority, which is believed to
have extended over much of Polynesia; the Tu'i Ha'atakalaua; and the Tu'i
Kanokupolu. The latter two had temporal authority for carrying out much of
the day-to-day administration of the kingdom.

Dutch navigators in 1616 were the first Europeans to sight the Tongan
archipelago. The main island of Tongatapu was first visited by the Dutch
explorer Abel Tasman in 1643. Continual contact with Europeans, however, did
not begin until more than 125 years later. Captain James Cook visited the
islands in 1773 and 1777 and gave the archipelago the name "the Friendly
Islands" because of the gentle nature of the people he encountered. He, of
course, was never aware of the acrimonious debate that raged among contending
nobles over who should have the honor of attacking Cook's tiny fleet and
killing its sailors. In 1789, the famous mutiny on the British ship, Bounty,
took place in the waters between the Ha'apai and Nomuka island groups.

Shortly after Captain Cook's last visit, warfare broke out in the islands as
the three lines of kings contended for dominance. At about the same time,
young Tongan nobles serving as mercenaries took Tongan culture to Fiji's most
eastern island group, the Laus. The first missionaries, attached to the
London Missionary Society, arrived in Tonga in 1747. A second missionary
group followed in 1822, led by Walter Lawry of the Wesleyan Missionary
Society. They converted Taufa'ahau, one of the claimants to the Tu'i
Kanokupolu line, and Christianity began to spread throughout the islands.

At the time of his conversion, Taufa'ahau took the name of Siaosi (George)
and his consort assumed the name Salote (Charlotte) in honor of King George
III and Queen Charlotte of England. In the following years, he united all of
the Tongan islands for the first time in recorded history. In 1845, he was
formally proclaimed King George Tupou I, and the present dynasty was founded.
He established a constitution and a parliamentary government based, in some
respects, on the British model. In 1862, he abolished the existing system of
semi-serfdom and established an entirely alien system of land tenure. Under
this system every male Tongan, upon reaching the age of 16, was entitled to
rent--for life and at a nominal fee--a plot of bushland (called "api
tukuhau") of 8.25 acres, plus a village allotment of about three-eights of an
acre for his home ('api kolo).

Tonga concluded a treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom
in 1900 and came under British protection. It retained its independence and
autonomy, while the United Kingdom agreed to handle its foreign affairs and
protect it from external attack.

During World War II, in close collaboration with New Zealand, Tonga formed a
local defense force of about 2,000 troops that saw action in the Solomon
Islands. In addition, New Zealand and U.S. troops were stationed on
Tongatapu, which became a staging point for shipping.

A new treaty of friendship and protection with the United Kingdom, signed in
1958 and ratified in May 1959, provided for a British Commissioner and consul
in Tonga who were responsible to the Governor of Fiji in his capacity as
British Chief Commissioner for Tonga. In mid-1965 the British Commissioner
and consul became directly responsible to the U.K. Secretary of State for
Colonial Affairs. Tonga became fully independent on June 4, 1970, an event
officially designated by the King as Tonga's "reentry into the community of

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died in September 2006 and was succeeded by King
Siaosi Tupou V.

Tonga is the South Pacific's last Polynesian kingdom. Its executive branch
includes the prime minister and the cabinet, which becomes the Privy Council
when presided over by the monarch. In intervals between legislative sessions,
the Privy Council makes ordinances, which become law if confirmed by the
legislature. The unicameral Legislative Assembly is controlled by the royal
family and nobles. It consists of nine nobles who are elected by the 33
hereditary nobles of Tonga and nine people's representatives elected by
universal adult suffrage for 3-year terms. The cabinet includes 12 ministers,
appointed by the monarch, currently including two from the nine selected
nobles' representatives and two from the nine elected people's
representatives. The governors of Ha'apai and Vava'u are appointed to their
offices and serve as ex officio members of the cabinet. The Legislative
Assembly sits for 4 or 5 months a year.

Tonga's court system consists of the Court of Appeal (Privy Council), the
Supreme Court, the Magistrates' Court, and the Land Court. Judges are
appointed by the monarch.

The only form of local government is through town and district officials who
have been popularly elected since 1965. The town official represents the
central government in the villages; the district official has authority over
a group of villages.

Principal Government Officials
Monarch--King Siaosi Tupou V
Prime Minister--Feleti Vaka'uta Sevele
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Sonatane 'Tu'akinamolahi Taumoepeau-Tupou
Ambassador to the United States--Fekitamoeloa 'Utoikamanu

Tonga maintains an embassy at 250 East 51st Street, New York, New York 10022
(tel: 917-369-1136; fax: 917-369-1024). In addition, Tonga has a Consulate
General in San Francisco.

For most of the 20th century Tonga was quiet, inward-looking, and somewhat
isolated from developments elsewhere in the world. The Tongans, as a whole,
continue to cling to many of their old traditions, including a respect for
the nobility. However, an increasingly popular pro-democracy movement is
articulating a rising demand for more rights for the common people and curbs
to the influence of the nobility. Tonga's complex social structure is
essentially broken into three tiers: the king, the nobles, and the commoners.
Between the king, nobles, and commoners are matapule, sometimes called
"talking chiefs," who are allied with the king or a noble, and who may also
hold estates. Obligations and responsibilities among the groups are
reciprocal, and although the nobility are able to extract favors from people
living on their estates, they likewise must extend favors to their people.
Status and rank play a powerful role in personal relationships, even within

Tongans are beginning to confront the problem of how to preserve their
cultural identity and traditions in the wake of the increasing impact of
Western technology and culture. Migration and the gradual monetization of the
economy have led to the breakdown of the traditional extended family. Some of
the poor, traditionally cared for by the extended family, are now being left
without visible means of support. The rapidly increasing population is
already too great to provide the constitutionally mandated 8.25-acre plot of
land or api tukuhau due each male at age 16. Population density reached 132
persons per square kilometer in 2002, fueling the growing population shift
from farm and village to urban centers, where traditional societal and
political structures are undergoing steady change. Increasing educational
opportunities, expanded media penetration and foreign influences via the
country's extensive diaspora have raised the political awareness of Tonga's
commoners and stimulated dissent against the current system of government. In
the past two decades, calls for political reform have gained wide-ranging
support and momentum.

Historically, political reform has been slow in the kingdom. In a departure
from this, the late King of Tonga announced in late 2004 that he would
henceforth include people's representatives in the 12-member appointed
cabinet. Following elections in March 2005, the king appointed two of nine
recently elected people's representatives and two nobles' representatives as
cabinet ministers. In April 2005, Tonga's first official political party, the
People's Democratic Party, was formed, and its candidate was elected to
parliament in special May by-elections held to fill the two people's
representational seats vacated by the king's cabinet appointments. The
by-election also resulted in the election of the first woman to sit in the
Tongan parliament in 24 years. Out of the nine current people's
representatives, seven are members of Tongan democratic movements and two are
independent. When the princely prime minister resigned from office in early
2006, People's Representative Feleti Sevele was appointed as the first
commoner prime minister in modern times.

In late 2005, in the wake of a nationwide strike by civil servants and a
large pro-democracy demonstration, the Legislative Assembly established a
National Committee for Political Reform to consult with Tongans at home and
abroad on their ideas about political reforms. The report of the committee,
presented to the Legislative Assembly on October 3, 2006, recommended
political reforms that would have the public elect the majority in
parliament, with the king choosing the prime minister and cabinet from
parliament's ranks. Following this, the government proposed its own roadmap
for political reform, in response to which the pro-democracy People's
Committee for Political Reform, an amalgamation of public servant unions and
associations, business people, and political movements including
pro-democracy and human rights organizations in Tonga, submitted another
proposal. The People's Committee called for immediate reforms and organized
rallies to back this call during the Assembly's debate of the issues. On
November 16, 2006, a People's Committee rally deteriorated into rioting
during which hundreds of people rampaged through the central business sector
of Nuku'alofa, smashing windows, looting and then burning shops and
businesses. The central business district of Nuku'alofa was left in ruins,
and the government declared a state of emergency to restore law and order to
the capital. The state of emergency was repeatedly extended, and was still in
place in late April 2007.

Tonga's economy is characterized by a large non-monetary sector and a heavy
dependence on remittances from the more than half of the country's population
that lives abroad, chiefly in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
Much of the monetary sector of the economy is dominated, if not owned, by the
royal family and nobles. This is particularly true of telecommunications and
electricity generation and supply. Many small businesses, particularly in the
retail sector on Tongatapu, are owned by recent Chinese immigrants who
arrived under a cash-for-passports scheme ended in 1998. Royal-owned and
Chinese businesses were among those targeted in the November 2006 rioting.

The manufacturing sector consists of handicrafts and a few other very
small-scale industries, which together contribute only about 3% of GDP.
Commercial business activities are to a large extent dominated by large
trading companies found throughout the South Pacific. In September 1974, the
country's first commercial trading bank, the Bank of Tonga, opened. Following
the destruction of the capital's commercial center in the November 2006
riots, government, business, and international donors have combined forces to
support the reconstruction of Nuku'alofa.

Rural Tongans rely on plantation and subsistence agriculture. Squash
pumpkins, vanilla beans, and root crops such as cassava and yams, coffee, and
noni are the major cash crops. Pigs and poultry are the major types of
livestock. Horses are kept for draft purposes, primarily by farmers working
their api. More cattle are being raised, and beef imports are declining.
Fisheries are also a growing export sector, with tuna, beche de mer, and
seaweed being the major marine export products.

Tonga's development plans emphasize a growing private sector, upgrading
agricultural productivity, revitalizing the squash and vanilla bean
industries, developing tourism, and improving the island's communications and
transportation systems. Substantial progress has been made, but much work
remains to be done. A small but growing construction sector is developing in
response to the inflow of aid monies and remittances from Tongans abroad.
Government, international development agencies, and major donor nations have
together identified a number of promising means to diversity the Tongan
economy. One hope is seen in fisheries; tests have shown that sufficient
skipjack tuna pass through Tongan waters to support a fishing industry.
Another potential development activity is exploitation of forests, which
cover 35% of the kingdom's land area. Plantation coconut trees past their
prime bearing years also provide a potential source of lumber.

The tourist industry is relatively undeveloped; however, the government
recognizes that tourism can play a major role in economic development, and
efforts are being made to increase this source of revenue. In February 2007,
an international hotel chain signed an initial agreement to develop a major
resort on Vava'u. An increasing number of international cruise ships are now
visiting Vava'u and Nuku'alofa.

Tonga maintains cordial relations with most countries and has close relations
with its Pacific neighbors. It is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum. In
1998, it recognized China and broke relations with Taiwan

In 1972, Tonga laid claim to the tide-washed, isolated Minerva Reefs, some
480 kilometers southwest of Nuku'alofa, to forestall efforts by a private
Anglo-American group to establish an independent Republic of Minerva on the
reefs. The reefs are regularly patrolled by the Tonga Defense Services.

The Tonga Defense Service (TDS) is a 450-person force. The force is comprised
of a headquarters platoon and a light infantry company. A coastal naval unit
of four small patrol boats and amphibious landing craft operates as a
component of the TDS. The force's mission is to assist in maintenance of
public order, to patrol coastal waters and fishing zones, and to engage in
civic action and national development projects. The main base of operations
is the capital, Nuku'alofa.

The TDS is partially supported by defense cooperation agreements with both
Australia and New Zealand, which support the TDS with small in-country
detachments of military technicians. The United States military provides
training to the TDS and conducts humanitarian civic action projects in Tonga.
In 2002, TDS soldiers were deployed as part of a multi-national regional
peacekeeping force in the Solomon Islands. In June 2004, the TDS sent 45
troops to Iraq as peacekeepers. In November 2006, after Nuku'alofa's central
business district was destroyed in riots, the TDS was given emergency powers
to maintain law and order, and to assist the police in their investigations.

The United States and Tonga enjoy close cooperation on a range of
international issues. Officers of the American Embassy in Suva, Fiji, are
concurrently accredited to Tonga and make periodic visits since the United
States has no permanent consular or diplomatic offices in Tonga. Peace Corps
Volunteers teach and provide technical assistance to Tongans. Tonga has no
embassy in Washington, DC, but has a permanent representative to the United
Nations in New York who also is accredited as ambassador to the United
States. A large number of Tongans reside in the United States, particularly
in Utah, California, and Hawaii.

Trade between the U.S. and Tonga is relatively low, but it has seen a steady
increase in recent years. In 2001 U.S. exports to Tonga totaled $4.8 million,
and by 2005 they had increased to $10.78 million. In 2005, the U.S. imports
from Tonga totaled $6.45 million.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Larry M. Dinger
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ted Mann
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Brian J. Siler
Consul--Debra J. Towry
Management Officer--Ila Jurisson
The U.S. Embassy in Suva, Fiji is located at 31 Loftus Street (P.O. Box 218),
Suva (tel. (679) 331-4466, fax (679) 330-2267).

The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program advises Americans
traveling and residing abroad through Consular Information Sheets, Public
Announcements, and Travel Warnings. Consular Information Sheets exist for all
countries and include information on entry and exit requirements, currency
regulations, health conditions, safety and security, crime, political
disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.
Public Announcements are issued to disseminate information quickly about
terrorist threats and other relatively short-term conditions overseas that
pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. Travel Warnings
are issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel
to a certain country because the situation is dangerous or unstable.

For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad
should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet
web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution,
Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs
Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a
safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For
additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/

The Department of State encourages all U.S citizenstraveling or residing
abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or
at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your
presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an
emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security

Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained
by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular
toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.

The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of
State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport
information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service
representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00
a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.

Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP
(877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the
most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements,
and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A
booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS
publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government
Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.

Further Electronic Information
Department of State Web Site. Available on the Internet at http://
www.state.gov, the Department of State web site provides timely, global
access to official U.S. foreign policy information, including Background
Notes and daily press briefings along with the directory of key officers of
Foreign Service posts and more. The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC)
provides security information and regional news that impact U.S. companies
working abroad through its website http://www.osac.gov

Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market
information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free
export counseling, help with the export process, and more.
STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides
authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from
the Federal government. The site includes current and historical
trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities,
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