Tuvalu is a small, relatively isolated country in the Pacific Ocean. It is made up of 6 atolls and 3 islands. It has the second lowest population in the world after the Vatican, and is the fourth smallest country in the world by area. This Polynesian Pacific island nation is also relatively difficult to visit. For these reasons it is a country that much of the world doesn’t seem to be aware of. I suspect that in many countries the Internet Top Level Domain for Tuvalu, ‘.tv’, is better known than the country.
The American Captain Arent Schuyler de Peyster gave Funafuti atoll the colonial name of Ellice’s Island (or possibly Ellice’s Group) in 1819. He named the atoll after Edward Ellice, a British politician, merchant, slaveowner and sugar baron. Ellice also happened to own the cargo that Arent de Peyster’s ship was carrying. This name was later extended to all of Tuvalu.¹ The Ellice Islands were declared a British protectorate in 1892 as part of the British Western Pacific Territories. In 1916, the Ellice Islands, along with the Gilbert Islands became a British colony. The Gilbert Islands now form part of the country of Kiribati.
In a referendum held in 1974 the people of Tuvalu voted to become a separate colony to the Gilbert Islands, adopting the name Tuvalu. Tuvalu then gained its independence from the UK on the first of October 1978. They have since remained a member of the Commonwealth and kept Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
There have been two referenda to make Tuvalu a republic, in 1986 and 2008 respectively. Both failed to pass, with the more recent 2008 vote being opposed by almost 65% of those who voted. Turnout was extremely low, with less than 2,000 votes cast out of a possible 9,000 or so.²
An Irish connection
In the 1850’s, a man of Irish descent named Jack O’Brien settled in Tuvalu, becoming the first European to do so. He married Sarai, the daughter of the main chief (sometimes described as King) of Funafuti, despite being described later on as the sort of Irishman who felt “a sort of divine commission to fight against Kings and other rulers.”⁴ Evidently Jack and Sarai had quite a few children as the name O’Brien is still common in Tuvalu. The family who own the guesthouse that I stayed at are some of their descendants. Upon learning that I was Irish, they proudly proclaimed that they were partly Irish too!
As a tourist destination, Tuvalu has very few landmarks or major attractions. What it has instead are some beautiful beaches and long slivers of land covered with coconut trees, hammocks, scooters, and a smiling friendly population that are more than happy to chat to any foreigner that makes it there. Even the capital feels like a welcoming village.
Arriving in Tuvalu is incredible because the atolls make for some beautiful views as you come in to land. The skinny islets of Funafuti atoll snake across the vast blue expanse of the Pacific.
Tuvalu is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. With an elevation that rarely exceeds 3 metres, it is one of the countries most at risk of rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events such as cyclones.³ The government of Tuvalu, along with other low-lying countries, such as Kiribati and the Maldives, have been pushing for the more action on climate change to avert catastrophe and save their islands.
A few facts about Tuvalu
- Capital: Funafuti
- Population: 11,192 (2017 census figures)
- Currency: Australian dollar & Tuvaluan dollar (coins only)
- Official Languages: Tuvaluan & English
- Time Zone: UTC+12
- Calling Code: +688
- Internet TLD: .tv
- Drives On: Left
- Can Drink Tap Water: No
- Plugs/Sockets: Type I, 240V (Same as Australia & New Zealand)
There is only one international airport in Tuvalu. It is located in the capital, Funafuti and the airport code is FUN.
Fiji Airways fly to Funafuti and back every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. This used to be the only route into Tuvalu, but since late 2018 there has been a new weekly route from Tarawa, Kiribati to Funafuti. Air Kiribati operate the route every Wednesday, but there are reports that the service is not very reliable. When I flew to Funafuti from Suva, the Funafuti airport manager was sitting beside me and told me that he was meant to go directly from Tarawa to Funafuti but that there had been some issues with the plane and the flight had been cancelled.
The airport in Tuvalu is quite small and interesting in just how unlike most international airports it is. When there isn’t a plane landing or taking off you can walk, drive or play football on the runway. And when I was checking in to leave, they hand-wrote the boarding pass and attached a sticker with my seat number.
When to go
The temperature in Tuvalu mostly stays between 27 and 30 degrees celsius. Some sources suggest avoiding the rainy season from December to March, but the rainfall during the rainy season in Tuvalu is actually only slightly higher than in the dry season. In reality, this means that Tuvalu is a place that can be visited at any time of the year.
Schengen Area countries can visit visa-free for up to 90 days, while all others can get a visa on arrival. Some of the information online suggests there is a visa fee of A$100, but I don’t think it exists anymore. I didn’t have to pay it and the information on the arrival card suggests that there is only a fee if you want to work in Tuvalu or extend your stay beyond 30 days.
How much does it cost?
Due to so few options, flights can be very expensive. The return trip from Suva in Fiji usually costs between about A$1000 and A$1200. Prices for accommodation are also reasonably high. I paid A$120 per night for a room in a guesthouse. Meals in a restaurant cost about A$10-15 and a beer cost about A$3-5.
Where to stay?
There is only one hotel in Funafuti and it is called the Funafuti Lagoon Hotel. The reviews of the rooms are very mixed. I didn’t stay there but I can confirm that the restaurant does some reasonably good food, especially their various fish dishes.
As well as the hotel, there are also some guesthouses. I stayed at the family-run Filamona Moonlight Lodge, which is right beside the airport building and the runway. It has a bar and does some meals. The rooms are a little spartan but perfectly fine. I have also heard good things from some other travellers about L’s Lodge, which is located near the other end of the runway.
Apart from some trinkets and shell necklaces being sold outside the airport on days when there are flights, there are really not many options when it comes to keepsakes of your trip to Tuvalu. While this is no bad thing in my opinion, one place worth checking out is the post office. There are a few postcards available but where it really excels is in the range of stamps on display. There are stamps from 1977 onwards, divided into different displays for different time periods. Each had a handwritten note attached with prices and most of them were, surprisingly, in stock. They cover a bizarre array of topics. Some of the more relevant ones include Tuvaluan beaches, birds and marine animals. Others commemorate subjects as diverse as The Three Stooges, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the American Civil War, Downton Abbey, the Alaska Sesquicentennial, Star Trek and Astana Expo 2017.
- South Pacific, The Maritime Heritage Project, published 2017, accessed 23 Feb 2019,
- Tuvaluans vote against Republic, tuvaluislands.com, published 30 Apr 2008, , accessed 10 Feb 2019,
- United Nations Development Program – Tuvalu, accessed 10 Feb 2019,
- Pacific studies, March 1987, accessed 23 Feb 2019