Palm forests, turquoise water, coral reefs and year-round sunshine - for most holidaymakers this list probably reads like the description of their dream destination. But although Tuvalu offers all this, the state is the least visited country in the world according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). In 2019, the archipelago in the Pacific had just 3,600 visitors. Amnesty International aptly speaks of an "island country that no one knows" - and which could disappear under rising sea levels in a few decades. That's why Tavalu is set to become the world's first "digital nation".
Tuvalu is made up of nine islands that lie between Hawaii and Australia. The area of the country measures only 26 square kilometers, but the associated sea area is 1.3 million square kilometers. Despite this, the country is the fourth smallest country in the world. Five of the islands are coral atolls, the other four are made up of land rising from the sea floor. Tuvalu is a parliamentary democracy under constitutional monarchy. The island nation flies the British flag, so King Charles III. the official head of state. The country is governed by Prime Minister Kausea Natano.
Around 12,000 people live in Tuvalu, the capital is called Funafuti. The islands have a tropical maritime climate. Temperatures range between 25 and 30 degrees all year round. Strong winds can be expected from early November to late April, some of which can reach cyclone strength. The Foreign Office reports that monsoon-like rains can cause flooding and landslides. In addition, Tuvalu is located in a seismically active zone, which is why earthquakes and volcanic activity can occur.
According to the "Encyclopedia Britannica", eight of the nine islands were first settled in the 18th century, giving them their current name: "Tuvalu" means something like "Group of Eight". Only Niulakita, the smallest and southernmost island, remained uninhabited until the Europeans arrived. However, the archipelago only took on its current name after independence. Before that, the archipelago was called the Ellice Islands. Between 1850 and 1855 the islands fell victim to so-called "blackbirding". The term refers to the kidnapping of South Pacific islanders for forced labor. The locals were taken to Fiji and Queensland, where they slaved away on plantations. The spread of European diseases further decimated the population—from 20,000 to 3,000. In 1863, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped another 400 islanders, making up almost two-thirds of the population of the islands of Funafuti and Nukulaelae.
In 1892 the nine islands became a protectorate of the British Empire and from 1916 part of the British colony of Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The 1960s were marked by racial tensions between residents of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, mostly over competition for jobs. The calls for secession grew louder and louder. After a referendum, the Ellice Islands gained the status of a separate colony, finally gaining independence in 1978 and hence the name Tuvalu. The island nation is now a member of the United Nations. According to the BBC, in 1989 they put the country on a list of several island groups that are most likely to disappear into the sea in the 21st century due to global warming.
Tuvalu's economy is mainly based on fishing and agriculture. Despite the comparatively small number of visitors, holidaymakers from abroad are also an important source of income. However, the island state has spoken out clearly against mass tourism. This would not be possible anyway due to the small area of Tuvalu. Sleeping places for vacationers are limited: Tripadvisor currently lists a total of 13 hotels, hostels and lodges for Tuvalu. Another reason for the few tourists is the remote location of the archipelago. Getting there is long and expensive. Visitors must first travel to Fiji to fly to Tuvalu, which only has one flight a week. As "Travelbook" reports, Tuvalu Airport is not even fenced off and is transformed into a gigantic sports and playground outside of flight times.
If you still take the long way and travel to Tuvalu, you will find yourself in a paradisiacal and relaxed holiday destination. In addition to beach visits and extensive snorkeling tours, Tuvalu offers a handful of sights. Including the Funafuti Conservation Area, a marine reserve with spectacular, untouched nature. Another attraction is the Philatelic Bureau, which displays colorful Tuvalu stamps. According to the Chamber of Commerce of Lower Austria, postage stamps are the country's most important export product alongside dried coconut kernels (copra).
Since December last year, tourists have been allowed to enter Tuvalu again after the corona pandemic. German nationals need a passport, but no visa for stays of up to 90 days. Payment is made in the island state with the Australian dollar, of which travelers should bring enough cash with them. Because: "There is no way to withdraw money from ATMs in Tuvalu. Payment by credit card is also not possible," says the Foreign Office website. There is left-hand traffic on the streets. It should be easy to communicate with the locals. Along with Tuvaluan, English is the official language of the country. The islanders are also said to have great hospitality and helpfulness.
Another – rather unusual, but very important – source of income for the country is its name. When every state received an internet domain in the late 1990s, Tuvalu was given the suffix .tv. A US start-up offered the government 50 million euros for the dot and the two letters. Since 2001, the California-based company has been selling the URL extension to television stations around the world. Tuvalu still makes money from every website ending in .tv. A total of up to five million dollars is collected every year.
Climate change has gone from prophecy to reality for Tuvalu. Rising temperatures and drought are affecting the country. Natural disasters have increased. Weather records show that there were not more than one or two major cyclones in Tuvalu in the 70's and 80's. There have been five times as many since the 1990s. However, the biggest threat is rising sea levels. At its highest point, the island state is just five meters above the water. Up to 40 percent of the capital district is under water at high tide.
"We have floods almost all year round," said Hilia Vavae, meteorologist at the Tuvalu weather station, in an interview with "Deutschlandfunk" back in 2010. The island state could be largely flooded in the next few decades. According to forecasts, it will disappear into the ocean by 2100 at the latest. In addition, the salty sea water makes the already nutrient-poor soil increasingly infertile. According to "Deutschlandfunk", around 5,000 people fled the islands by 2010. Thousands more could follow. Eselealofa Apinelu, Tuvalu's former Attorney General and current High Commissioner for Fiji, says other countries should make it easier for islanders to migrate. Like New Zealand, for example, which has recognized the flood as a reason to flee since 2014.
Meanwhile, the state is working on a virtual copy of the archipelago. The island will be recreated in the Metaverse, an online world that uses augmented and virtual reality to help users interact. Thus, landmarks, history and culture should be preserved. "Bit by bit we will preserve our country, give comfort to our people and remind our children and grandchildren of what our homeland once was," said Foreign Minister Simon Kofe in a video he posted on Twitter at the World Climate Conference in Egypt last November shared.
"Islands like these won't survive rapid warming, rising sea levels and droughts, so we're recreating them virtually," he began his speech. Tuvalu has no choice but to become "the world's first digital nation". And further: "The land, the ocean and our culture are the most valuable assets of our people. To protect them from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we move them to the cloud." During his short speech, the politician himself is already standing on a computer-generated beach in an otherwise black, virtual space.
"The idea is to continue to function as a state and, moreover, to preserve our culture, our knowledge, our history in a digital space," the foreign minister told Reuters. The politician's appearance at the World Climate Conference in Glasgow had already caused a stir last year. At that time he stood knee-deep in water during his speech. The island nation is currently making efforts to ensure that even if Tuvalu is completely submerged, it will continue to enjoy international recognition and preserve its maritime boundaries and the resources within those waters. The Tagesspiegel describes it as "the last option for the island state". Should Tuvalu actually disappear under water one day, future generations will "at least be able to see the digitized idea of the country."
Sources: Amnesty International, Foreign Office, BBC, Federal Agency for Civic Education, Encyclopedia Britannica, "Deutschlandfunk", United Nations World Tourism Organization, Reuters, "Tagesspiegel", "Travelbook", Lower Austrian Chamber of Commerce