When you drive from the airport into Nuku'alofa, the nation's capital, you can see why the country's main island is named Tongatapu (Sacred Garden). Every bit of it not occupied by a building or by the road is under cultivation with bananas, tapioca, taro, yams, watermelons, tomatoes, squash, and a plethora of other fruits and vegetables. The Tongans might be generally poor in terms of material wealth, but they own some of the South Pacific's most fertile and productive land. There just isn't much of it.
The kingdom consists of 170 islands, 36 of them inhabited, scattered over an area of about 259,000 sq. km (100,000 sq. miles). The amount of dry land, however, is only 697 sq. km (269 sq. miles). That's smaller than New York City.
Tonga has three major island groups. Tongatapu and its neighbor, the smaller 'Eua, comprise the southernmost group. About 155km (96 miles) north are the islands of Ha'apai, where Fletcher Christian led the mutiny on the Bounty. About 108km (67 miles) beyond Ha'apai, beautiful Vava'u reigns as the kingdom's sailing heaven. Even farther north are the remote Niuas Islands, but you won't be going there.
The largest island in the kingdom, Tongatapu, has about a third of the country's land area and about two-thirds of its population. It's a flat island about 65km (40 miles) across from east to west and 32km (20 miles) across from north to south at its longest and widest points. In the center a lakelike lagoon is now void of most sea life.
Tongatapu and most of the islands here are raised coral atolls. The exceptions are the Niuas and, in Ha'apai, the active volcano Tofua and its sister volcanic cone, Kao. Geologists say that the weight of the Ha'apai volcanoes has caused the Indo-Australian Plate to sag like a hammock, raising Tongatapu and 'Eua on the south end of the Tongan chain and Vava'u on the north end. As a result, the sides of Tongatapu and Vava'u facing Ha'apai slope gently to the sea, and the sides facing away end in cliffs.
It would be an understatement to say that Tonga's royal family has a hand in every important decision made here; in fact, very little gets done without the royal family's outright or tacit approval or involvement. Tonga technically is a constitutional monarchy, although in many respects the king is head of a system of hereditary Polynesian chiefs who happen to have titles derived from England. The king picks his own Privy Council of advisors and appoints nine cabinet members and the governors of Ha'apai and Vava'u. With a few exceptions they are nobles. The cabinet members and the governors hold 11 of the 30 seats in the Legislative Assembly. Of the 19 other members of the assembly, the nobles choose 10 from among their ranks, leaving 9 to be elected by the taxpaying commoners.
With more Tongans living abroad, and those at home being exposed more and more to news of the world, Tonga now has an active pro-democracy movement. It suffered a serious setback in November 2006, when one of its demonstrations turned into a riot which left eight people dead and several square blocks burned in Nuku'alofa. King George Topou V, who succeeded to the throne when his father, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, passed away earlier that year, has appointed a commission to move toward a parliament with a popular-elected majority. What happens next is anyone's guess.
Tourism is an important component of Tonga's economy but is minuscule when compared to Fiji and French Polynesia. Tonga has few natural resources other than its fertile soil and the fish in the sea within its exclusive economic zone. The world markets for its exports -- fresh fish, vanilla, kava, bananas, coconut oil, pineapples, watermelons, tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables -- have been unstable and depressed at times in recent years. Money sent home by Tongans living overseas is a major source of foreign exchange.
What Day Is It?
Theoretically, the international date line should run for its entire length along the 180th meridian, halfway around the world from the prime meridian, the starting point for measuring international time. If it followed the 180th meridian precisely, however, most of the Aleutian Islands would be a day ahead of the rest of Alaska, and Fiji would be split into 2 days. To solve these problems, the date line swings west around the Aleutians, leaving them in the same day as Alaska. In the South Pacific, it swerves east between Fiji and Samoa, leaving all of Fiji a day ahead of the Samoas.