Tonga , the "Friendly Islands", is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. The country is divided into four island groups, or regions.
There were pro-democracy riots in Nuku'alofa in November 2006 which left 8 people dead and large portions of the town centre flattened (by fire). Tonga is one of the last absolute monarchies in the world and is based upon an essentially feudal system where the king disburses land and positions without recourse to any elected body. Although Tongan royalty is largely loved and revered by Tongans, younger people have an appetite for stronger accountability and a more modern constitution. An election was held in November 2010. This was planned to lead to a major reduction in the powers of the King and the land-owning nobility in favour of a more democratic form of governance. However, of the 26 seats in Parliament only 17 are elected, with the rest being allocated to the nobles. After some horse trading, it was a noble who emerged as the Prime Minister.
Tonga has an economy with none of the corporate chain stores and with local small businesses providing all necessary goods and services. Tourists were not a target during the riots and you will find Tonga a friendly and appealing place to visit although don't expect the same level of infrastructure as in more developed countries. Rebuilding after the riots in Nuku'alofa has been more or less completed and there are abundant tourism facilities.
The archipelago of "The Friendly Islands" was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga acquired its independence in 1970 and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It is one of the few indigenous monarchies in the Pacific.
Citizens of the following countries can get a free, one-month visitor's visa on arrival if they can prove they have a return ticket to leave Tonga at the end of their stay and sufficient funds to cover their stay: Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Cook Islands, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kiribati, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Norway, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Samoa, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.
Visitor's visas can be extended at the immigration department in the capital.
You either come in by airplane or yacht.
Fua'amotu Airport (TBU) is on Tongatapu around half an hour from Nuku'alofa.
A crowd of local taxi drivers meets each incoming flight at the airport and they usually charge 25-30 Pa'anga for a lift into Nuku'alofa. The Teta Tours mini-bus also meets flights and will deliver you to your hotel or guest house for 10 Pa'anga. .
By private boat
Lots of people arrive by private yacht since Tonga, particularly Vava'u, is a common stop on the around-the-world circuit.
To get between island groups, you basically have to fly (or sail). Chathams Pacific Airline operates between the major islands, with flights from Tongatapu to 'Eua, Ha'apai, and Vava'u and from Vava'u to Niuafo’ou and Niuatoputapu. The flight from Tongatapu to 'Eua is, at eight minutes, said to be the world's shortest scheduled flight.
Motorbikes, scooters and cycles can be rented on Tongatapu, Vava'u and Ha'apai. On Tongatapu you can hire a car. There are also taxis. To get around the main island, Tongatapu, Teta Tours and Toni's guest house offer day tours of all the main tourist sights. The speed limit is usually 40kph and this is stuck to by the local drivers. You're meant to also buy a local Tongan driving licence on top of your existing licence before you drive (25 Pa'anga). The roads are good in and around Nuku'alofa but deteriorate the further from the town and the further south you travel.Most cars in Tonga are in a terrible state, maintained on a budget and held together by a combination of 'Western Union' stickers and prayer. The low speed limit helps to keep accidents down. There are buses to various points on Tongatapu from Nuku'alofa although there are no timetables.
Tongan is the most widely spoken language in Tonga. English is also widely understood because many of the high schools teach exclusively in English. Many Tongans when asked a question they are unsure of or don`t understand will reply with a "Yes". In this case, ask a follow up question and if the reply is still "Yes", ask someone else.
Apart from a few historical sites on Tongatapu most things to do in Tonga reflect its island nature. Diving, snorkelling, fishing, boat trips, kayaking and kite surfing are all possible. There are some lovely beaches if you just want to laze around. Tonga has some good restaurants and this is the place to come if you like lobster.
Take time to learn a little about Tonga's fairly feudal culture and its many traditions. Go to church. Even if you are not religious the singing can be very moving. Watch tapa cloth being made from mulberry bark and try a drink of kava, the traditional drink, which is a mild narcotic.
The national currency is the Pa'anga, or Tongan dollar. Denominations are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 seniti coins and 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 Pa'anga banknotes. Although Tonga is a developing country, prices for many things are comparable to or slightly greater than New Zealand or Australia. Most of what you eat, apart from fish, lobsters, roots and tubers, fruits and vegetables will have been imported. A good meal out will cost 30-50 Pa'anga, a beer in a restaurant or bar costs about 5-6 Pa'anga, hiring a car is about 50-60 Pa'anga a day and cigarettes are 7-8 Pa'anga for a pack of 25.
Tongan feasts are a must-do. Tour companies and hotels organize feasts, together with traditional dancing, on several nights of the week on Tongatapu and in Vava'u.
Tonga is lively well into the evening, generally becoming suddenly very quiet at around 11PM. Expect to see people walking around until late. Beer and liquor are available from many outlets, including Fijian, Australian and New Zealand imports to complement the local brews. If you are keen to check out native drink, try Kava (something like liquid novacaine) at least once.
The local beer is called Ikale and is sold in 330 ml bottles in most restaurants and bars (4.50-5 Pa'anga). Or you can buy the same bottles from one of the many 'Chinese' roadside shops or a supermarket for 2 Pa'anga or less. Imported beers are mainly from Australia although there are also some from Europe. Most are sold in 330 ml cans or bottles.
There is a wide range of accommodation in Tonga, ranging from luxurious to budget. Most have relatively few rooms, though. The Tonga Visitors Bureau  has a full listing. See detailed listings on the pages for Tongatapu, Vava'u and Ha'apai.
If you don't work you don't eat. Tongans don't want to hear that it's hard on the coral beaches lined with palm trees and emerald lagoons. There are many opportunities for skilled trades from the streets to the shops, in the schools to the churches and yes from the markets to the office. This is a hot spot for skilled navigators spanning throughout 169 villages and 150 islands. Some major exports include Vanilla, handcrafts and specialty pumpkins grown for export to Japan. Other agriculture sectors include root crops like taro, tapioca, sweet potatoes, yams, coconuts, bananas, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, watermelons and even peanuts.
If you are on a visitor's visa, you cannot be involved with business or take up employment while in Tonga. You also cannot take courses from an educational institution. It is mostly illegal to try to change a visitor's visa into a visa that allows for employment, so if you intend to have a job while in Tonga, make sure you have an employment visa in advance. Apply for your visa at least one month in advance. If you are already in Tonga and would like to extend it, contact the immigration department one month in advance about the extension.
While employment visas are technically available, the immigration department will probably be reluctant to granted you one as Tonga has a high unemployment rate, and would prefer that jobs be taken up by Tongan citizens as opposed to outsiders. If you're coming to Tonga for humanitarian or volunteer work, you need an employment visa for that.
One thing to remember when going for a swim is that there are many sharp corals near the beach, especially near Tongatapu and PangaiMotu. It is a good idea to wear a cheap pair of sandals while in the water. There are jelly fish and they do sting! They are also hard to see. It is a good idea to have a bottle of vinegar handy in your bag to help treat any stings.
There is no malaria in Tonga.
Exercise the usual caution when snorkelling as the coral can be dangerous.
For maximum respect, keep your knees covered (both men and women). Men, keep your shirt on everywhere except at the beach. Topless men off cruise liners have been arrested and held until after the ship has left! This is a very conservative Christian country. Keep in mind that Sunday is strongly revered, the vast majority of the population will attend religious services, very few shops will be open and there is very little to do. Hotels will be open, as will some restaurant and beach resorts, although mainly to serve expats and tourists. Small shops, including, in Nuku'alofa, a popular bakery, may open later on Sunday afternoon.
TV stations close or play Christian shows on Sundays. Radio stations will also play religious on Sundays. To compensate, the cinema in Nuku'alofa usually has a screening just after midnight on Monday morning.
Tonga features many major Christian denominations; the Methodist church especially has a widespread presence. Many of the services are very enjoyable. Strike up a friendship with some locals and you will have no problems finding an enjoyable Sunday experience despite the lack of commercial activity.