Tokelau: what to know?

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Tokelau is a small collection of atolls in the South Pacific with a population of just under 1500 people. It was first settled in the 11th century and was annexed by Great Britain in the late 19th century before being transferred to New Zealand. It has the smallest economy of any territory or country in the world and is difficult to reach due to a lack of airports and ports. Despite this, it is an ideal destination for those seeking a Polynesian experience free from modernity or tourists.

Tokelau is a small collection of atolls in the South Pacific. The region covers 5 square miles (10 sq km), making it the fifth smallest nation or territory in the world, and has a population of just under 1500 people. Tokelau is located approximately halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, just over 300 miles (500km) from Samoa. Tokelau is made up of three distinct atolls, Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo.

Tokelau was most likely first settled in the 11th century by sailors from Tuvalu, Samoa and the Cook Islands. The three atolls were linked by a shared Polynesian heritage, but for most of their history they were distinct social and political units. At times Fakaofo’s government exercised dominion over the other two islands, but generally the three were independent.

Tokelau was first discovered by Europeans in the mid-18th century, but they considered the land uninhabited. A visit a few decades later revealed signs of inhabitants, although there was no contact between Europeans and Polynesians at the time.

At the beginning of the 19th century an American ship made the first contacts with the inhabitants of Nukunonu and a few years later the Fakaofo atoll was discovered. From the mid-19th century the islands were evangelised, mainly using natives who had converted to Christianity. The islands suffered a major setback a few years later when a group of Peruvian slavers raided and captured almost all of the healthy men. The islands were largely depopulated and were later repopulated by immigrants from both Western countries and other Polynesian islands.

In the late 19th century Tokelau was annexed by Great Britain and formed part of a collective that included what is now Tuvalu and Kiribati. In the 19th the islands were transferred to New Zealand, which continues to administer them to this day. New Zealand grants the islands great autonomy, allowing individual villages to have their own laws and manage their own regional affairs.

Although a small island, Tokelau is developing its economy and moving towards independence. A constitution is currently in draft form and, with support from both Britain and New Zealand, Tokelau is heading in the direction taken by both the Cook Islands and Niue of becoming an independent region in free association with New Zealand.
Tokelau has the distinction of having the smallest economy of any territory or country in the world. Definitely not the kind of place to vacation if what you’re looking for is a standard Polynesian experience. There are no airports on the island, no cars, no ports for ships, no banks to get money from, no capital or city of any kind, and virtually no tourism. This is truly an island unto itself, and for those seeking to experience Polynesian beaches and culture free from modernity or tourists, it is an ideal destination. For anyone else, however, it can feel claustrophobic and like you’ve wasted your time altogether.

Getting to Tokelau is a bit tricky, to say the least. With no airport and no port, your options are very limited. There is a regular cargo ship that comes in from Samoa every few weeks and a passenger ship that comes in from Samoa every month or two. Yachts rarely make their way to Tokelau, due to a lack of good ports, so hitchhiking is also out of place. Once there, it’s important to bear in mind that you may get stuck between ships for a while, and it’s a good idea to make arrangements well in advance to ensure a departing ship has room.

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