Richard Robinson

From taro to tourism

One of the world’s smallest nations is transforming its economy from subsistence to sustainability. Will Niue’s brave new plan work?

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

Each year between August and October, humpbacks rest in the calm waters in the lee of Niue, the world’s largest coral island.

The outline of one of the world’s smallest states emerges from the haze, an elliptical green raft on a brilliant blue sea. Pacific swells, powered by relentless trade winds, cast a valance of white foam around Niue’s eastern shore and wrap about the north and south coasts, like folds in a great cloak.

Last year, Niue caught the attention of the world by announcing its intention to protect 40 per cent of this blue estate from fishing and other activities that might compromise it.

In this, Niue leads the world. The United Nations Development Programme is promoting 10 per cent marine protection by 2020. The United Kingdom is more ambitious, advocating 30 per cent by 2030. New Zealand, by contrast, currently protects less than one per cent of its exclusive economic zone.

The plan that details what is permitted within Niue’s new marine protected area will be passed into law this November, and the implications are profound. Niue has decided that an intact marine ecosystem is ultimately of greater value than an exploited one—the island is betting the farm on tourism.

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Flying fish scatter from around the hull, wings extended wide, as we pound up the southern shore of the island. Without a fringing reef, the swell in Niue beats directly on to the towering coral walls of the island, reflecting half of the wave back out to sea with a whipping crest of white foam, and vaporising the other half into a fine plume of mist that drifts back over the palms.

All eyes on board are aimed out to sea, scanning for the blows of humpback whales. Every year, the leviathans arrive to rest behind the island’s bulwark of coral—their visit coinciding with the peak of the tourist season.

Our day is divided into 20-minute instalments: scanning the horizon, sighting a whale blow, drawing close. Waiting for 20 minutes until the whale surfaces again, analysing its behaviour, drawing nearer the fluke print. Waiting, again.

It’s a rhythm defined by the whales. Sometimes they remain aloof—20 minutes under water, less than a minute on the surface; one breath, two breaths, tail fluke, gone. Nothing to see but a glassy swirl of blue water, a window into a world we cannot enter.

With no natural watercourses, few sandy beaches and no fringing reef, the water can be spectacularly clear.

On our third day, three whales rise to the surface in front of us. They’re prehistoric in form—naval grey flanks, sunlight playing across scars and scratches. A retinue of white remora fish jostle for position under the whales’ cobbled pectoral fins, stretched out like wings. The whales hang on the surface with us for a couple of minutes, then, bending into gentle curves, roll forward into a shallow dive and sink into the blue, until lost in shadows.

In 2016, Niue introduced strict terms around whale watching—how the whales should be approached, who may approach them (just five permitted vessels) and how swimmers must behave in the water.

Its marine protected area is an extension of this protection, from its coasts to the limits of its exclusive economic zone, safeguarding the natural values that are so desirable for charter fishing, scuba diving, snorkelling and public amenity.

“Our commitment is not a sacrifice,” said Dalton Tagelagi, Niue’s Minister for Natural Resources, when the plan was announced. “It is an investment for our future and a tribute to our ancestors. We simply cannot be the generation of leaders who have taken more than they have given to this planet, and left behind a debt that our children cannot pay.”

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When New Zealand Geographic last visited Niue, in 1998, taro accounted for 85 per cent of exports, and the 2000 tourists that year contributed $1.5 million to the economy.

The island was at an economic tipping point, though no one could have known it at the time.

Each month a freighter pulls up to Alofi, Niue’s capital and port, to offload food, fuel, building materials and Japanese cars—imports worth nine times the value of goods exported from the island. The difference is made up by aid and tourism.
Fishing puts food on the table but contributes little to revenue.

Twenty years later, the change is evident. A supply ship throws its lines ashore at Alofi, disgorging dozens of shipping containers of food, building materials, petrol, diesel, a small tour bus and 24 second-hand Japanese cars. The load brings the rolling average to 20 new cars on the island every month, and $18 million in imports across the year.

Taro exports have withered to almost zero. The value of the crop crashed at the turn of the century, and there were few labourers on the island available to support export-scale agriculture. There are promising replacements—such as honey, vanilla, the herbal remedy koni and a new venture into restaurant-quality herbs—but most of the containers that land at Alofi today will return from the island empty. Exports total just $2 million.

The substantial difference between what the island consumes and what it produces is made up in aid—New Zealand contributes around $14 million annually—and tourism. (Niue is self-governing, but in free association with New Zealand, on which it relies for defence, foreign affairs and economic aid.)

Nearly 10,000 tourists visited last year, almost five times the number two decades ago, and spent twice as much, contributing more than $5 million to Niue’s GDP. The surge has spawned a sector of small businesses—fishing charters, island tours, rental car companies, restaurants and bed and breakfasts. There’s a sense of ambition in the air, but how many tourists is too many? Where do you draw the line between sustainability and development?

Brendon Pasisi considers the question, leaning against the wheel of his boat and combing a hand through a thick crop of hair.

“Niue is, I think, quite conscious of that balance, and we’ll progress in a responsible and calculated way,” he says, measuring his words. “We’re very conscious of the Cook Island experience—the lagoon water-quality issues. I’d say 15,000 tourists is the upper limit to keep it pristine, not overcrowded, and maintain the sort of personal interactions that exist with locals here.”

Like most locals, Pasisi wears a number of hats. A fishing charter operator, he is also president of the Niue Island Fishermen’s Association and director of the Niue Ocean Wide project, which is responsible for the plan setting out the new marine protected area.

The project will build “ecological resilience”, he says, and promote what he calls “blue tourism”—a more sustainable economic, social and environmentally aligned course for the nation that respects and maintains Niue’s relationship with the ocean.

Prosperity will arrive here quietly, if it arrives at all, in a thoughtful, pragmatic and organised fashion.

“Tourism is one of the industries that presents the widest set of opportunities to benefit everyone,” says Pasisi.

For many residents of Niue, those opportunities can’t come quickly enough.

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Drive north from Alofi on Niue’s ring road and the relative prosperity in the capital slowly decays. The benefits of tourism and salaried government jobs are not spread evenly on the island. Communities close to the New Zealand High Commission in Alofi, or the port, or the resort around the point from Alofi, have carefully tended yards, new cars, fishing boats on trailers.

Elsewhere, ladder fern grows inside abandoned houses, with collapsed roof structures tangled like something has crashed into the living room. Refrigerators stand sentinel in the remains of kitchens. Cars rust quietly in yards. Every third house is abandoned—a fraction that increases around the north coast and down the east.

In the 1960s, some 750 homes were built of coral concrete construction with asbestos roofing to resist cyclones, following events in 1959 and 1960. But the population slumped from 5100 to just 1600 residents over the following half-century, and many of the houses now lie in ruins.

This is the wreckage of emigration. In 1970, New Zealand was experiencing a labour shortage and promoted well-paid employment opportunities internationally. Niueans answered the call. The process was accelerated when Niue became self-governing in 1974 and affirmed the right for Niueans to hold New Zealand passports and live and work in New Zealand.

Niue’s population declined steadily from a peak of 5100 people in 1970 to 1600 in 2005. It has remained more or less stable since, but the scale of departure may be more dramatic than the numbers suggests.

Of the 1600 residents, only 1000 are Niuean, the remaining 600 being recent migrants from Tuvalu and Fiji. Meanwhile, there are about 24,000 Niueans now living in New Zealand.

Cyclones ravaged Niue in 1979 and 1990, accelerating the diaspora, but nothing could prepare the island for the wrath of Cyclone Heta. The storm rallied to category 5, and made landfall on January 6, 2004. A weather station briefly measured barometric pressure of 945 millibars before it was destroyed by winds topping 250 kilometres per hour.

A storm surge engulfed Alofi and drove 200 metres inland, destroying homes and killing two people—a mother and her child later found embraced in the ruins. Boats were left hanging in trees. Most of the coral reef on the western side of the island was destroyed and, according to Pasisi, is still recovering.


Climate science suggests cyclones will become more numerous and destructive as surface water temperatures in the Pacific rise, but Niue is not only a victim of climate change—according to the World Resources Institute and United Nations, the tiny state has the third-highest greenhouse-gas production per capita in the world, behind Kuwait and Brunei.

Occupied homes were repaired or rebuilt, but abandoned houses were no longer habitable or even safe to enter. Asbestos roofs, erected during a government-funded building programme in the 1960s, became a hazard, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force flew in Hercules with a belly full of equipment to safely remove them from the island.

Today, Niue’s haywire rainforest is slowly reclaiming the coral-concrete walls of the remaining buildings. Trees push away fractured  roof structures, and tangles of runaway vines search for water and purchase in the foundations. It looks like the ruins of a forgotten civilisation.

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An elderly pedestrian was crossing the road in the small southeastern village of Hakupu, and I was looking for someone to talk to about filming the next morning’s White Sunday church service. He looked like the sort of chap who might know.

I reached out and shook the hand of Mititaiagimene Young Vivian—twice the premier of Niue, former secretary-general of the South Pacific Commission (now the Pacific Community), former chancellor of the University of the South Pacific, a humble statesman and an outspoken critic of everything from nationalism to economic development.

Vivian is 82 and walks with a cane, striking it on the ground with each step, marking time and distance with the reassuring tick of a grandfather clock. His face is festooned with a disorganised white beard, and as we take a pew, I can see the church’s stained-glass window reflected in his eyes.

Spinner dolphins—slender torpedoes of the tropics—tumble like gymnasts on the displacement wave of a charter fishing boat. There are at least two resident pods—a sure-fire hit with tourists and an important asset for Niue’s vast marine park, which spans some 40 per cent of its exclusive economic zone.
Des Hipa (left) and Kolu Motufoou refine their game at the Niue Lawn Bowling Club on a Friday afternoon. Hipa is president of the club and competed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games as part of a 10-strong team of lawn bowlers. The team dominated the Niuean contingent, which also included six shooters, two field athletes and a boxer.
Tourists bathe and snorkel in Limu Pools, a shallow inlet in the coral cliffs of Niue’s sheltered west coast. Just 9000 tourists visit the island each year—a tenth of the visitation to the neighbouring Cook Islands.

He was schooled at Wanganui Collegiate from 1949, returned to Niue to teach, then back to New Zealand for university, to Niue, to New Zealand, fuelling his interests in education and politics. In 1973, he was appointed to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization. It’s a process that Vivian suggests must continue for Niue to move forward. Should Niue be fully independent?

“That’s the big question. This is where I believe the current government has lost the plot,” he says, adamantly, rapping his cane on the church floor for effect. “We need to keep moving down the path towards decolonisation, but I am a lone voice on that.

“You don’t want to be the same as me, I don’t want to be the same as you. Decolonisation is about being yourself, with the energy, power and beauty of being Niuean. Independence is not about status or money, it’s about togetherness.”

Vivian resets his position on the pew, like he’s preparing to deliver a sermon he’s given before.

“We need to get back to nature, we need to look after the environment, we need to listen to what people are telling us about climate change. This is a very serious problem,” says former premier Vivian Young (left) in his church in Hakupu.

“Tourism is just another version of colonialism,” he says. “One culture visiting another culture, you know, like they’re looking at monkeys in the zoo.”

He mentions the Cook Islands, where rapid growth in the tourism sector has brought a matching strain on infrastructure, as well as pollution and cultural upheaval.

“I have serious reservations about tourism,” he says. “We have two flights a week—9000 people a year. What are we going to do with 100,000 people a year? Where will they stay? Who will serve them? How will our roads and sewers and infrastructure cope?”

Besides, he says, the pursuit of earthly riches is not good for Niue or Niueans.

“Any activity that concerns economic development is a selfish way of looking at life—it’s every man for himself,” he tells me. “You need to remember that economic development is still new to us, it is strange to us.

“But we can turn tourism into something beautiful. We can do tourism our way. It’s about human relationships, and two cultures understanding each other. Like any relationship, it’s a two-way street, with both people contributing, like you and me talking now.”

I get the sense that Vivian—by age or experience or special insight—has attained a higher altitude from which to view the world, as though he can see beyond the edges of this island and this moment. Our conversation wanders from economic development to sustainability, his children, their children, and the politics of the Pacific, which he intersperses with references and illustrations from Scripture. Secularism, he says, is a threat to Niue, a dilution of the bonds of faith and family that bind Niueans together.

“I tell my children to be pastors, not politicians,” he says.

He lifts his shirt up to his chin, revealing a six-inch scar across his stomach. “My spleen,” he says. “They removed it in 1949. Now I need injections every seven years. And I’m looking at you through plastic lenses in my eyes. Health is at the centre of life. Physical health, spiritual health. This is what matters. Not money.”

I’d spent an hour on the pew with Vivian, who had only popped into the church to retrieve his Bible. I apologised for keeping him so long, but he brushed it off.

“What for? I’ve got all the time in the world.”

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About a kilometre off Alofi wharf, I float on the surface, a blue sky above, a fathomless blue sea beneath, marked by the dark-blue shadow of a whale resting 20 metres below. The sun casts radial streams of light through the water around it. For a moment, it feels like I’ve entered a blue cathedral.

The whale stretches out both pectoral fins, like the hands of a great clock slowly turning, until it assumes a perfect cruciform shape. On the surface, I reply in matching semaphore with my arms, as if painting a snow angel. The whale replies with the same movement.

Perhaps it was coincidental, but there on the surface it felt like we were two mammals simply waving at each other—I see you, you see me.

And it seems Niue wants nothing more: Acknowledgement. Recognition of statehood, self-determination, self-government, the respect of the international community—a sense of independence, if not the infrastructure and the machinery of state required for full independence.

Will tourism connect the desire for a flourishing environment with sustainable economic growth? Will it contribute to Niuean culture, or deplete it? What does decolonisation mean, or is it less about the outcome and more about the process?

These are questions that will define the future of Niue, and not even the opinionated Young Vivian will be drawn on the answers.

“I don’t make the butterflies,” he says. “Only the big man knows what’s in store for us.”

In Avatele, Hine Makaia and Bretrick Vakanofiti ply their vaka out through the passage in the reef to fish. While most Niue fishermen ship out in modern aluminium vessels, the pair put food on the table and keep a tradition alive at the same time.