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Map of Tonga

Map of Tonga.
flag of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Kingdom of Tonga

Key facts


Official Name: Kingdom of Tonga
Land Area: 747 sq km: five main island groups, Tongatapu, 'Eua, Ha'apai, Vava'u, and the Niuas, among 170 dispersed volcanic and coral islands
Population: 101,134 (2006 census)
Capital City: Nuku'alofa
Religions: Christian denominations (Wesleyan, Mormon, Catholic)
Official Languages: Tongan, English
Currency: Pa'anga or Tonga dollar (TOP or T$)
Exchange Rate: 1 Tongan Pa’anga = $0.67 New Zealand Dollar
EEZ: 700,000 sq km.


Political System: Constitutional Monarchy

National government: The King is Head of State but since November 2010 executive authority has rested with a Cabinet nominated by the Prime Minister who is elected from among MPs.

National legislature: Unicameral Legislative Assembly, comprising the Cabinet (up to 4 of whom may be appointed from outside Parliament), 9 Nobles’ Representatives chosen by 33 Noble title holders, and 17 representatives elected by universal suffrage by Tongans aged 21 or over.

Last election: 25 November 2010
Next election due: November 2014

Head of State: His Majesty King Tupou VI
Head of Government: Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano
Main political groupings: The Democratic Party of the Friendly Islands The Coalition of National Unity


GDP: US$400 million (2011, EIU estimate)
GDP per capita: US$3,995  (2011, EIU estimate)
Real GDP growth: -0.8% (2010, EIU estimate)

Exports (fob): US$5.7 million (2010)
Main Exports: Squash, coconuts, fish, watermelon

Imports (fob): US$139.6 million (2009)
Main Imports: Food, machinery, fuel

Inflation: 7% (2011 est)

Source: Economist Intelligence Unit

New Zealand Trade

NZ Exports (fob): NZ$47 million (for the year to December 2011)
Main Exports: Meat products, wood products, petrol/oil

NZ Imports (cif)
: NZ$2 million (for the year to December 2011)
Main Imports: Cassava, scrap waste, fish, coconuts.


Tonga is an ancient Polynesian country of 170 islands with a history of human settlement extending back 3000-3500 years.  Tonga’s monarchical (Tu’i Tonga) tradition is over 1,000 years old; and at times has extended to include territory in parts of Fiji, Niue, the Samoas and Tokelau.  European contact with Tonga dates back to 1616 and early contacts included Abel Tasman and James Cook.

Tonga’s contacts with the international community were extended through Wesleyan and Catholic missionaries who were active in Tonga from the 1790s.  Taufa’ahau, the nephew of the ruler of Ha’apai, was baptised in 1831, taking the Christian name Siaosi (George) Tupou.  Tupou became ruler of Ha’apai, Vava’u and Tongatapu following the deaths of his relevant relations. Tupou united Tonga under the name King George Tupou I; and established the current royal family line in Tonga.  Tupou, with Wesleyan missionary Reverend Shirley Baker, drafted laws which prohibited serfdom and foreign ownership of land, and led to Tonga’s Constitution of 1875.  This Constitution was remarkably advanced for its time, not only guaranteeing basic freedoms but also effectively ending a civil war.  Tonga’s constitution is now the second oldest formal written constitution in the world (after the US one).

The 1875 Constitution marked the formal establishment of Tonga as a nation state.  Tonga was the only Pacific country never to be colonised.  From 1900 to 1970 Tonga was, however, a signatory to Treaties of Friendship and Protection with Great Britain.  In 1970 Tonga’s protectorate status ended and it became a fully independent state within the Commonwealth. 

The royal line has remained unbroken since 1845.  King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV died in September 2006 after a reign of 40 years.  His mother Queen Salote Tupou III ruled for 47 years, from 1918 until 1965.  King George Tupou V was crowned in August 2008. He passed away on 18 March 2012 and has been succeeded by his youngest brother, King Tupou VI.

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Political situation

Constitutional arrangements

Tonga is a constitutional monarchy.  The King commands considerable status but after 2010 constitutional reforms his legal powers are much reduced.  As Head of State he retains oversight of lands and noble titles as well as foreign affairs, defence and the judiciary but all other matters are the responsibility of Parliament.

The Prime Minister, currently Lord Tu’ivakano, is the Head of Government.  Tu’ivakano was selected by a majority of Parliament in December 2010.  The Prime Minister nominates the Cabinet, although both he and Cabinet are formally appointed by the King. Cabinet holds executive authority. The legislature is a single-chamber assembly, comprising 17 People’s Representatives elected every four years by universal suffrage on a first-past-the-post system and 9 Nobles’ Representatives elected by the holders of 33 Noble titles of the Kingdom.  The Speaker is selected from among the Nobles’ Representatives.

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Democratic reform

Tonga held its first elections under these reformed electoral and constitutional arrangements on 25 November 2010.  The reforms followed an extensive and sometimes difficult democratisation process which had in 2005 included a major public service strike and in 2006 riots which left 8 people dead and much of downtown Nuku’alofa destroyed by fire.

The outcome of the process, which included a Constitutional and Electoral Commission which consulted widely, was a widely accepted compromise.  Tonga remains one of the rare examples in history where a reigning monarch has voluntarily surrendered power and a peaceful democratic transition taken place.  The reforms are still bedding down, and work is continuing on other aspects of transparency and accountability such as a Freedom of Information Act and Anti-Corruption Commissioner.

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Economic situation

Tonga’s economy is supported by a large flow of remittances from Tongans living abroad.  Half the remittances come from the US and most of the rest from New Zealand and Australia where large numbers of Tongans live.  After Tajikistan, Tonga relies more on remittances as a percentage of GDP than any other country in the world.   A substantial drop in remittances due the global economic downtown has had damaging effects on the Tongan economy and Government revenues.  In recent years donors have provided budget support.

Domestic economic activity is based on services, tourism and agriculture.  Around 70 per cent of the population derive at least part of their livelihood from farming, most of it for personal and domestic consumption.  Exports include squash-pumpkin (to Japan and Korea),  root crops and coconuts (to New Zealand) as well as kava and vanilla.  Tourism is the largest source of foreign currency earnings after remittances but the sector remains comparatively undeveloped, with fewer than 30000 tourist arrivals in 2011.  For decades Tonga has run a substantial trade deficit, offset by large inflows of remittances and development assistance. 

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Foreign relations

Tonga’s foreign policy seeks to maintain friendly relations with all countries and in particular with the major powers.  Tonga has foreign missions in London, Beijing, San Francisco, New York and Canberra. Tonga recently closed its High Commission in Wellington but is considering opening a Consulate in Auckland.

Tonga is a founding member of all the major regional organisations.  Tonga joined the UN in 1999 and the WTO in 2002.  


Bilateral linkages

New Zealand is an important regional partner for Tonga and our closest independent neighbour (New Caledonia is closer).  Relations are underpinned by a shared Polynesian heritage and extensive people-to-people links.  Many Tongan leaders are New Zealand-educated.  Longstanding migration links with New Zealand have resulted in a significant Tongan population in New Zealand.  In the 2006 New Zealand Census, 51,487 people in New Zealand identified themselves as Tongans - the third largest Pacific Island group.  In early 2002 a 250-person quota was created under the Pacific Access immigration category for Tongans wishing to migrate to New Zealand.  Tonga has also been a lead participant in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, with an estimated 1300 workers having gained seasonal work in New Zealand in the last year.

Total two-way trade for the year ending December 2011 came to NZ$49 million. New Zealand exports for the year ending December 2011 (primarily meat, timber and petrol) totalled NZ$47 million.  In the same year imports from Tonga, mainly root vegetables, scrap iron, fish and coconuts, totalled about NZ$2 million.  With favourable shipping links, New Zealand provides 40% of Tonga’s imports ahead of Fiji, Australia, the United States and China.

A Tonga-New Zealand Business Association was set up in Nuku’alofa in 1993 to assist in promoting bilateral trade and economic linkages.  In 2011 the Auckland-based New Zealand Tonga Business Council was established.  Tonga is an active participant in regional trade agreements (PICTA and PACER) as well as the WTO and has relatively low tariffs and barriers to market entry.

In the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake the Tongan Government offered the services of its police and defence force personnel to assist in the recovery effort.  Although this offer was not taken up, T$1 million was donated by Tonga to the recovery effort – one the largest per capita donations from any country.

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New Zealand Development Programme

Tonga is one of New Zealand's core bilateral development cooperation partners. The bilateral aid allocation for 2011/2012 is NZD$18 million, with an estimated further NZ$7m flowing to Tonga from regional aid programmes.

The aid programme has been significantly rationalised in recent years to concentrate on fewer projects over a longer timeframe. Over half the programme is focussed specifically on economic development. A Joint Commitment for Development signed in 2011 identifies energy, tourism, small/medium size enterprise development, police and education/training as the priority areas.



New Zealand’s defence links with Tonga date back to the South African wars.  ANZAC Day is a national holiday in Tonga.  Under a Mutual Assistance Programme, NZDF provides a wide range of training assistance to the Tongan Defence Service and a NZ Army warrant officer is located in Tonga as a technical adviser.  Regular Navy ship visits and Air Force overflights assist with fisheries and border protection.  We work closely together in the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).  Tonga also has troops in Afghanistan.

A major trilateral police development programme with Tonga and Australia has delivered significant upgrades and training to the Tonga Police in recent years.  New Zealander Grant O’Fee was sworn in as Tongan Police Commissioner in July 2012.

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Visits to New Zealand

Visits to Tonga

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Travel advice

The Safe Travel website provides a travel advisory for travellers to Tonga [external link].

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Page last updated: Monday, 09 December 2013 13:00 NZDT