Bargaining and haggling isn't part of commercial culture in any South Pacific country – trying to do so is considered extremely rude. You might be able to shave a few dollars off a price in tourist shops and big-city markets, but in small villages locals will take their goods home rather than accept a lower price than what’s asked. The one exception is in Fiji, where Indo-Fijians expect to bargain and will often initiate the process.
Dangers & Annoyances
The South Pacific islands are safer travel destinations than most places in the world, and the locals are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet. But, as when travelling anywhere on the planet, it pays to use a little common sense.
Even in the larger cities, assaults and violent crime are uncommon, but they do occur. Play it safe when walking around at night: stick to well-lit areas where there other people are hanging around, and avoid situations where you might be vulnerable.
You won't see many local ladies travelling solo, but the South Pacific is generally a safe and respectful region for visiting women to navigate alone.
More medically, grazes, coral cuts and even insect bites can quickly become infected in tropical climes: slather any lesions with antiseptic. Pay the tropical sun maximum respect and keep yourself hydrated.
In the Water
Many Pacific islands have sheltered lagoons inside protective reefs that offer safe swimming and snorkelling. But currents can be strong around passages and channels that drain the lagoon into the open sea on a falling tide. If there are no other swimmers around, ask a local before plunging in. Avoid swimming alone.
Watch out for venomous sea life – the lionfish is perhaps the most significant of these because it’s mobile (though not aggressive) and has long venomous spines that cause extremely painful wounds. Most other beasties – eg sea urchins, stonefish, cone shells – sit placidly on the seafloor. The simple rule is look but don’t touch – reef shoes (or old runners) can be useful. Stings and bites are extremely rare.
Shark attacks are also rare, but do occasionally happen. Swimming inside a reef offers some protection. Blacktip reef sharks look menacing, can grow to 2m long and sometimes swim in groups in shallow waters, but are harmless unless you pick a fight.
Malaria exists in western regions of the South Pacific – particularly the Solomons and Vanuatu – but even where mosquitoes don’t carry malaria, their bites can cause discomfort and, in some cases, dengue fever. Mosquitoes are less of a problem around the coast where sea breezes keep them away, but inland they can be a pest.
Petty thefts from hire cars, beach bags and hotel rooms do occur. Look after your valuables and keep them out of sight (passports, papers, tickets, cash). Money belts are a hassle in the heat – an ordinary wallet is better for cash. Valuables are normally safe in a locked hotel room if you’re heading out for the day, but tuck them out of sight or stick them in a safe. Many South Pacific cultures have relaxed attitudes to property – it’s best not to leave expensive gear lying around.
Government Travel Advice
The following government websites offer travel advisories and information on current hot spots.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.smarttraveller.gov.au)
- British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/fco)
- Government of Canada (www.travel.gc.ca)
- New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
- US State Department (www.travel.state.gov)
The first plug shown is used in French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Easter Island; the second one is used in American Samoa; the third is used in all other countries.
Embassies & Consulates
As a visitor to the South Pacific, you are bound by the laws of the country you’re visiting – so if you commit a crime your embassy is powerless to intervene. Similarly, a crime committed against you would be a matter for local police (and possibly your travel insurer).
However, if you are in a dire emergency you might get some assistance, and if your passport has been lost or stolen, your embassy will help you get a new one. Embassies will normally only evacuate citizens in the event of a major natural disaster, war or sudden civil upheaval, such as a violent coup where all citizens of its country are affected.
Emergency & Important Numbers
International country codes for South Pacific countries include:
|Tahiti & French Polynesia||689|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Unless you're hoisting the spinnaker on a yacht or kicking back on a cruise ship, getting to the South Pacific will mean a long-haul flight, usually via a gateway city such as Auckland, Brisbane, Sydney, LA, Honolulu or Tokyo.
There are no passport restrictions when visiting South Pacific countries – everyone is welcome!
Most South Pacific countries issue short-stay visas on arrival. New Zealanders don’t need a Cook Islands visa.
As a sweeping generalisation, with a valid passport from most Western countries you can visit most South Pacific countries for up to three months, provided you have an onward or return ticket and sufficient means of support. You'll usually receive a visa or tourist permit at the airport or seaport on arrival – but not always. It’s worth checking with the embassies or consulates of the countries you plan to visit before travelling, as visa requirements can change.
Attitudes towards LGBTQI relations in the South Pacific are multilayered and complex. Due to the conservative Christian influences, being gay or lesbian is on one level regarded as unnatural and sinful. Yet in Polynesia – especially Tonga and Samoa – there are long traditions of male cross-dressing and transgenderism that are usually, though not always, associated with being gay. Melanesian countries tend to be less tolerant of gay men and lesbians, but this stance has noticeably softened over recent decades.
Being gay is technically illegal (although this is rarely enforced) in many South Pacific countries, including the Cook Islands, Niue, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau and Tonga. Lesbianism only gets an official mention in Samoa, where it is also illegal. But in Fiji and the more liberal French colonies of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, being gay or lesbian is legal.
Excessive public displays of affection – both heterosexual and of any sexuality – are frowned upon in most South Pacific societies.
Travel insurance that covers theft, loss and medical problems is essential. Note that some policies exclude ‘dangerous activities’, which can include scuba diving, surfing, motorcycling and even hiking. A locally acquired motorcycle licence is also not valid under some policies.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
Wi-fi in South Pacific accommodation is commonplace these days, especially if you're paying for more than budget digs: you'll generally be given a password with which to log-on (unlimited use), or need to purchase a set amount of online time. Some resorts make the deliberate decision not to have blanket wi-fi access across their facilities, to help stressed-out guests really unwind. You'll also find wi-fi hot spots in major tourist and urban centres, and busy internet cafes. Some of the more remote islands may not have any internet at all; others may surprise you with fast connections. In the Solomon Islands and Easter Island, however, connections are still slow.
The nearest most travellers will get to local law enforcement protocols might be the odd speed camera on the roads. There’s a degree of hypocrisy at play with regard to litter and drug laws in the region: you'll see plenty of rubbish along the roadsides and catch the scent of marijuana in many places in the South Pacific, but that doesn’t mean that littering and smoking pot are legal here (they’re not). Play it safe and don’t do either.
Locally produced street and island maps from visitor information centres aren't particularly reliable in scale or content. If you're serious about old-school navigation with a tangible (rather than digital) map in your hands, do some research at home and make a purchase before you leave.
The South Pacific has some rather exotic-sounding currencies – Vanuatu’s vatu, Samoa’s tala and the Tongan pa’anga. However, some South Pacific countries use US, Australian or New Zealand dollars, while the Pacific franc (the Cour de Franc Pacifique, or CFP) is legal tender in the French territories (New Caledonia, French Polynesia).
As with travel to any destination, it’s best not to put all your monetary eggs into one basket. A credit, debit card, dedicated travel-cash card and a stash of notes will give you some options if an ATM swallows your plastic or the bank is closed.
ATMs and money changers available in most large towns; cash only on most outer islands.
ATMs & Credit Cards
Withdrawing cash via local ATMs – either from your home bank account or a dedicated travel-cash account – is the easiest way of accessing your money in the South Pacific. There are ATMs in most urban centres, at airports and many ferry docks, but not on remote islands, where cash is still king.
Credit cards are accepted at most tourist facilities but often attract a 4% to 5% transaction fee. Visa and MasterCard are the most common. Make a note of the applicable 'lost card' phone numbers before you depart.
You'll still encounter old-fashioned paper credit-card transaction slips here and there in the South Pacific. Be warned: dodgy shopkeepers have been known to quickly make several imprints of your card when you’re not looking, and then copy your signature from the one that you authorise. Pay attention!
Nothing beats cash for convenience, paying for things in remote places…and risk. Very few travel insurers will come to your rescue if you lose your wad, and those that will compensate you limit the amount to somewhere around US$300. Withdraw moderate amounts from ATMs to minimise risk.
Fees, commissions, buy/sell exchange rates...changing currencies is always a losing game. If you’re travelling to three South Pacific countries, try to get a handful of all three currencies before you leave home, rather than changing one for another on the road. But don't expect your local bank to stock obscure South Pacific currencies – banks and moneychangers in major gateway cities (eg Auckland, Brisbane, LA, Honolulu) are more likely to have a pile of Pacific tender in the vault
If you are exchanging currencies as you go, to redeem anything like face value it's best to get rid of cash in the country of origin before you leave.
Most airports and big hotels have exchange facilities or booths that are open outside of normal office hours. However, hotels are almost always the worst places for exchanging money. The best exchange rates are offered at banks – exchange bureaus generally offer worse rates or charge higher commissions.
|Tahiti & French Polynesia||CFP100||US$0.95|
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com
Attitudes to tipping vary across the South Pacific, but in general tipping is not expected. In Polynesian countries leaving a tip is fine if you feel inclined; in Melanesian countries, however, the issue is more complicated. In traditional Melanesian societies, a gift places obligation on the receiver to reciprocate somehow, and this can cause confusion and embarrassment when you’re just trying to say thanks to the lady who cleans your hotel room – particularly if you’re about to leave. Always ask if unsure.
These days, the only reason you'd carry travellers cheques rather than withdraw cash from a local ATM is the security cheques offer from loss and theft. American Express and Travelex/Thomas Cook travellers cheques are still accepted at banks across the region. Keep a record of cheque numbers, and ask about fees and commissions before you cash them in.
Value-Added Tax (VAT)
Value-added tax (VAT), known as TVA (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée) in French-speaking countries, is levied in some South Pacific nations such as French Polynesia, New Caledonia, the Cook Islands, Tonga and Fiji. It’s added to the price of goods and services, including hotel and restaurant bills, and is usually included in the prices quoted.
Following are some generalised opening hours – time is flexible in the South Pacific! In many countries, everything closes on Sunday.
Banks 9.30am-3pm or 4pm Monday to Friday
Bars & Pubs 11am-midnight or later
Post Offices & Government Offices 9am-4pm Monday to Friday, from 7.30am in countries with French ties
Shops 9am-5pm Monday to Friday, to 1pm Saturday
As in all countries, a little politeness goes a long way: always ask before taking pictures of people, especially in ceremonial or religious circumstances.
Check out Lonely Planet’s Travel Photography guide for inspiration.
Postage costs vary from country to country, as does efficiency: the ‘slowest post’ award must go to Pitcairn Island – expect three months for letters either way (but the stamps are wonderful!).
It's more than a little outmoded these days, but major post offices do still provide poste-restante services. Ask people writing to you to print your name, underline your surname and mark the envelope ‘Poste Restante (General Delivery)’ with the name of the city and country. Bring your passport when you're collecting mail, and be prepared to pay a fee. If you can't locate your mail, check under your first name as well as your surname (or the name of your yacht!).
Most major Western holidays – New Year's Day, Easter, Christmas Day and Boxing Day – are observed in South Pacific countries.
Use global roaming or buy a local SIM card. Reception varies but is available even on remote islands.
These days you'll be better off with your own mobile (cell) phone with global-roaming functionality or a local SIM. But phonecards are used in various Pacific countries – even Pitcairn Island has its own phonecards. That said, public telephones can be hard to find (and if you do find one, it often won't be working). At a pinch, you can usually find a shop owner who will let you use their phone for a local call. Some top-end hotels, however, charge steeply for the privilege of using their phones.
To call abroad from the South Pacific, dial the international access code (IAC) for the country you're calling from (usually 00 in the South Pacific, but 05 in Fiji and 19 in Wallis & Futuna), then the international telephone code (ITC) for the country you are calling, the local area code (if there is one, usually sans the leading zero) and finally the number.
For example, you are in the Cook Islands (IAC 00) and you want to make a call to the USA (ITC 1), San Francisco (area code 212), number 123 4567, then you dial 00-1-212-123 4567. To call from Fiji (IAC 05) to Australia (ITC 61), Sydney (area code 02), number 1234 5678, then dial 05-61-2-1234 5678 (dropping the zero from Sydney’s area code).
There are no local area codes in countries of the South Pacific.
Most South Pacific islands don’t utilise daylight savings time, except for Fiji and Samoa. Double-check your airline tickets if you're winging in or out at the start or finish of daylight savings.
The International Date Line splits the South Pacific in half – running along the 180-degree longitude but detouring to the east to catch Tonga, Kiribati, Samoa and Tokelau in the same day – which makes time zones here complicated. Flying east across the International Date Line, you'll arrive at your destination before you left! Crossing from east to west, you'll lose a day.
In South Pacific urban areas, most toilets are sit-down Western style. In some remote areas and outer islands (Vanuatu, the Solomons), don’t expect flushing toilets – handbuilt long-drop toilets prevail, with BYO toilet paper. Public toilets can be few and far between, and are often closed for maintenance.
Online, the quality of tourist information varies from one South Pacific country to the next, but even the most remote island groups have websites these days (though these may not be up-to-date).
The umbrella intergovernmental organisation is the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (www.spto.org), fostering regional cooperation in developing and promoting tourism. The SPTO serves as a tourist office for a few countries, though it doesn’t offer whole a lot of advice for independent travellers.
On the ground, official visitor information centres swing between fairly professional outfits to erratically staffed shacks with dodgy maps and mildewy brochures: you'll soon know which you're dealing with once you walk in the door.
South Pacific countries generally have poor facilities for disabled travellers. Wheelchair users will find getting around a problem: footpaths (sidewalks) can be patchy or nonexistent, domestic planes have steps and narrow doors, ferries may not have ramp access... Some larger international resorts offer rooms with disabled access, but it’s not common.
That said, South Pacific cultures look after their elderly, disabled and infirm as integrated members of the community – there are no special schools or aged-care facilities. Islanders won’t simply look away if you need some help to get into a taxi or up some stairs – they’ll rally-up some helpers and pitch in.
Get in touch with your national support organisation before you travel to enquire about the countries you plan to visit.
Travel with Children
Best Regions for Kids
With family-oriented resorts on mellow beaches, interesting culture (Fijian and Indo-Fijian) and magical interior landscapes, Fiji is our top pick for families.
There's lots of roomy accommodation in Tonga, and plenty of things to keep kids entertained (caves, snorkels, boats, lagoons...). The food isn't spicy, and Tongans love kids!
Volcanoes and cannibal caves may lure you away from Vanuatu's idyllic coasts. European-tinged Port Vila is a very family-friendly capital.
- Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
Beyond the beach there's fruit smoothies aplenty, and activities from lagoon tours and snorkelling to gentle backroad cycling and exploring Rarotonga's reefs on a semi-submersible boat.
- New Caledonia
An aquarium, a cultural centre and cool critters (fruit bats!) – great fun when you need a break from the beach.
What to Pack
There are a few sweeping kiddie generalisations that can ease your South Pacific passage. One essential is sunscreen (expensive on many islands), plus insect repellent and rain gear. BYO kid-size snorkelling gear, too.
At flashy resorts there may be organised kids' activities as part of the deal. Some hotels and resorts have no-children policies; others let kids stay for free – check when you're booking.
Note that child-rearing is often a communal responsibility here – you might find your toddler on the hip of a motherly eight-year-old, or see your older kids absorbed into games with local children.
Babies & Toddlers
A folding pushchair is handy, despite scrappy (or non-existent) footpaths. Strap-on baby carriers are a better idea for hiking or exploring archaeological sites.
Public baby-change facilities are rare: bring a portable change mat and disinfectant handwash gel. Disposable nappies (diapers) and powdered milk (formula) are available from pharmacies and supermarkets in many large towns, but they can be expensive. Don't expect high-chairs anywhere beyond the fancy resorts.
A lightweight mosquito net to drape over your toddler's cot is also a good idea.
Help middle-sized kids get more out of their South Seas experience: pack binoculars to zoom in on wildlife, surfers etc; a camera to inject some fun into ‘boring’ grown-up sights and walks; and field guides to island flora and fauna ('Is that a red shining parrot or a kingfisher?').
Getting teenagers to attempt some local language is a sure-fire way to shake off sullenness: pick up Lonely Planet's South Pacific Phrasebook. A dogeared copy of Mutiny on the Bounty or the funny The Sex Lives of Cannibals will keep them in the here-and-now.
Pack teen-sized masks, snorkels and flippers if your 16-year-olds aren't as big as you are.
South Pacific for Kids
Few regions in the world are as family friendly as the South Pacific. With endless sunshine, boundless beaches and swimming and snorkelling on tap, there’s plenty to keep kids engaged. Family is profoundly important and children are cherished in island cultures – your kids can expect plenty of cheek-tweaking attention!
Diving, Snorkelling & Swimming Toddlers will be happy on a soft beach with a hermit crab to hassle. Anywhere with a shallow, sandy bottom is great for learning to swim, while seasoned swimmers can cruise the lagoons. Many dive centres offer introductory PADI courses for kids; see www.padi.com.
Wildlife-Watching Whale- and dolphin-watching is big business hereabouts; see Whale-Watching Ethics to help you make an informed decision on participation. There are also sea turtles and myriad birds to spy, plus saltwater crocodiles in the Solomons and Vanuatu. Fruit bats (flying foxes) hang around everywhere east of the Cook Islands; and the further east you travel, the more interesting the reptile life becomes.
Surfing It can be hard to rent a board on many islands, but some hotels keep them for guest use. Boogie boards are often sold in local shops; if you can, buy one and make a local kid’s year by leaving it with them when you leave! Hit the beach breaks with little kids; reef-breaking monsters are for experienced wave hounds only.
Hiking & Adventure Over-eights will love tropical island interiors, studded with waterfalls with icy pools, dark caves, lakes and – on Vanuatu, Tonga and American Samoa – active volcanoes!
Archaeology Many ancient sites in the South Pacific aren't cordoned-off: you can climb on almost anything, but apply common sense and be respectful.The surrounding jungles often hold other discoveries, like wild passionfruit and huge banyan trees.
Horse Riding & Cycling All-ages trail rides through hills and plantations is an option in the larger South Pacific countries. Bicycles can be rented on most islands; kid-sized bicycles are harder to find (check gears and brakes are working, too).
Most visiting kids will happily munch on South Pacific fish, fruit, chicken and coconut. Many urban eateries offer kid-pleasers (hamburgers, fried rice), while unfamiliar local foods are generally soft, un-spicy and inoffensive (taro, kumara, breadfruit). Baby supplies are available in most places...and when all else fails, there's ice cream!
It’s normal for whole families to party together here: teens are welcome at any sort of local dance or show. Nightclubs in places like Pape’ete and Suva also swarm with high-schoolers. Be warned, though – the booze flows (among other substances) and the vibe can sometimes be rather 'meat-market'.
- Fiji Swimming, baby turtles and mini-golf at Treasure Island Resort.
- Tonga Snorkelling and watching the surfers at Ha'atafu Beach.
- Cook Islands Snorkelling in the shallow marine reserve waters off Rarotonga's south coast.
- Samoa Bigger kids will adore staying in traditional open-air fale right on the beach.
- Fiji Sliding down rock chutes at Waitavala Water Slide or going nose-to-beak with rare birds at Kula Eco Park.
- Tonga Birdwatching and butterfly-spotting on jungle walks at ‘Ene’io Botanical Garden.
- Samoa Ogling the amazing saltwater sprays at the Alofaaga Blowholes and exploring the eerie lava fields of northern Savai’i.
Volunteering is a great way to get to know the South Pacific and have an adventure while doing something worthwhile. There are all sorts of volunteering organisations in operation here, some requiring long-term commitments and experience or tertiary qualifications in specific fields, others based around the notion of short-term working holidays and community projects.
For more information, contact the following:
- Australian Volunteers International (www.australianvolunteers.com)
- Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org)
- Madventurer (www.madventurer.com)
- Projects Abroad (www.projects-abroad.org)
- South Pacific Projects (www.southpacificprojects.org)
- UN Volunteers (www.unv.org)
- Vinaka Fiji (www.vinakafiji.com.fj)
- Voluntary Service Overseas (www.vso.org.uk)
- Volunteer Service Abroad (www.vsa.org.nz)
- World Wildlife Fund (www.panda.org)
See also Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World – an excellent resource for those interested in making a contribution to the South Pacific or elsewhere.
Generally speaking, it’s hard to get a work visa for South Pacific countries. For the low-down on working in a particular country, contact the relevant embassy, consulate or immigration office, or scan the websites.