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Tonga 2019 Crime & Safety Report

East Asia & Pacific > Tonga; East Asia & Pacific > Tonga > Nuku alofa

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Tonga at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The U.S. Embassy in Fiji does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The American Citizen Services unit (ACS) cannot recommend a particular individual or establishment, and assumes no responsibility for the quality of services provided.

Review OSAC’s Tonga-specific page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Crime Threats

There is moderate risk from crime in Nuku’alofa. Although Tonga has a low crime rate, burglaries and property theft occur. Street robberies, pickpocketing, and opportunistic thefts occur both during the day and at night, in public and from hotels. 

Though rare, sexual assaults against foreigners have occurred, including on public beaches. Criminals have not singled out foreigners; they are subject to the same threat as all other persons in Tonga.

The downtown area of Tongatapu experiences a higher incidence of crime than other areas. Take appropriate security precautions and do not walk alone after dark or in isolated areas at any time. 

Cybersecurity Issues

Tonga has made some advances in its cybersecurity roadmap. Tonga participated in the inaugural Pacific Cyber Security Operational Network (PaCSON) event in 2018 funded by the Australian government to enhance cyber resilience in the region. However, Tonga has not reached a level of wide implementation. Exercise normal security precautions when using public computers.

Other Areas of Concern

The pa’anga (TOP) is Tonga’s national currency. ATMs are accessible in Tongatapu, Neiafu, and Pangai. Exercise caution, as credit card fraud and the use of card skimming devices do occur. Fua’amotu International Airport (TBU) is capable of exchanging U.S. dollars for TOP, and has a working ATM.

Tonga’s customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Tonga of items such as firearms, explosives, motor vehicles, eggs, and certain types of alcohol.

Transportation-Safety Situation

For more information, review OSAC’s Report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Traffic moves on the left. Tonga's roads can be potholed due to heavy rains. Vehicular traffic often shares the country's roadways with pedestrians and livestock. Most roads in Nuku’alofa are paved, whereas most roads in outlying areas are unpaved.  In the city, driving after dark requires heightened attentiveness; avoid driving outside the city after dark except in emergency or exceptional circumstances. No roadside assistance is available. There are no stop lights in the country; drivers must stop at all roundabouts and allow vehicles on the right side to proceed.

For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s Report, Driving Overseas: Best Practices.

Public Transportation Conditions

Buses and taxis are the only public transport available in Tonga. Bicycles must register with the Police Office before use on public roads.

Various car rental services are available in Nuku’alofa. Before renting a car, every driver must purchase a Tongan driver’s license from the Police Traffic Department in Nuku’alofa, after presenting a passport and valid international or national license.

There is an adequate bus network in Nuku’alofa, although Tonga has not built bus stops or posted timetables. Passengers must flag down buses they wish to ride.

Taxis are in poor condition; identify them by their license plate beginning with the letter T. Taxis do not have meters; agree on a price before departing for your destination. Consider alternative modes of transportation on Sunday, as taxi fares double due to a local law forbidding taxis from driving anywhere besides churches on Sunday. Do not allow a taxi driver to pick up other passengers while en route, and do not enter a taxi that already has other passengers inside. Use a reputable taxi service instead of local buses.  

Due to the distance between islands, light air is the favored mode of transport, over ferries. In 2010, the International Civil Aviation Organization audited Tonga’s Civil Aviation Authority and found that its level of implementation of safety oversight was well below the global average. A MA60 aircraft plies several internal flight itineraries, but is not certified for use in the European Union or the U.S.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Fua’amotu International Airport (TBU) is the major airport in Tonga, with direct flights from Suva, Auckland, and Sydney. There have been some reports of items stolen from checked baggage. Passengers should maintain awareness of their belongings at all times, use Transportation Security Administration (TSA) approved locks, and retrieve checked bags as soon as possible.

No international or domestic flights arrive or depart on Sundays. Flight schedules change frequently and are subject to change, sometimes with only a few hours’ notice.

Terrorism Threat

There is minimal risk from terrorism in Nuku’alofa.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest 

There is minimal risk from political violence in Nuku’alofa. Although protests are exceedingly rare, avoid demonstrations and large crowds. While violent political demonstrations have occurred in the past, they are unlikely to occur in the near future. 

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Tonga is an island nation subject to many natural disasters, including cyclones, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and landslides. Although the probability of a major earthquake or tsunami occurring during a particular trip is remote, small earthquakes occur regularly due to its proximity to the Pacific Plate boundary.

The South Pacific cyclone season runs between November and April. However, storms may occur at any time during the year. Cyclone activity frequently causes flooding along the coastline, often creating potholes and causing disruption to the infrastructure and essential services. In 2018, Cyclone Gita hit Tonga directly; the country is still recovering. Public services (e.g. water, electricity, transportation) are unlikely to be available for a significant period following a powerful cyclone.

Critical Infrastructure

Many buildings in Tonga do not have fire alarms or fire suppression equipment in close proximity, or at all. Fire alarms at tourist hotels are sporadic, with some evacuation plans in place. For more information on fire safety in hotels, review OSAC’s Report, Fire Safety Abroad.

Economic Concerns

Tonga is not a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the WTO, or any organization protecting intellectual property rights. As a result, the frequency of pirated items has not declined and stores may sell pirated copies of movies, television shows, music, counterfeit clothing, jewelry, and other luxury goods.

Personal Identity Concerns

Tonga is a very religious, conservative country; men and women alike typically dress covering their knees and elbows. Tongans are generally polite and respectful towards women, as the culture is partly matriarchal. Despite the outlawing of marital rape in 2013, domestic violence and discrimination remains a concern in the country.

Under Tonga law, “sodomy with another person” is a crime, with a maximum penalty of ten years’ imprisonment. There are no reports of prosecutions under this provision for consensual sexual conduct between adults, regardless of the gender of the parties. There are also no reports of violence against persons based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

While in the Kingdom of Tonga, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation to be very different from what they find in the United States. There are no legally mandated provisions for services for persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities. There also are no programs to ensure access to communications and information for persons with disabilities. The Tonga Red Cross Society operates a school for children with disabilities and conducts occasional home visits. There is no specific government agency with responsibility for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.

Tonga is a homogeneous country predominantly composed of 97% ethnic-Tongans. There have been no reports of internal ethnic conflict. Non-Tongan visitors will stand out as foreign, but report little if any bias or criminal targeting based on ethnicity.

Drug-related Crimes

Authorities strictly enforce drug possession laws; penalties for possession of any amount include fines and possible jail time.

Tonga Police launched a Drug Enforcement Taskforce in 2018, and recently signed an agreement to combat the transnational illicit trade of drugs. In February 2019, Tonga along with Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji formed the Serious and Organized Crime Pacific Taskforce, which targets organized crime groups. There have been no reports of organized crime affecting visitors since the taskforce creation.

Kidnapping Threat

There is minimal risk from kidnapping in Nuku’alofa. In 2013, authorities detained five men in Nuku’alofa after they kidnapped a father and son for ransom. This has proven an isolated incident.

Police Response

The ability of local police to assist victims of crime is limited due to a lack of response vehicles, radios, and other essential equipment, especially on outlying islands.

Carry a copy of your passport on your person, as police often ask for identification of all parties involved in any type of incident. Report all incidents of crime to the local police authorities. Remain calm and polite when interacting with the police to avoid misunderstandings.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

Police generally treat arrested or otherwise detained foreigners well. U.S. citizens in police detention should request to speak to a U.S. Embassy representative in Fiji. Be aware that the assistance the Embassy can provide is limited to making sure U.S. citizens are not treated differently from local detainees, and providing them with a list of local attorneys.

Crime Victim Assistance

Tonga Police work with various NGOs such as the Women and Children Crisis Centre (WCCC) Tonga (telephone: 0800444) to provide shelter and counseling for abused women, girls, and boys under the age of 14. WCCC also has partner organizations, including the Tonga Life Line (operated by the Free Wesleyan Church), the Salvation Army, the Police Domestic Violence Unit, Ministry of Health, Tonga National Youth Congress, Ma’a Fanine mo e Famili, and Tonga Leiti Association. All offer counseling and rehabilitation programs.

For emergencies requiring police, fire emergency, or medical assistance in Nuku’alofa, Neiafu, Pangai, Angaha, dial 999. For emergencies in Lapaha, dial 927. For emergencies in Nukunuku, dial 928.

For administrative calls to local fire and police posts, dial:

Nuku’alofa       Fire: (676)23-144             Police: (676) 37-211

Neiafu            Fire: (676) 867-0699        Police: (676) 70-234

Medical Emergencies

Vaiola Hospital in Nuku’alofa is the main hospital in Tonga. The islands of Vava’u, Ha’apai and ‘Eua also have hospitals. The hospital in Eua offers very limited medical services compared to those of Vava’u and Ha’apai. Compared to other small island nations, Tonga has generally high levels of access to healthcare due to significant support from Australia and New Zealand.

The hospital in Nuku’alofa offers most general medical services such as pharmacy, dental, surgical, obstetric, and gynecologic services. A medical evacuation (medevac) to Guam or Australia can still be very expensive and severely limited by the lack of flights out of Tonga. Carry adequate supplies of any needed prescription medicines, along with copies of prescriptions, the generic name of the drugs, and a supply of preferred over-the-counter medications due to Tonga’s reliance on supplies from New Zealand and Australia. For more information, refer to OSAC’s Report, Traveling with Medications.

Emergency response is limited due to the space between islands, infrequent flights and ferries, and road conditions in the wake of Cyclone Gita. Individuals requiring an ambulance in Nuku’alofa should call 999 or Vaiola Hospital (+676 23-200). Refer to the emergency phone numbers above for all other regions. Rural areas have satellite clinics, but will require evacuation assistance from the main hospital for further medical care, especially on islands in the Ha’apai and Vava’u groups, where healthcare services remains inadequate.

No hyperbaric chamber is available to treat diving-related injuries in Tonga. Medical evacuation to the nearest chamber is expensive.

Bring copies of immunization records for all travelers. Update immunizations prior to arrival, including Typhoid, Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B. Doctors and hospitals expect immediate cash payment for health services.

Public hospitals provide approximately 89% of healthcare services in Tonga, with 6% made up by health centers. Approximately 5% of health services in Tonga are private, and more rudimentary than public services.

Tonga is a malaria- and rabies-free country. Dengue fever is more prevalent in Tonga than Zika and Chikungunya virus. All these three viruses are in Tonga, and transmitted by the same type of mosquito.

Cooked local food is safe, but bottled water is preferable to drinking from a tap.   

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

For a list of available medical facilities, refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.

Available Air Ambulance Services

Vaiola Hospital works frequently with international evacuation services.

Insurance Guidance

While the government affords Tongan citizens with free healthcare, international visitors are required to pay for services. Medical care in Tonga is deficient in many areas, and employees frequently require medevac to other countries for care.

Patients with medical emergencies may require medevac to Guam, Australia, or the U.S., likely costing thousands of dollars and considered only if the patient has adequate insurance or pays up front. In some cases, a medevac to Australia or New Zealand can require a medical visa. The U.S. Embassy recommends all travelers have travel and medical insurance. Note that you usually must purchase medevac insurance separately from other policies.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Tonga.

OSAC Country Council Information

There is no OSAC Country Council in Tonga. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s East Asia Pacific team with any questions.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy Suva, 158 Princes Rd, Tamavua, Suva, Fiji

Embassy Contact Numbers

Telephone: + (679) 331-4466

Emergency: + (679) 772-8049; for after-hours emergencies involving U.S. citizens, dial the main switchboard at (679) 331-4466 and ask for the duty officer.

Website: http://suva.usembassy.gov/    

Virtual Presence Post Tonga: https://fj.usembassy.gov/embassy/vpp-kingdom-tonga/

The RSO in Fiji is also responsible for Tonga, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, Nauru, and French Polynesia.

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizens traveling to Tonga should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.

Additional Resources

Tonga Country Information Sheet