Earnings from tourism are higher than all exports combined, and a high proportion of the tourist dollar remains in Tonga because of the predominance of small, locally owned guesthouses and motels. Tonga is off the beaten track and is seldom overrun by tourists (Fiji gets 11 times as many visitors).
About 35,000 tourists a year visit Tonga, coming from New Zealand, the United States, Australia, Germany, and Fiji, in that order. Nearly half are overseas Tongans visiting friends and relatives. The millions of dollars the government has wasted subsidizing various failed airlines and similar projects must be subtracted from tourism earnings.
There has been much talk of developing Vava'u as Tonga's main international tourism center, and the European Union has provided funds to upgrade Vava'u's airport. Yet almost all visitors are still channeled through less interesting Tongatapu.
Vava'u has been a base for one of the South Pacific's most important yacht charter operations for many years, and since 1995, whale-watching has been developed. Scuba diving, kayaking, fishing, and cultural tourism are all readily available at Vava'u. The inefficient official infrastructure has prevented Tonga from taking off as a major tourist destination.