I’ve not yet had the opportunity to go to the Pacific islands myself but my fellow data collector, Hugh, was there recently. Below he shares his experiences and impressions of the Republic of Kiribati. Best wishes, Mark.
My recent research trip around the Pacific took me to a country I have to admit I had not heard of before – Kiribati. My first reaction was to look on Google Maps to see where exactly it was located. This ended up being harder than I first expected since Kiribati consists of 33 atolls (coral reefs around a lagoon) spread over 3.5 million sq km! In fact, it’s the only country that spans all four hemispheres of the globe even though the actual land area is just 812 sq km – around the size of Hong Kong My destination among all this was the island of South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. It’s located within the country’s westernmost group of islands, the Gilbert Islands, named after the British explorer who sailed through them in the 18th century. Kiribati was a British protectorate until becoming fully independent in 1979.
Now, before I continue I should point out that while it’s quite likely you’re pronouncing the ‘ti’ of Kiribati as ‘tea’, the pronunciation of the country is, in fact, more like ‘Kiribas’ and it’s said to be the local pronunciation of Gilberts – good pub quiz facts for you!
Given the remoteness of Kiribati, it is hardly surprising that the country is consistently ranked among the least visited in the world. The World Tourism Organisation estimated that the annual number of visitors in 2013 was just 6,000. I was therefore quite surprised to find my Fiji Airways flight was full to capacity when departing in one of its twice weekly flights from Nadi (pronounced Nandi by the way, while we’re at it!).
Arriving at Bonriki International Airport there was the usual hustle and bustle typically encountered when entering an airport that is just not big enough to process a couple of hundred passengers in an orderly way. However, I got through without much commotion and began hunting around for my pre-arranged hotel pick-up. After, rather optimistically, looking for a board with my name on without success, I began to worry my driver had not turned up when I noticed two girls looking at me giggling. Finally one approached to ask if I was staying at Mary’s Motel, before running back to tell her friend that I was indeed her passenger. This was my first experience of the shy but friendly Kiribati manner that continued throughout my stay and I found it very refreshing – particularly after some of the locations I’ve been to in the past year!
As you fly in and view the island from above, the turquoise waters and white sandy beaches make it look like paradise. What isn’t as evident from the sky is the overcrowding on many parts of the island. South Tarawa is home to around 50,000 people: around half of the entire population of Kiribati. The majority live in close proximity to the main road which runs the entire length of the island from east to west. It was really quite a surprise to realise how the island, so idyllic in one area, was overflowing with rubbish just a short drive down the road.
While overcrowding is causing problems for the island, an even greater challenge lies ahead which puts the future of the island and its inhabitants in serious doubt. Well publicised in the press, Kiribati is expected to be one of the first victims of the rising sea levels associated with climate change. During my time there it quickly became apparent how vulnerable it is to the ocean: you are never more than a stone’s throw away from the water and the island is incredibly flat – the highest point is a mere two meters above sea level. While the country temporarily gained fame when Caroline Island, renamed Millennium Island, was widely regarded to be the first place to experience the 3rd Millennium, there are now serious concerns that the islands will not survive long enough to see in even the next century: Kiribati’s president, Anote Tong, predicts that the country will become uninhabitable within 30-60 years
There is no doubt surrounding the magnitude of the challenges which Kiribati faces, but what challenges face an expat sent there on assignment? What struck me hard was a feeling of isolation. I felt completely detached from the rest of civilisation. With very limited (and expensive) flights to and from the island, you’re a long way from home geographically and practically. An expat is also likely to miss the choice of restaurants and outlets for socialising they’re used to back home since these are very limited on the island. In terms of shopping, I was only able to locate around two-thirds of the items that make up ECA’s cost of living basket, and the choice for what was available was minimal. Walking into the very popular expatriate supermarkets, One Stop, I was horrified (in a professional sense!) to find the shelves almost completely empty. It turns out they get their shipments from the UK and these are only delivered every two months. They did have plenty of beer though!
Walking around the island, the attention you attract as a foreigner is constant reminder that this country rarely attracts visitors from overseas. The people are very warm and friendly and although they would stare at me constantly and often approached me, it was never the hassle you sometimes experience elsewhere. Despite its high population density, the island has a very peaceful and relaxing atmosphere. It was very hard to believe that this island was once a battleground where over 6,000 American, Japanese and Koreans died during World War II in the Battle of Tarawa, and beyond a Japanese defence canon and a discreet memorial there was little to indicate the event had ever happened.
Another demonstration of the friendliness of the Kiribati people (or I-Kiribati) occurred when I was in Bairiki, one of the largest towns on the island. I was looking into the sporting facilities available to expatriates, when a man asked me if I needed any assistance. We got talking and he invited me into his office for a drink. It transpired that he was Rota Onorio; the Secretary General for the Kiribati National Olympic Committee – I was delighted! He had recently travelled to the UK for the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Clearly very proud of his athletes and passionate about sport, it was evident that he was very frustrated at the lack of funding and equipment at his disposal. Nonetheless, Kiribati took a team of three athletes to the 2012 Olympics. Of those, weightlifter David Katoatau was the first I-Kiribati athlete to qualify for the Olympics on merit and he went on to win gold in the 2014 Commonwealth Games – Kiribati’s first ever Commonwealth Games medal! Mr Onorio told me he hoped that this will inspire the next generation to follow in his footsteps. Later that day I saw a group of teenagers taking part in a weightlifting competition in Bairiki square, so maybe the next star is just around the corner!
Hugh is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.