Halfway between the land of Aloha and the land down under, lies the tiny but intriguing nation of Tuvalu. This country is a cluster of nine small coral islands with a composite land area of 26 square kilometers, making Tuvalu the fourth-smallest country on the planet. To put things into perspective, one can walk the entire length of this country in two hours. So if you ever wanted to cross trekking across a country off your bucket list, now’s your chance! With an average of 2000 yearly visitors, Tuvalu has been declared the least visited country on the planet. The only way in and out of this island is a passenger plane that lands on the exposed strip of the Funafuti Airport once a week. And as soon as it takes off, the landing strip transforms into a playground for children and a rendezvous spot for adults.
Despite being tiny, the story of this island has, and continues to be, a fascinating one.
The Eight Standing Together
While the exact date remains unknown, the earliest settlers of Tuvalu - the Samoans - arrived sometime around the 14th century. Very soon, the existence of this palm tree-crusted paradise of an atoll caught wind. The Samoans were shortly joined by the residents of Tonga, Cook Islands, Rotuma, and the Gilbert Islands. The islands were collectively named Tuvalu, meaning “eight standing together”. The ninth island remained uninhabited until the arrival of the Europeans in the 1820s.
The Europeans first became aware of Tuvalu’s existence when Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira caught a glimpse of the Nui island of Tuvalu in the 16th century.
With the dawn of the 19th century, European traders and whalers started visiting and setting shop in Tuvalu, making a more-than-hefty living exploiting the islands’ natural resources. Fueled by greed, these cut-throat visitors from the fast-paced new world reduced Tuvalu into nothing but a source of revenue.
Their inconsideration soon devolved into cruelty. During the 1860s, the Tuvaluans were subjected to blackbirding i.e. the kidnapping of islanders for forced labor, by Peruvian slave traders. Around the same time, the London Missionary Society and the Protestant Congregationalists got busy evangelizing the residents. By the 1920s, the entire population of Tuvalu would find their god in a church. A land once calm and tranquil was plunged into the throes of despair, its people exploited, its culture eroded, and its name rechristened after an influential businessman - Ellice Islands.
This exploitation would continue to last for decades before this county would finally be able to reclaim its freedom and name. Despite now having nine islands, the newly formed government of this island decided to revert to its original name. Little did they know that with this little onomatological decision, they had bought a winning ticket for a lottery nobody knew existed.
Striking Digital Oil
In 1994 when the internet was starting to take off, American computer scientist Jon Postle took it upon himself to assign internet domains to different countries, referencing the ISO 3166 country codes. The US got assigned the domain name “.us”, Canada got “.cn” and so on. These domain names would later be considered to be a country’s national resource, and in the case of Tuvalu, more so than others. The domain name “.tv”, which was a metonymy for televised entertainment, was assigned to the technologically unaware nation of Tuvalu.
The potential and value of this domain was quickly recognized by internet companies. However, it was not as quickly by the technologically primitive government of Tuvalu. The government and residents of Tuvalu were unfamiliar with the concept of the internet. So once the offers started pouring in, naturally the Luddite nation was overwhelmed. The country ended up striking a deal with American company Verisign for an annual sum of $2 million, for doing practically nothing. While this sounded like a great deal in the beginning, soon the government of Tuvalu got wise to the actual earning potential of their domain name, and the $2 million began to seem rather meager, or in the words of Tuvalu’s finance minister, “peanuts”. It was only in 2011 that Tuvalu was able to renegotiate their deal with Verisign to get an annual sum of $5 million for their domain name.
Currently, 1/12th of Tuvalu’s GNI comes from licensing its domain name. With the rise in popularity of online streaming channels like Twitch, the value of this domain has skyrocketed. Tuvalu has struck a new deal with the American web hosting company Godaddy.coma. So the Luddite nation, that doesn’t even accept credit cards, is now looking forward to collecting an annual paycheck of $10 million for providing internet services. After spending decades on rocky waters, sailing has finally gotten smooth for Tuvalu.
But for how long?
“Tuvalu is Sinking”
The inflow of extra cash gave Tuvalu’s economy a much-needed boost. According to Tuvalu’s finance minister, this deal “....enables the government to provide essential services to its people through providing schooling and education for the kids, providing medical services to our people, and also in terms of improving the basic economic infrastructure and service delivery to our communities.” Tuvalu was also able to pay the $1 million fee required to join the U.N, all thanks to its web domain.
Even though Tuvalu is on its way to financial prosperity, the island nation still continues to be in deep water, in fact, it continues to go deeper (intended). The country has faced the brunt of global warming. The water level of the surrounding ocean continues to rise steadily and scarily. “Tuvalu is sinking” has become a national chant amongst the citizens. Scientists predict that the islands will become inhabitable in the next 50 years, the residents contest that it will be sooner.
The tiny nation of Tuvalu has surmounted the unsurmountable before and earned its place on the map, here’s to hoping it stays there for a little while longer.