Tonga starts long road back to normality after devastating Cyclone Harold, Covid-19

Last week, the 'Friendly Islands' got an unfriendly visitor as Tropical Cyclone Harold, a category five storm, brought heavy rain, strong winds and a king tide.

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The Kingdom’s vital tourism sector has taken an especially bad hit. Source: Tagata Pasifika

The cyclone wreaked a path of destruction through the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and also Tonga with everything in its path destroyed.

As locals in The Kingdom continue their recovery, president of the Tonga Tourism Association Saia Moehau says they're mindful of the other emergency that's kept the country in lockdown for nearly a month.

Covid-19 is also looming over Tonga and Mr Moehau told TVNZ1’s Tagata Pasifika the tourism industry especially is feeling it.

“Right now, I would say we are in ground zero,” Mr Moehau told Tagata Pasifika.

“Nothing moves since our borders are closed or even before our borders closed.

“By the time the news of the coronavirus spread around the world and when it started to spread in the industrialised countries it was already affecting us - bookings already started to cancel and our cruise ships, our government also shut them down so it’s a big loss for the industry.”

Mr Moehau said it’s a huge blow to Tonga’s economy as tourism is the second-largest source of hard currency earnings following remittances from Tongans abroad.

“We’ve always been resilient over the years but this is one exception,” he said.

“This one, this is harder than any other problems in the past we've had - big hurricanes, but only a few days later, we had planes start coming in, but this pandemic is kind of different.”

Right now, the tourism sector is relying on a multi-million-dollar government stimulus package to survive and so far it’s been allocated $5 million to stay afloat, but it’s too late for some local businesses such as domestic airline Real Tonga who employs around 150 staff.

Real Tonga Airlines CEO Tevita Palu told Tagata Pasifika the company will have to downsize.

“We’re going through a major restructure including lay off and including redundant some of our most of majority of our staff.”

All daily flights between the six largest islands have been reduced to one flight only as monthly revenue has dropped by 75 per cent.

“That’s our core business going at the moment and at the same time we are looking for work, we’re out there looking for opportunities and working closely with our staff even though we’re going through this redundancy processes.

“We will support all of them all the way.”

Elsewhere, all schools resumed this week after a two-week break.

Minister for Education and Training, Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni, said thankfully most schools escaped cyclone damage.

“The instruction we sent out to all the schools is we need to respect the social distancing,” Mr Sovaleni said.

“I know it’s a challenge, given the size of the classroom and student numbers and all that, but we are trying to provide instruction such as not having any assembly, having more spaces between the students and so forth.”

There are currently no confirmed Covid-19 cases in Tonga and the Ministry of Education has reprioritised their budget to fund proper sanitation facilities in schools.

“All schools have their own wash basins and running water and so forth but what we are doing now because of the clear need to actually provide better access running water and wash basins and so forth is actually putting in more wash basins,” Mr Sovaleni said.

“For example, in one school there is around about 1,000 students so we are putting in an extra 20 water basins there so that they have better access.”

As one part of life in Tonga returns to some normality, Mr Moehau said the future is still uncertain for others.

“To the long run, I think it will probably take us a year, a year and a half to recover after because people are so cautious to leave until they feel so safe not only in their destination but also in the plane they’re coming in.

“They want to make sure they are safe.”

But Mr Palu is confident they will manage in the meantime.

“I think we don’t expect to see a new or a different or same normal as we have been in the past - I think it will be better it will be a lot better so we do look forward to moving forward from here.”