Guest Author - Laura Hartney
There are three primary island groups that make up the tropical islands of the area called Oceania in the Pacific Ocean - Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. This article lists highlights of the islands that form the island group called Polynesia.
Geographically Polynesia is generally defined as a roughly triangular area with the Hawaiian Islands at the north point, Easter Island as the southeast tip and New Zealand as the southwest tip. Over 1000 islands with a land area totaling about 115K sq. mi. are scattered across over 70 million square miles of the North and South Pacific Ocean.
In order of size, the island groups/countries that make up Polynesia are:
New Zealand – 103,000 sq. mi.; population 4.4 million
An independent island nation made up of two main islands, that are home to over 98% of the population, plus dozens of very small islands, only 8 or 9 of which have very small populations on them. As a tourist destination, New Zealand is best known for its lushly forested mountains, dramatic coastlines and beautiful landscapes as well as the indigenous Maori culture. Popular tourist activities include geysers, hot springs and thermal activity from the volcanoes; wine tours; whale watching tours; backpacking and hiking.
Hawaiian Islands – 6500 sq. mi.; population 1.3 million
The Hawaiian Islands archipelago consists of over 150 named islands, atolls, and reefs; but most are tiny. There are eight “main” islands in the U.S. state of Hawaii, only seven of which are populated, and of those only the top four have extensive tourism facilities. As a tourist destination, Hawaii is best known for its gorgeous beaches and surfing opportunities. Popular tourist activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, whale watching, luaus, hiking, and volcano viewing.
French Polynesia – 1600 sq. mi.; population 267K
French Polynesia is a self-governing “overseas collectivity” of France that consists of five island groups – the 15 Marquesas Islands, the 14 Society Islands, the 78 islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago, the 14 Gambier Islands, and the 7 Austral Islands – scattered over nearly one million square miles of the South Pacific. Best known tourist destinations within French Polynesia include Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea. Popular tourist activities in French Polynesia include swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, learning about the culture, ATV tours, and hiking.
Samoa – 1100 sq. mi.; population 180K
Samoa is an independent island nation made up of 2 main islands, Upolu and Savaii, plus another eight small islets. Popular tourist activities in Samoa include swimming at To Sua (a natural giant swimming hole), visiting waterfalls, and swimming or snorkeling on the gorgeous beaches.
Tonga – 290 sq. mi. ; population 104K
Officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga, it is a sovereign state that encompasses 171 islands, only 48 of which are inhabited. Tourism facilities are still somewhat limited but they are expanding on a few islands. Popular tourist activities include swimming in the underground pool at Anahulu Cave; snorkeling and scuba diving; kayaking; and whale watching.
Wallis and Futuna – 100 sq. mi.; population 15K
Officially named the Territory of the Wallis and Futuna Islands, they are a territory of France. About two thirds of the population lives on Wallis and the other one third on Futuna, with almost nobody living on any of the 20 or so smaller islands and islets. These islands continue to resist mass tourism and are actually somewhat expensive to visit compared to other South Pacific island destinations. If you do go, popular activities include swimming and snorkeling, visiting the crater lakes, hiking, learning about the cultures, and photography.
Niue – 100 sq. mi.; population 1400
Nieu is a self-governing territory of New Zealand and is one of the world’s largest coral atolls. Given the small size there are not expansive tourism facilities, but they exist. Popular tourist activities include snorkeling, scuba diving, whale watching, and extensive caving (both underwater and above water).
Cook Islands – 90 sq. mi.; population 20K
The Cook Islands are a self-governing territory of New Zealand comprised of 15 islands divided into two groups – the Southern Islands consisting of 9 volcanic islands and the Northern Islands consisting of 6 atolls. Although very small, tourism is the primary industry on the Cook Islands. Popular tourist activities include scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, 4WD tours, and cave tours.
American Samoa – 76 sq. mi.; population 55K
American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the U.S. (and the southernmost part of the U.S.). It consists of five volcanic islands - Tutuila being the largest and most populated, Aunu’u, plus the three Manu’a Islands (Ofu, Olosega and Tau) - and two coral atolls – privately owned Swains Island and Rose Atoll, which is an uninhabited wildlife refuge. Popular tourist activities in American Samoa include visiting the American Samoa National Park, hiking, visiting native villages, and exploring the beaches and coral reefs.
Easter Island – 60 sq. mi., population 3500
Easter Island is a territory of Chile and is probably the most remote inhabited island in the world – nearly 1000 miles from the nearest land. Although it is not a luxury tour destination, tourism is its primary source of income. Most tourists come to see the moai, the gigantic stone statues of heads and torsos carved by ancient island inhabitants. But tourists also can enjoy tropical beaches, hiking and scenic views.
Rotuma – 16 sq mi.; population 2000
Politically a Fijian dependency, this Polynesian island currently has no tourism facilities. The only visitors are extended family members and friends, as the Rotumans generally wish to prevent any touristic exploitation of their island.
Tuvalu – 10 sq. mi.; population 10K
As the fourth smallest country in the world, Tuvalu is a sovereign state that encompasses four reef islands and five atolls. Tourism facilities in Tuvalu are very minimal with only a small number of lodges and guest houses. Popular tourist activities include learning about the Tuvaluan culture, swimming, snorkeling, and photography.
Midway Islands – 6 sq. mi.; population 60
Technically Midway is an atoll made up of several low sandy islands in the northwestern part of the Hawaiian Archipelago, but it is not part of the state of Hawaii. Instead it is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the U.S. and is managed as a National Wildlife Refuge. You cannot stay on Midway Atoll but you can make day visits (by charter plane from Honolulu or by boat) if you get a permit months in advance. Tourist activities include snorkeling, wildlife viewing (millions of seabirds, green sea turtles, and Hawaiian monk seals), and visiting the World War II historical sites.
Tokelau – 4 sq. mi.; population 1400
Tokelau is a tiny non-self-governing territory of New Zealand comprised of three coral atolls, and since there is no airstrip the only way to get here is by boat, usually from Samoa which takes over 20 hours. There are only a couple of hotels/guest houses available and the only tourist activities are swimming, snorkeling, photography and learning about the local culture.
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