Start the new year first, in Kiribati
t receives fewer than 6,000 tourists each year, and one of them was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. The author of Treasure Island visited one of the 33 coral islands that comprise this archipelago in the 19th century. Even the coral reefs are not enough to make it into a fashionable paradise destination, despite it ticking all the boxes: white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, an exotic past, and an uncertain future.
Kiribati is a waning archipelago. “Our country is 99.99977 % water,” the tourism office asserts. A percentage that continues to grow. Its inhabitants are campaigning against climate change because they know their home is in danger. They refuse to give up and are pressing on, celebrating each year as if it were the last. And they do it before anyone: three hours before Sydney, and nearly a day before Los Angeles, with a 21-hour time difference. They have particularly fond memories of the start of the new millennium. Caroline Island, in the southern region, was renamed Millennium Island to celebrate this milestone.
A gift for Captain Cook
Christmas Island, Kiritimati in the local tongue, was so-named in 1777. The famous English explorer chose it when they landed on the atoll, on 25 December of that year. The first hotel on the island returned the favour centuries later when it was named Captain Cook Hotel.
In fact, curiosities about these islands are countless: it is the only country in the world located in the four hemispheres, and one of the most remote as well, lying practically in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. The closest inhabited area is Hawaii, 4,000km away. They have the largest protected marine area in the Pacific, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA). It covers eight atolls and two underwater reefs, and is the size of California. With more than 800 species of fauna, 12 underwater mountains and coral reefs that are “just as they were thousands of years ago”, it became the first place in Kiribati to be added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
With coral reefs intact and abundant marine life, the entire archipelago is ideal for scuba diving and snorkelling. Most of the schools and tour operators are based in the capital, Tarawa, on Christmas Island. Tropical fish, large mammals and, above all, colourful coral gardens await those who venture under the transparent waters surrounding the islands.
Surfing and fishing are other star activities. Fishing takes place almost exclusively on Christmas Island. Kiritimati, as the locals call it, is one of the best locations for fly fishing in the world, and for catching bonefish. As the tourism office underlines, “there is no such thing as a bad day fishing”. The biggest coral atoll in the world, with its 388 km2, is also the perfect spot for birdwatching.
Nature and water sports might hog the limelight, but a trip to Kiribati is not complete without spending time with the locals. They gather at the maneaba, the largest building in the town, built with coral blocks and coconut palm, and with a leaf-covered roof. There, they dance and tell stories. To fully enjoy their culture, the best time to go is in July, when the national independence celebrations take place.
Tourism is little developed, and accommodation is simple and minimally equipped. Kiribati is a destination for those seeking to enjoy the simpler things in life, for true travellers only. Do you want to be one of the 6,000 chosen ones?