Licensing Greed in Paradise – Vote with your Keel

I am in Tonga. I love Tonga. I love it so much that I’m willing to pay one hundred and twenty times more than what I initially paid in 2000 to clear in. Alas, we’ve just discovered that’s not enough—not nearly enough! 

Cruising clearance costs are skyrocketing in the Pacific—and Tonga’s recent increases lead the way. 

We first cleared into Tonga eighteen years ago and stayed six months. It cost us $4. The young man who cleared us in had no shoes. We had a great time. On our second circumnavigation, the same friendly man was there—only this time he wore shoes and charged us $40 for the season. We thought the ten-fold increase was kinda funny—after all, the Tongan government doesn’t provide one single man-made resource for visiting cruising yachts—no dinghy dock, no place to get water or dispose of garbage; no recycling; no nothing. 

But the fee was so low—why even think about it? 

Tonga is a poor country. It has limited resources. So, naturally, other nearby wealthier nations chipped in to help Tonga out—for instance, New Zealand installed fifty or a hundred moorings to protect the marine environment. (These mooring are, of course, in all the best, shallowest, sandy anchoring spots.)

On our third circumnavigation, the same smiling guy cleared us in. Now he wore shoes, had a fancy car, and lived in an air-conditioned office—and ultimately (all governmental costs included) charged us $380.   

We weren’t so amused this time. In fact, we considered never returning. But the Tongan people are still, mostly, friendly. So we decided to return on our fourth circumnavigation 

for our sixth extended visit. 

The costs of ‘official fees’ while cruising Tonga are now almost limitless—depending on the greed of dozens or even hundreds of people (a few deputized, many not) randomly demanding money from cruising sailors. 

For what we once paid $4 for in 2000, we now pay $500+ for in 2018—and that’s only if we totally avoid such popular anchorages as Port Maurelle and Nuku ($6/night to anchor) and never pick up a (mandatory?) mooring at $14/night. 

That’s right—many local villages are now able to set their own arbitrary fees for anchoring or picking up a mooring—or for other things like going to the beach, bringing your dinghy ashore, swimming, or diving. 

As near as we could discover, there is no limit to what a village can charge for—nor any limit on the amount. When I asked the central government exactly what the charges were—they politely suggested that I asked the man rowing out in the canoe. 

What happened to those free moorings that New Zealand put in to protect the environment? Well, local residents (some Tongan, some not) ‘captured’ these mooring and started charging for them in the name of ‘mooring maintenance’. 

The reality is that some of the moorings are being maintained and some of them are not maintained at all—but each and every one is now being charged for at a daily rate. (When a paying yacht breaks loose and goes ashore—bad luck, dude!)

Now the Tongans of the outer islands aren’t stupid. They noticed the entrance fees for yachts go from $4 to $40 to $400 dollars—while they got zero, zip, and less. Thus they strongly demanded a piece of the action—and the King of Tonga said, in essence, “Okay, charge whatever you want—but only in your location.” 

These areas are called SMA—Special Management Areas. 

This didn’t seem so bad at first—after all, given a choice of Anchorage A that charges and Anchorage B that doesn’t—why not let the cruiser’s pocket book decide?

Alas, it isn’t that easy. First off, let’s say a duly-appointed village collector with a duly-issued badge (we’ve never seen one nor would officials tell us what these badges look like) comes out to collect an anchoring fee from six vessels—four of which are within the (uncharted) chargeable zone and two that aren’t. But, of course, it is perfectly understandable that he might not know (or care) exactly where the demarcation is—and just charge all the vessels the same fee. 

After all, money means nothing to yachties, right?

Now, let’s say that yachts anchored on the north side of a harbor off a village are legally required to pay for a mooring or for the privilege to anchor—but the other village on the south side is not legally so designated. Do the southside villagers just say, well, ‘dem’s de breaks!’ No. They, too, now charge. Why not? And what do they charge? Whatever the market will bear—or the guy in the canoe makes up. 

In essence, it is total, arbitrary chaos—with no due process.  But some villages are already making $300 a night, and it will only get worse for the cruiser. 

Nowhere is there a price list of what can be charged for or by whom. We asked. Repeatedly. 

Noonsite.com, a reputable source of accurate information, states that while only certain villages were legally ‘allowed’ to charge, that many other villages ‘expected’ an equal payment as well. 

Obviously, as more and more people start charging higher prices for more and more things—well, Tongans and cruising sailors are bound to get adversarial. 

Tongans have never been at odds with cruisers. We’ve always loved and helped each other. That is why we cruisers have sung the praises of Tonga hospitality for the last century. (Side note: during our visit, we gave $100US to various charitable organizations and (ironically) donated two books that were immediately auctioned off for $200 to raise money to install more moorings off the villages.)

Please allow me to repeat—the Tongans are wonderful, friendly people but they really believe that ‘money doesn’t matter’ to people on boats. 

Here’s the bottom line—we spent one month attempting to figure out what fees could be legally charged in what areas and for what privileges—and were unable to. We then ID’d ourselves as international marine press—and strongly inquired again. No answer. The only thing for sure is that someone can charge you nearly anything in SMA areas. 

Of course, Tonga is a sovereign nation and has every right to charge its marine visitors anything it desires. We applaud its efforts to preserve its marine environment—but we also condemn all attempts at using the guise of ‘environmental protection’ to haphazardly charge random and arbitrary fees for nothing. 

Of course, every boater can vote with his keel. And, sadly, the Tongans will reap what they sow. 

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com