Tongan business experts say up to 50 per cent of the country’s tourism and hospitality sector might not return after the recent volcano eruption, tsunami and Covid-19 lockdown.

At least 35 tourism and hospitality businesses were either partially or totally destroyed by the tsunami and eruption on 15 January, according to Tourism Tonga.

This included a number of businesses in the western district of Tongatapu – the “resort hub” of the main island of Tonga.

Most of the resorts on the island were significantly damaged, with the most popular, Vakaloa Resort, completely wiped off the map without a single structure standing.

According to Daniel Fale, the chairman of the Ports Authority of Tonga, the two-week lockdown from a recent Covid-19 wave may have been even more devastating than the tsunami and eruption.

“Maybe half of the tourism businesses won’t return. I think they’ve been hit too frequently, and this last one was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was especially brutal,” Fale said.

sraeli Government humanitarian supplies wait to be processed after being unloaded from a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft at Fua’amotu international airport in Tonga as part of Operation Tonga Assist 2022. Photo: LACW Emma Schwenke/ ADF

“With not being allowed to travel, even with the local market that was probably doing a small portion of business with these tourist and beach resorts, they can’t get anybody now as they’re instructed to stay home.”

Fale believed the sector could have easily bounced back when the borders reopened, if infrastructure was still in place.

Elizabeth Sullivan owns one of the fortunate few beachfront lodges to withstand the disaster.

She said she had already seen two couples who owned tourism businesses throw in the towel, but was determined to fight on.

“Some challenges have come my way. I’ll try and achieve what I can, but other people have given up and others still will go by the wayside with earning no income,” Sullivan, a former New Zealand resident, said.

Fourteen businesses were totally destroyed by the disaster. Sullivan said those owners could face up to five years before they were earning revenue again.

Sam Vea from the Tonga Chamber of Commerce agreed with Fale’s projection of mass tourism closures, but said it was still early days.

Most resorts, according to Fale, were still recovering from hurricanes Gita in 2018 and Harold in 2020, which both reached category five.

Vea said choosing to rebuild and go again for some businesses was a “huge investment”.

Australian Army soldiers from 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment clear debris on Atata Island during Operation Tonga Assist 2022. Photo: LSIS David Cox/ADF

“Some [business owners] have just left the country, they just didn’t know what to do after their business was wiped out.

“Dealing with domestic tourism is fine, but we have issues with paying back loans and just maintaining the business itself. With the tsunami and lockdown, it’s just made things worse.”

The next steps for the country’s economy would come in the form of upgrading its transport and logistics capacities.

Fale confirmed the Asia Development Bank would be working with Tonga’s Ministry of Finance in March to begin a project upgrading the Queen Salote International Wharf, whilst another project with Japan International Cooperation Agency was in the planning stages to extend Fua’amotu International Airport.

Fale also expected the slowdown of goods being imported into the country to pick up again, with Tonga’s two-week lockdown being loosened on Monday.