Being in the adventure travel industry, I’m always looking to get as far off the beaten track as possible and I end up on my fair share of Odysseys. And it was with this pioneering spirit that I started to research the 10 least visited countries on earth.
Despite thinking of myself as a bit of a travel guru, I was shocked by the list. In travel circles you always hear about places like North Korea and Turkmenistan being closed off to the world, and there are those countries perennially embroiled in war that you’d expect no one to go to. But in fact the 10 least visited throws up quite a few curveballs.
Of course places like Libya and Somalia do make the list, but what threw me were tropical paradises like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu (the third least visited) and of course the least visited country in the world, the Republic of Nauru. I immediately started planning a trip.
The history of Nauru: from invasions to failed musicals
Aside from the fact it controversially hosts refugees on behalf of Australia, there is a decent chance that most people would not have heard of Nauru, but it actually has an interesting, if not somewhat bizarre, history.
Originally populated by Micronesians and Polynesians 3000 odd years ago, they eventually developed into twelve tribes, who are all represented on the flag of Nauru, even though some have died out.
During the colonial years, ships would periodically stop at Nauru, but none would take too much interest in the rock in the middle of the ocean, and it served simply as a trading base. In the 1870s, the islanders began trading food for guns and palm wine. Traditionally guns and wine don’t mix well and what was to follow was a brutal 10-year civil war which killed 500 people, or a third of the population. In 1888 it was annexed by Germany and in 1900 phosphates were discovered on the island.
Phosphates are formed essentially by thousands of years of birds’ crap being dropped in the same place, and said phosphates were to prove pivotal in the future of the country.
Following the outbreak of World War I, the island was captured by Australia and then became jointly administered by the Australians, New Zealand and Great Britain, a situation that would remain until independence, bar a brief but brutal occupation by the Japanese Empire.
The phosphate years
Yet it was the next 20 years that were really to set up the Nauru of today when the colonial powers started mining to such extensive levels that much of the island remained uninhabitable and certainly of no use economically. The Australians even offered to rehouse the locals to Curtis Island off Queensland, but Nauru had other ideas – independence.
In 1968 Nauru became independent and in 1970 purchased the rights to mine on the island through the Nauru Phosphate Corporation, and briefly at least became by far the richest country on the planet by GDP, alas this was not to last.
A sovereign wealth fund was set up, but after the depletion of phosphate reserves and a series of bad investments, which included bankrolling “Leonardo The Musical”, by 2005 the wealth fund had completely dried up. Nauru was heading for bankruptcy and needed money. Enter the Australians.
From 2001 until the present day Nauru has housed refugees in the country, as well as setting up detention centres on behalf of Australia, meaning an influx of workers and money from Australia. Although the decision has been, understandably, extremely controversial, financially it saved the nation.
So, what it is like to actually visit Nauru as a tourist?
Generally, fewer than 100 tourists visit Nauru every year, so there is not exactly an infrastructure on the island. Technically there are three hotels to choose from, with most tourists staying at the Hotel Menen. The best way to describe the Menen would be to compare it to the hotels offered in the old Soviet Union by Intourist, or indeed the ones you get in North Korea today. State run, state subsidised and with nothing really working like it should. Throw in a bit of island time and you’ll be ready not to expect the Hilton.
And what is there to do on Nauru?
Would you believe it, not all that much. Despite being a tropical island slap bang in the middle of the Pacific, there are no beaches where you can swim in the ocean, and in fact only one bay where it is even possible to swim.
Aside from that, there are a few World War II era historical sites and exactly four bars on the island. But who can say they have done a pub crawl around a whole country in one day? I know I can…..
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