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Kiribati launches tourism campaign

Published: 7:15AM Monday April 26, 2010 Source: AAP

  • Kiribati (Source: ONE News)
    Kiribati - Source: ONE News

Kiribati? It's probably the least-known, and one of the least visited, Pacific islands nations.
  
Uniquely, its islands lie both sides of both the Equator and the International Date line.
  
And you say it in its original Gilbertese language, Kiri-bass.
  
Today, the former Gilbert Islands, which became independent Kiribati in 1979, has launched a campaign to attract more tourists than last year's 5,000 or so.
  
The target is at least 8,000 by 2014.
  
Recently, Kiribati's Director of Tourism Tarataake Teannaki and Australian adviser Danial (Danial) Rochford, working through Ausaid, paid Australia a promotional visit during which they went to the Brisbane Tinnie and Tackle Show spreading the word about the "fabulous fishing" in the islands - as well as surfing and cultural attractions.
  
They want you to enjoy experiencing an island lifestyle as it was around the Pacific before tour packages with luxury resorts with swimming pools hit many archipelagos further south.
  
Kiribati's best claim to fame came when its main island of Tarawa was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds between United States marines and Japanese troops in November 1943 during World War II.
  
After four explosive days the Americans prevailed, but at a loss of 1,677 Marine and Navy personnel and 2,286 wounded; Japanese dead totalled 4,713 with only a handful surviving to surrender.
  
Today, Tarawa is at peace but, large guns, other rusted relics and signs of battle remain as reminders of the violent past there and on neighbouring Betio, site of the Japanese headquarters, and on Butaritari and Abemama atolls.
  
Guided tours of the battle sites are available.
  
Apart from World War II buffs, Kiribati should appeal to anyone who'd simply like to get away from well-trodden tourist trails and explore some beautiful unspoiled islands.
  
"A visit to Kiribati is for those of adventurous spirit ... who are looking for a different side of the Pacific experience," says Kiribati Tourism.
  
"We're for travellers, not tourists.
  
"You won't see any fluffy towels and swim-up bars here, but if you're prepared to leave the comforts of home behind and go with it, you might get more than you bargained for on a visit to Kiribati."
 
Australians are made to feel at home: Kiribati's currency is the Australian dollar and English is widely spoken as well as Gilbertese.
  
The Gilberts of Britain's Gilbert and Ellice Island Protectorate were named for an English sea captain who sighted them in 1788.
  
When independence came, the Ellice Islands to the south became independent Tuvalu.
  
Today's I-Kiribati people continue to live off their land and sea resources, catching and eating fish, using coconut trees for furniture and canoes, their leaves for shelter and weaving and the nuts for food and drink.
  
Exports include copra, coconuts, seaweed, shark fins, small tropical fish and salt from a desalinisation plant.
  
A world-respected school for seamen turns out graduates now manning ships all over the world.
  
On the social scene, visitors to Kiribati should enjoy traditional and exuberant singing and dancing.
  
But they should be wary of the local coconut toddy, a potent liquid made from fermented coconut sap - a warning given from hazy memories of a personal experience a few years back.
  
Accommodation is available at hotels, guest-houses and fishing lodges - modestly-furnished but clean - and you may also home-stay in a traditional "biwa" open-sided cottage.
  
Australia's far-flung island neighbours are not flung much further than Kiribati.
  
The main island and capital, Tarawa is just above the equator and 4,834km north of Sydney - by comparison, Suva in Fiji is 3,215km northwest of Australia's largest city.
  
Around 90% of the 120,000 I-Kiribati live in and around Tarawa, a string of causeway-linked islets with a population density nearing that of Hong Kong.
  
Most of the others are in the eastern Line Group and just 40 in the southern Phoenix Group.
  
In Tarawa, the Parliament is on Bairiki islet, the most World War II relics on Betio islet and on the international airport on Bonriki.
  
In total, Kiribati comprises 33 coral atolls plus the phosphate island of Banaba with a total land area of 811 square kilometres.
  
Amazingly, its territory includes a 3.5 million square-kilometre area of the Pacific, on both sides of the Equator.
  
"Our country is 99.99977% ocean," says Kiribati Tourism - a percentage that could eventually increase with global warming on the flat-lying atolls, a major concern for the government.
  
Kiribati has a Christmas Island of its own Far East, but it bears no resemblance to the Australian territory of the same name in the Indian Ocean, now a temporary home for detained boat people smuggled from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
  
This Christmas Island, named Kiritimati in Gilbertese, was named by Captain James Cook, who arrived there on Christmas Eve in 1777 during his third and last (and fatal) Pacific voyage.
  
At 640 square kilometres,  Kiritimati is claimed to be the world's largest coral atoll in area - although you may get an argument about this from such islands as Niue northeast of Tonga, Lifou in New Caledonia, Rangiroa in French Polynesia, Ontong Java in the Solomons or Kwajalein in the Marshalls.
  
But there's no argument about the quality of its surfing waves and of its "world-class" saltwater fly-fishing, fighting bone-fish and game-fishing.
  
Bone-fish are best deep-fried, we were told, a process which makes the fish's brittle bones crumble and the meal extra-tasty.
  
For surfers, swells emanating from both sides of the Equator are consistently good year-round, with (so far) no crowding.
  
One magical 5km-long Kiritimati stretch has 24 breaks of which 16 are described as "user-friendly" with soft-sand bottoms, while the others are over rough coral and are recommended for experienced riders only.
  
There are also some great diving sites; beachgoers enjoy attractive sands and lagoons and bird-watchers can spot up to 35 species, among them the petrel, noddy, booby, frigatebird and a native reed-warbler with the delightful name of bokikokiko.
  
A visit to Kiritimati means you can also see London, Paris and Poland all in one day - all are names of villages on the islands, although Paris is now in ruins.
  
Geographically, Kiribati is also on both sides of the International Date Line, but in 1995 its leaders bent it so that all the nation's widely-dispersed citizens could share the same day.
  
Previously, people in Tarawa on GMT plus 12 hours, were 22 hours ahead of those in the Line Group some 3,200km to the east, across the Date Line and almost a whole day behind.
  
The bend in the Date Line in the area is not always recognised by map-makers.
  
The Line Group, including the fishermen's paradise of Kiritimati Island, is now on GMT plus 14 hours, two hours ahead of the rest of the country.
  
It's the furthest world forward time-zone, allowing its 6,000 people and visitors to be the first to greet the New Year at midnight each December 31, their clocks being two hours ahead of those in Fiji and New Zealand.
  
Another of the Line Group's eight atolls is Fanning (Tabuaeran in Gilbertese) where board-riders from around the world are gradually discovering what was previously a hidden treasure-trove for surfing.
  
Readers with long memories may recall that the Line Islands were the base for high-altitude nuclear tests in the late 1950s, first by the British and later by the Americans.
  
Some military men and islanders reportedly suffered radiation sickness at the time, but the islands have long been completely radiation-free.
  
Abemama is notable also for having been a tiny kingdom within the islands before they became a British protectorate in 1892.
  
King Binoka in those days ruled with an iron fist, refused to admit white men to his island and kept a harem of wives.
  
But in 1889 he allowed in Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, a tuberculosis sufferer who stayed on Abemama with his wife, stepson and Chinese cook for two months during his Pacific voyage while seeking a warm and friendly island on which to settle in his declining years.
  
The two became friends, and Stevenson wrote about Binoka in his book, In the South Seas.
  
(The author later made his home in western Samoa, where he died aged 44 in 1894.)
  
The other main islands in Kiribati are the Phoenix Group of eight, plus Banaba, otherwise known as Ocean Island, from which phosphate deposits were mined between 1900 and 1979 by both the British Phosphate Commission and by the Japanese occupation forces in World War II.
  
With about 90 per cent of Banaba's surface dug up and little phosphate remaining, the British in late 1946 transferred 713 Banabans and about 300 Gilbertese some 3,200km south to the Fiji island of Rabi as a new home.
  
In 2008, the Kiribati government declared 410,500 square kilometres around the Phoenix Group a marine protected area - the largest of its kind in the world.
  
The move was aimed at preserving the eight atolls and two submerged coral systems, also the abundant marine and bird life, while banning commercial fishing there.