The Local Customs in Tonga
Tonga is a unique country in the South Pacific with its own monarchy system and religion is deeply woven into the culture. With that, there are a few local customs in Tonga that you might not be used to. There are rules of Tonga etiquette particularly concerning clothing and activities on a Sunday. Learn what to do and what not to do when it comes to respecting the local customs in Tonga with this guide.
Before we begin this guide to the local customs of Tonga, be sure to also bookmark The Guide to the Tongan Culture for Travellers for deep dive into their traditions.
5 Quick Tips for Abiding by the Local Customs in Tonga
While we will go into much more detail in the local customs of Tonga in the guide below, here’s a quick overview of some of the most important ones.
- Cover your legs below the knee and cover shoulders in public
- Wear something smarter for church services, covering below the knee and shoulders and avoiding hats
- Swimwear should not be worn outside of resorts – Tongans swim at public beaches fully clothed
- It is illegal to go topless outside of resorts for both men and women
- It is prohibited to conduct business, do sports or chores on a Sunday.
What to Wear in Tonga
Tongans wear a conservative dress with cultural clothing wrapped around their waists, such as pandanus mats (ta’ovala) or women may also wear girdles (kiekie).
How to Dress in Public
For visitors, while it’s acceptable to wear just about whatever you want in tourist accommodation, be mindful of how you dress in public. Respectful dress is important to Tongans, so try to avoid wearing revealing clothing, especially in villages. Wearing all black means that you are mourning in the Tongan culture, so try to avoid wearing all black if this is not the case for you.
Swimwear in Tonga
Swimwear should be confined to your accommodation’s beach or swimming pool. Tongans swim fully-clothed so cover up swimwear with a T-shirt/rash vest and shorts when on public beaches (and especially when not swimming).
Clothes for Church
When going to a church service, both men and women must cover their knees and shoulders. It’s also respectful to wear more formal clothing, such as a shirt for men or a dress for women. You should not wear a hat in church.
Laws Against Dress in Tonga
It is illegal for both men and women to go topless in public. However, the law does not apply to tourist accommodation.
Sundays in Tonga
Much etiquette for respecting the local customs in Tonga revolves around the Sunday experience. Sunday is a day of rest in Tonga, where it’s illegal to do business transactions, to play sports/exercise and to do most chores.
This means that most of the country shuts down on a Sunday, with the exception of essential services like hospitals and bakeries, as well as very particular tourism businesses such as resorts, including their restaurants and activities. That’s why you find that some of Tongatapu’s outer island resorts put on more day trips to their resort on a Sunday.
If you are not staying in a resort or are outside of a tourist area, note that it is not acceptable to go swimming, do kayaking, do laundry, go running, etc. This also will mean that you won’t be able to buy food from stores, so prepare in advance. There are no public travel services operating on a Sunday.
Learn about some things to do on a Sunday in 5 Things to Do in Tonga on a Sunday.
Other Etiquette Rules for Tonga
While not fitting into a specific category, these are some other local customs and rules to keep in mind when visiting Tonga.
- Tongans can be more reserved than what’s experienced by tourists elsewhere in the Pacific, so it’s best to engage locals politely
- Displaying anger or frustration is bad practice in Tonga – remember to “keep face”
- Things run a little slow in Tonga, have patience and embrace Tonga Time
- It is not customary or expected to tip but is appreciated
- Haggling is a no-no
- Kava is usually reserved for men only, but kava served in tourist accommodation can be sampled by both men and women
- Don’t do drugs or deal drugs in Tonga
- When driving, drive on the left side of the road (see How to Drive in Tonga)
- When driving, give way to vehicles turning right
- The legal drinking age is 18 years old.