UPDATE February 2024: looks like I will be going to Nauru this summer ... if I can pass the hurdles that Nauru immigration put in place for visas. If I manage it, I'll of course report back extensively and add more subchapters, as required.
A small Micronesian island in the Pacific
that was once one of the richest nations on earth, with the second highest per capita GDP in the world. The source of those riches: huge phosphate deposits. But now it's all as good as gone. The economy collapsed and the interior of the island is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And precisely therein lies the main dark attraction …
A possibly even darker aspect dominates any (rare) reporting about Nauru: namely the Australian detention centres for refugees (which they were allowed to set in return for some revenue ... making Nauru something like a client state of Australia
). These were closed then reopened and closed again a few times. At the time of writing they are closed but kept in place "just in case" ... so I was told.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Nauru was a peaceful little island paradise until European trade brought contact with the outside world – and with it firearms, alcohol and trouble. The island became one of the few colonies of Germany
towards the end of the 19th century. Around that time the phosphate deposits were discovered and mining proper began in 1906. After World War One
, Germany lost the colony and it became a joint British
and New Zealand
territory, later under sole Australian control.
For a few years during WWII
, the island was occupied by imperial Japan
, but liberated by the Australian Navy in September 1945.
The Australians subsequently extended the phosphate mining, as it was needed as fertilizer back home. In 1968 Nauru was granted complete independence – and thus became one of the smallest nations on earth (only a bit over eight square miles in area!). But with the phosphate mining now under state control, the country grew incredibly rich.
But the source of wealth was not infinite. Or at least not renewable at a speed that would benefit anyone. The phosphate deposits are the leftovers of thousands of millennia of seabirds' nesting on the island and leaving behind "guano" (dried bird shit to you and me). It takes more than a few droppings to build up a phosphate layer up to 50 feet (15m) thick. So it was foreseeable that the resource would at some point be exhausted.
Meanwhile, however, the islanders enjoyed their riches (and, to this day, no taxes!). What investment and planning into post-mining economic options there was, was squandered through corruption and mismanagement. At least, the island successfully sued Australia
for compensation for the environmental damage left behind by the phosphate mining ... while they themselves happily carried on with it, thus aggravating the damage even further.
But by the late 1990s, crisis point was reached and in 2000 all mining stopped. Hopes that more mining might be possible have largely proven wrong, though small-scale attempts are apparently still made … desperate measures …
Predictably, the economy has drastically contracted, unemployment has soared, to possibly as much as 90%(!), and social and health problems are rife. Nauru has one of the highest diabetes rates anywhere – mainly due to an unbalanced diet; and the health care system is not exactly adequate either. The once record per capita GDP has slumped to 2500 USD (now ranking 135th in the world). You can't help but sensing a certain element of Easter Island Paradigm
remains the strongest foreign tie, and apart from paying a yearly sum for mining damages, for a while also paid a lease for a refugee camp that the Aussie government set up there (nice and far from the homeland – it was called the "Pacific Solution" … eerily close to "final …"). So for a time Nauru also had a disproportionately high number of security guards and Afghan refugees amongst their foreign population … enter another dark element!!! However, a change in government in Australia also meant an end to the off-shore detention centre, so that source of income for Nauru is gone too.
UPDATE 2015: it's come back - the "Pacific Solution" of just dumping refugees on Nauru, that is. (All it took was another change in government in Australia back to conservatives, and bingo!). And this time around it's made matters far worse still. Suicides, crime, desperation reign supreme. Now is really not a good time for tourists to visit this sad speck in the Ocean. If you thought that the fate of going from one-time richest nation to one of the poorest could not be made any worse, think again. It just has.
UPDATE 2024: ... and then it was stopped again. Currently the detention centres are kept functional, "just in case", but are unoccupied.
The outlook for the future remains bleak to say the least. Repeated political turmoil doesn't help. The phosphate won't come back and other sources of income are scarce, temporary Aussie refugee camps and fees for fishing rights notwithstanding. So the country now remains dependent on foreign aid. For a while the island even became more or less isolated from the rest of the world, when the only airline serving Nauru went bust. With the help of Taiwanese aid it was resurrected under the optimistic (though not 100% accurate) name "Our Airline" … UPDATE: meanwhile it's been re-named simply "Nauru Airlines" and operates regularly, even with an enlarged fleet of Boing 737s ... see below.
Despite the Australian detention centre for refugees, the airline's website tries to portray Nauru as a worthy tourism destination (without mentioning the detention camps in a single word). How much that is wishful thinking or actual realiy, I don't know. But it does seem possible to get there (at a price). It's still one of the most exotic destinations on my travel wish list. Maybe one day ...
UPDATE: looks like that day will come in August 2024 ... watch this space ...
What there is to see: The main attraction for the dark tourist is obviously the barren inland, the wasteland left behind by the phosphate mining – about 80% of Nauru's territory. Parts of it are being reclaimed by plants, others feature up to 50 feet high limestone pinnacles left after the phosphate was stripped away from the land.
Other than that there are a few remains left from the brief period of Japanese
occupation in WWII
(such as old gun positions and bunkers).
remote ... extremely remote!!! In the middle of the Pacific Ocean
, just south of the equator, ca. 200 miles (320 km) from the nearest islands (of the Kiribati group of islands) and about 2000 miles (3200 km) from Australia
Access and costs: difficult and expensive.
saying that Nauru is difficult to get to is actually putting it mildly. There is currently only the island's own "Nauru Airline" that provides access by air – departing from Brisbane, Australia
, usually twice weekly. This is the only viable route for practically all visitors (though on and off there have also been flights to a collection of other islands, including Tarawa and Honiara). Predictably, fares aren't cheap.
For accommodation, there are a couple of hotels, including a new recommended one called Ewa Lodeg. Especially marketed used to be the Menen Hotel, but currently that's undergoing refurbishment. It's theoretically well appointed, including a restaurant, and they may be able to help arrange activities – including walks in the desolate ex-phosphate mine area. Walking is a necessity anyway – unless you manage to hire a car – there is no official public transport. Menen Hotel can arrange an airport pick-up at least. (By the way: resources like electricity and drinking water are scarce too!)
A big obstacle is also the bureaucracy involved in getting a visa ... I'm currently battling with that. Fingers crossed it'll work out!
BUT: there is now a specialist tour operator in Australia offering a 4-day package tour of Nauru; and that's the one I'm trying to get on. More details to follow ...
A day or two would actually suffice to see the bizarre inland and the couple of WWII
remnants; but the airline's current schedule makes it necessary to stay three nights, Friday to Monday.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
none. You'd have to fly back to Australia
to get within reach of anything else (in that country and beyond).
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
as Nauru is a tropical island of coral origin, there's no shortage of beaches along the green coastal ring (around the barren inland). Scuba diving and deep-sea fishing are other tourist offerings. But resources are very limited. Make no mistake: Nauru is not a Pacific
holiday paradise! But at least that also means no tourist crowds …