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Cultural Heritage in the South Pacific

What’s special about Cultural Heritage in the South Pacific?

The South Pacific offers a wide rage of unique cultural heritage experiences and each destination differs from the other in wonderful ways.  There is much to offer the cultural heritage tourist in search of an authentic experience of a different way of life.  Cultural heritage tourists will find much to attract them from the welcoming people and unspoilt tribal culture to the wonderful natural heritage and traditional customs, in an area that for many, is on the other side of the world.  From a historical perspective, the South Pacific played an important part in World War II and there are sites both above ground and underwater which continue to attract cultural heritage tourists and divers year after year.

Country Insights

American Samoa

The Samoan culture is one of the oldest in Polynesia and it is believed the first people on the Samoan islands arrived from southwest Asia around 3,000 years ago.  Capital City Pago Pago has a unique character and its market is a good place to view life from the perspective of the Fa’a Samoa (Samoan Way).  A visit to a traditional American Samoa village is a highlight on the island of Tula, while a two-day cruise takes in the culture of some of the outer islands and includes an overnight stay in a traditional village.

Cook Islands 

The first residents of the Cook Islands arrived during the Great Polynesian migration in 800 AD in their huge hulled-Kaka’s canoes; over time, the land was divided between six tribes and today, Cook Islanders still consider themselves members of one of them.  European influence began in the late 16th century and Captain Cook, after whom the islands are named, arrived at the Manuae Atoll in 1773.  However, Rarotonga’s official discovery is credited to Captain Philip Goodenough who landed in 1814 while looking for sandalwood.

There are a number of local villages, historical buildings, churches and ancient sites to visit on the main islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu, and a Island Night experience is a ‘must see’ for cultural visitors, blending a umukai (feast) with traditional dancing.  Island Nights can be enjoyed at a number of locations including the Highlands Paradise Culture Centre and Te Varu Nui Cultural Village.

More information about the Cook Islands’ historical culture can also be found at the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre which houses recently discovered historical evidence of the settlement of the Tinomana Ariki Tribe.  Ancient marae, or ceremonial meeting places, are the places where tribal feasts and offerings were once held, such as Te Pou Toru Marae in Rarotonga and Te-Poaki-O-Rae on Aitutaki.  The ancient marae on Motutapu is thought to be over 1,000 years old.

The Cook Islanders are famous for singing and dancing and there are a number of festivals which have cultural and historical significance such as the Te Maeva Nui Celebrations each July to commemorate self-governance; Dancer of the Year Competitions; the Vaka Eiva and Tiare Festivals; and Ui Ariki Day.  Traditional arts and crafts remain in use throughout the islands including woven pandanus mats, fans and baskets and woodcarving is still widely practiced.  The phallic male god Tangaroa is a popular subject.

Federated States of Micronesia

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) is a group of 607 islands divided into the four states of Yap, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Chuuk, and each state has its own unique cultural characteristics, traditions and customs.   The islands were originally settled by travellers from Asia and Polynesia, and the islands still retain some evidence of later settlers from Europe from the 16th century and Japan in the early 20th century.

Historical sites of note include the ruins of Nan Madol on 92 of Pohnpei’s islands, in the form of enormous basalt ‘logs’ constructed into walls and buildings.  Nan Madol was the capital during the Saudeleur Dynasty, built between 500 and 1,500 AD and included the residence and tombs of the royal family and visitors, with separate islands for funerals and storage.  On Kosrae, the Lelu Ruins are considered one of the wonders of the Pacific and were once an ancient complex of the rulers of the whole Micronesia region while the Menke Ruins are believed to be the oldest ruins in FSM, the temple of the Goddess of Breadfruit, Sinlaku.

Traditional culture is prevalent throughout FSM including the traditional canoe which binds the sea to the land; the Annual Canoe Festival is a three-day event held each year in Yap.  All the states continue to use traditional skills for tasks such as building, weaving, rope-making, and for handicrafts including woven bags and carvings.  Traditional dancing is common throughout the islands, performed whenever there is a feast or special occasion such as the marriage of a chief.


Long before Captain William Bligh first sailed through the islands of Fiji in the 17th century, the islands were inhabited by migrating travellers from South East Asia from around 1,000 BC.  Fiji has a rich cultural heritage that is comprised of a number of diverse elements that represent the way of life of the indigenous Fijian people and much of the traditional culture remains intact.  Many Fijians live in small villages and bures, traditional Fijian houses.

The two major cities on Viti Levu are Nadi and Suva; Fiji’s capital Suva offers a mixture of colonial era architecture and modern skyscrapers and the country’s cultural history can be explored through guided tours of several attractions including the Fiji Museum, the Fijian Handicraft Centre, the Moslem Mosque and the Hindu Temple.  Nadi’s colourful marketplace features yaqona stalls, a traditional crop the roots of which are used to produce kava, a popular drink throughout the South Pacific, and a wealth of local cultural stands.  Trips to Fijian villages are a must in order to experience the rich culture of the country.

Throughout Fiji there are numerous opportunities to visit traditional Fijian villages where visitors enjoy welcoming ceremonies, and the Arts Village Cultural Centre features a reconstructed traditional Fijian village built of thatch and other local materials, and also demonstrates other old-time Fijian skills such as fire-walking.  Ancient Fijian burial grounds can be seen at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park and Tavuni Hill Fort is the best example of a traditional Fijian fort, standing on top of a hill near Sigatoka.

Highlights of the Fijian cultural calendar are the Hibiscus Festival in Suva in August, the Sugar Festival in Lautoka in July or September, the Bula Festival in Nadi in July, and Back to Levuka Festival hosted each October.

French Polynesia

Tahiti is comprised of five island groups of archipelagos and 118 islands, officially known as French Polynesia and today French influence continues to be strong although 75% of the population is Polynesian.  Tahitians maintain their heritage and traditions of their Maohi ancestors where javelin throwing was the ‘sport of the gods’, surf riding was favoured by kings and Aito strongmen competed in outrigger canoe races and stone lifting as a show of strength.  Music, dance and handicrafts are important elements of Tahitian culture and ‘tattoos’ (a word that originated in French Polynesia) have long been considered signs of beauty.

The annual Heiva I Tahiti Festival, the ‘Celebration of Life’, held in in Papeete has been the more important event in Tahiti for over a century, and Tahitians from many islands come together to display their crafts, compete in ancient sporting events and recreate traditional and elaborate dance performances.  Tahiti is home to a large number of open-air sanctuaries called marae, large, sacred stone structures akin to temples and once the centre of power in ancient Polynesia.  Canoes also play an important part in Tahiti’s culture, and is honoured in colourful races and festivals such the Hawaiki Nui Va’a, an international Outrigger Canoe Race from the Huahine to Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora Bora.  More than 100 teams from canoeing countries all over the world participate in this gruelling open-ocean race each November.


The culture of Kiribati is complex and diverse and one that is greatly preserved by the isolation that comes with being located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Missionaries first arrived during the 1850s and since then Christianity has been an integral part of the Kiribati culture.  Customs and culture throughout the 33 islands are strongly influenced by the sea and the low lying coastal environment, and the many festivals and events in Kiribati boasts a heritage of almost 2,000 years.

The National Day celebrations are hosted each year on 12th July and feature a colourful parade, the Miss Kiribati pageant, traditional dance club competitions, outrigger sailing canoe racing, game fishing, and a variety of sports tournaments.  As a predominantly Christian nation, Christmas and Easter are also keenly celebrated by the Islanders.  The Cultural Museum, or Te Umanibong  on Tawara displays a range of artefacts and other items of cultural and historic significance.

Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands is one of the only four atoll nations in the world, made up of 29 coral atolls and five single islands, spread over almost one million square miles, one of the largest zones in the Pacific.  Over the last 2,000 years, the Marshallese have developed, refined and perfected a number of unique skills and technologies which illustrate their adaptation to oceanic and atoll life, specifically through canoe building and navigational skills.

Ancient Marshallese navigators learned to ‘see’ islands by feeling the waves beneath them and used ‘stick charts’ to record the patterns of the stars, waves, currents and wind patterns to gather navigational knowledge, passing on these techniques through the generations.  Canoe construction skills have also been developed over thousands of years and canoes, or wa, which range from small rowing canoes to huge high-speed voyaging canoes, are revered throughout the Pacific for their advanced technical refinements.  At the Waan Aelon in Majol Canoe House canoe builders can been seen hard at work and offer lagoon cruises aboard traditional canoes.

Marshallese tradition and history can be explored at the Alele Musuem which features authentic tools and artefacts.  The Islands were occupied by the Japanese during World War II and were the location of fierce fighting.  Many monuments, relics and war wrecks remain including a large number of land-based sites such as the Peace Park Memorial monument, constructed by the Japanese.  The Typhoon Monument commemorates the victims of a rare typhoon which devastated the islands in 1918.  Majuro is the best place in which to find hand-made, natural and original Marshallese crafts such as mats, hats, model canoes, stick charts and jewellery.


Nauru is one of the world’s smallest countries and is a single, phosphate island rising 61 metres about sea level.  Owing to its extreme isolation, Nauru remained free from European influence for longer than other South Pacific neighbours and was given the name ‘Pleasant Island’ in 1798 by its earliest visitors.  The Nauruan people descend from Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian ancestry and are welcoming and hospitable to the few travellers who arrive on the island.

All visitors will experience first-hand local life at a relaxed pace, and local arts and crafts are available throughout the island, hand-made by local artisans.  Nauru’s main hotel, Meneng Hotel operates a number of tours including a trip to the phosphate mines and to see relics from World War II.  Angam Day falls on on 26 October each year and celebrates the date the country’s population reached 1,500, the number deemed to be the minimum number necessary for survival.

New Caledonia

New Caledonia is the third largest island in the Pacific after Papua New Guinea and New Zealand and was named ‘Caledonia’ by British navigator James Cook who noted a similarity between its mountainous terrain and his native Scotland, formally known as Caledonia.  French is the common language in New Caledonia but there are 28 dialectal languages in the archipelago, and the key principle of tribal culture is that the land belongs to everyone with the law of covenants governing sharing.  Wood carving is especially prevalent throughout the islands and take many forms such as totem poles, masks, carved doorjambs and door posts, often representations of humans with stylised bodies and expressive faces.

Capital city Noumea features multiple architectural heritage styles including the first wooden colonial houses that coexist with Art Deco houses of the 1930s.  New Caledonia was also a formal penal colony and many remnants of the prison remain and guides provide tours of sites including the Galleys of Nouville, Fort Teremba and Prony Village, where prisoners cut wood for the construction of ‘Port de France’, the old name for Noumea.


Niue is one of the smallest countries on earth and the largest raised coral island in the world.  Discovered in 1774 by James Cook, the island was originally named ‘Savage Island’ as locals refused to allow him to land.  However, missionaries established Christianity in 1846 and today Niue has a free association with New Zealand.

The island boast several annual village festivals which provide a memorable experience of dance, food, sport and traditional arts.  Scheduling is irregular but is provided by the locally produced events calendar and Visitors’ Information Centre.  Generally, a large ‘umu’, or earth oven, is prepared by the villages, and pigs and chicken are cooked alongside root vegetables and other local delicacies such as game, fish and fruit.  Niuean women are known for the artistry and skills and there are a wealth of local craft items for visitors to take home.  The coast also features a number of traditional canoe-landing spots, including Opaahi Landing where Captain Cook made his unsuccessful attempt to come ashore.


Since Palau first came into contact with Europeans at the end of the 18th century, it has been subject to various influences from other nations including England, Spain and the Japanese during World War II, before obtaining a Free Association with the United States of America.  While adapting to an international economy, Palauans identify strongly with their traditional culture and a number of traditional ceremonies continue to be performed today such as birthing and first house ceremonies.

Like many South Pacific nations, Palauan culture is strongly linked to the sea, and families’ duty remains to harvest fish, and men develop a close relationship with Palau’s waters and are knowledgeable about the currents, phases of the moon and behaviour of the fish they seek to catch.  Many sites of cultural or historical importance remain intact and the Etpison Museum showcases a range of Palauan and Micronesia artefacts and history.  Other cultural museums include the Belau National Museum and the Peleliu World War II Museum which commemorates the Battle of Peleliu, site of one of the Pacific’s bloodiest battles.

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is home to the largest intact rainforest outside the Amazon and has incredibly varied flora, fauna and landscape.  In addition, the country has an extremely diverse culture with 800 different languages and a 1,000 local cultures whereby architecture, dialect and dress varies from village to village.  Local communities regularly perform a myriad of elaborate rituals involving feasts, marriages and initiation rites, and cultural heritage is celebrated at annual Sing Sing shows such as the Hiri Moale in Port Moresby every September.  The cultural events calendar features a wide number of fascinating shows including The Mount Hagen Show in October, the Goroka Show in September and the Mask Festival in July, many of which attract an international audience.

A number of tour operators provide tours to local villages in the highlands and coastal regions so visitors can experience first hand the hospitality, stories and lifestyles of the indigenous Papua New Guinea people.  Highlights of such trips include basket making, traditional bride price ceremonies, shell moneymaking, yam harvesting, ceremonial dancing and scarification (tattoos) for manhood.  PNG was also the location of some key battles during World War II and today many war relics remain scattered throughout the country, and there are many tours available to land-based sites.

City tours around PNG’s key cities and towns take in a wealth of cultural and historical sites including the Kokoda Track near Port Moresby, a key battlefield site during World War II and today an important pilgrimage destination for visitors.  A small town on the outskirts of Rabaul, Kokopo is home to the famous fire dance and other historical monuments.


Samoa is a traditional society governed by Fa’a Samoa, meaning ‘Samoan Way’ where family is all-important and respect of one’s elders is strictly adhered to, derived from a distinctive Polynesian culture that is more than 3,000 years old.  Traditional Samoan dance, or siva, is an important part of Samoan culture and a key element in a Fiafia Night (cultural show).  Shows include graceful siva displays which tell a story with gentle movements of the hands and feet, the fast actions of the fa’ataupati (slap dance) and siva afi (fire knife dance), which is usually the highlight of the evening.

Samoa has two major islandsSavai’I and Upolu, where the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson lived during the last years of his life.  Apia, the nation’s capital, is home to a number of cultural attractions including the Robert Louis Stevenson Musueum, sacred burial grounds at Mulin’u and the Papase’ea Sliding Rocks.  The Falemata’aga Museum of Samoa displays information about the culture, history and environment of Samoa and the Pacific.  On Savai’I can be found the largest ancient structure in Polynesia.

Solomon Islands

With evidence that the Solomon Islands were settled between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, the islands’ culture today is a combination of the three major South Pacific cultures of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.  The islands saw some of the fiercest fighting during World War II and there are many battle sites and war relics throughout the country.

Solomon Islanders have a rich cultural heritage with age-old customs (kastoms) allegedly handed down by ancestral spirits from one generation to another and which vary between cultural group.  The Solomon Islanders display a wide range of variety in their arts including ebony hardwood carvings, basketry with intricate patterns and the famous shell jewellery.  Each year there are a number of cultural events such as the Annual Trade and Cultural Show which showcases the different cultures of the Solomon Islands and held in July in the nation’s capital, Honiara.  In May the Vatateke Festival of the Sea is held in Gizo province; a highlight is the race of Tomoko war canoes.

Timor Leste

Timor Leste has a rich culture developed over many centuries and is referred to by some as the ‘cultural funnel of the east’ owing to the many different ethnic influences which have contributed to the island’s development.  Following independence achieved relatively recently from Indonesia in 1999, the country has begun to develop its tourism offering and its rich and diverse community reflects its varied and historical influences.

The Arte Moris (living art) cultural centre houses displays of the students who work there and their distinctive artwork is spread all around Timor Leste including the walls of Hotel Timor, old crumbling buildings and even printed in children’s books.  It is also possible to purchase works from the centre.  Capital city Dili occupies a coastal plan between two headlands, each of which has a famous Christian statue.  The Crito Rei (Jesus Christ), a 27-metre statue on a globes stands to the east while a six-metre tall bronze statue of Pope John Paul II stands to the west.


Tonga is comprised of more than 170 islands and is the South Pacific’s last remaining constitutional monarchy, created more than 1,000 years ago by Tongan rulers who put in place a hierarchal system similar to that of European dynasties.  Tongans still retain their authentic culture and traditional customs, many living in village communities and wearing the traditional dress, ta’ovala’, of woven waist mats.  The ceremonial tradition of kava drinking, the traditional Polynesia drink, is a very real part of Tongan life.  Arts and handicraft techniques including bone carving, wood carving, basket making and fine weaving have been passed down from generation to generation.  The most famous local craft is the making of Tapa, a decorative bark cloth painted with traditional symbols and designs and usually offered as a gift of respect at weddings, births and funerals.

Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu features a number of cultural attractions such as the Royal Palace and Royal Tombs located in the capital Nuku’alofa.  Tonga’s ancient capital Mu’a in the southwest is home to the mysterious Ha’amonga Trilathon, the ‘Stonehenge of the Pacific’, erected in around 1,200 AD, and the Terrace Tombs.

The key festival in the Tongan calendar is Heilala, usually held in July, when there are weeks of dance, beauty and sporting competitions, alongside parades, concerts, regattas and parties.


As one of the smallest and most remote nations in the world, Tuvalu enjoys a distinctive Polynesian culture of atoll island people who have retained their unique traditions of art, crafts, architecture, music, dance and legends.  Local Maneapa (town halls) throughout Tuvalu host numerous traditional and cultural ceremonies, and traditional dancing is performed almost every night at falekaupules (meeting houses), venues which play an important role in everyday life.


With 113 distinct languages and numerous dialects, Vanuatu is one of most culturally diverse countries in the world and, with no written language, story telling, songs and dance are of paramount importance.  Art such as body decorations, tattoos, masks, carvings and hats also play an important part in ritual celebrations and village life.  Vanuatu’s National Museum and Cultural Centre displays a wealth of ancient pieces, historical photos and rare artefacts which highlight the lives and culture of the ni-Vanuatu people.

Cultural and community tours showcase the ancient way of living which is still pursued today, and dances and experiences which merge culture and nature demonstrate the old way of life.  Villages open to visitors are dotted about over several islands including the main island of Efate, the popular Espirito Santo and the more remote Tanna.

Vanuatu is also rich in cultural festivals including the death-defying Nagol Festival on Pentecost Island, a land-diving ritual whereby young men jump from tall wooden platforms with vines tied to their ankles as a test of courage and passage into manhood; it is the origin of the modern day bungee jump.  The Toka dance festival in Tanna can last for many days, while the Rom Dance from Ambryn Island is a water music festival performed only by women.  Other cultural events include the Fest Napuan Music Festival, the International Food Festival and Fete de la Musique.