Tonga, like much of Polynesia, appears to be a semi-cash/semi-subsistence economy. When you walk through a village here, it is clear that most of what the people eat they grow or catch in the sea. We have talked to several men who have told us that they travel to New Zealand to make money to buy things like outboard motors and to send cash home to their families. To make money here, Tongan families travel to the market in Neiafu and sell fruits, handcrafts, and vegetables. Villages on the outer islands also put on 'Tongan feasts' featuring suckling pig, fish dishes, taro, and other fruit and veggie dishes. The feasts are attended mainly by cuisers and other tourists - one recent Saturday feast on little Lape island (population 30) drew 94 Palangi tourists.
Most of the business in Neiafu outside the market is sewn up by Chinese storekeepers, foreign owned sports fishing and whale watching operations (mainly New Zealanders and Australians, judging by the accents we hear on the VHF reporting marlin catches and whale sightings), and restaurants owned by Americans and Germans.
The locals in Vava' appear to build their own boats. These are usually launches, with small cabins forward and seaworthy hull shapes - either V-bottomed with hard chines or round bottomed plank and batten construction. Boats are vital in Vava'u where the population is widely spread over dozens of islands.
Land in Tonga is owned by Tongans and leased to foreigners when necessary. Even the resorts are built on land leased for a long term (20 or 30 years). When we visited Kapa island, we found the most lovely piece of land on a point, with good soil and about 2 acres that could be easily cleared for planting. We imagined ourselves growing our own food here and running a small Indian restaurant catering to yachties. When we asked a local about the land, he told us that it belonged to a 90 year old man who lived now in Neiafu. He allowed kayakers to camp on the land and enjoy the sand beaches, but had turned down offers to lease it.
One disturbing thing we saw in the villages was a series of large holes dug outside of all the houses. These holes were there so that a concrete pad to support solar panels could be poured. The Japanese were funding this project and we were told they were doing this to secure Tonga's vote at an International commission on whaling. Japan 'harvests' whales for 'scientific' purposes, in the face of international protest. It appears that they would like to legitimize this.
Foreign fishing is also an issue here. We could not get a straight answer from anyone on what is happening, but it appears that Asian vessels are fishing with long lines (up to 14 miles long!) in nearby waters. One sports fishing guide was complaining that they pay a tiny fraction of what such a license would cost in New Zealand. I would hazard a guess that the same charter operator also benefits from low Tongan prices!