The government is using an aircraft donated by the Chinese government, along with other support, to set up a new airline.
This has forced the existing airline, Air Chathams, to pull out, saying they can't compete against a subsidised service, especially in such a small market.
Melino Maka, chair of the New Zealand Tongan Advisory Council, tells Bruce Hill that Tongans living and working in New Zealand are concerned that uncertainty over air links may depress the tourist industry, leading to job losses and more pressure on them to send extra remittances back to Tonga.
Presenter: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Melino Maka, chair of the New Zealand Tongan Advisory Council
MAKA: I think that for those of us in the Tonga diaspora we're really concerned about processes, and the rationale that the government is actually trying to communicate the reason why they tried to bring in new competition. Most of us do have to look back at the history, the Tongan government has had three attempts to run a domestic airline and they've all failed. And given what the Chathams had tried to do, it is a tough market to have a viable business, and I think what the Tongan government is trying to do maybe sounds good on paper, but when you put it in practice it's not as easy, and what I'm actually concerned about that long term the people of Tonga will suffer.
HILL: Why is this something that concerns the Tongan diaspora? This is a decision made by the Tongan government to bring in this new airline and Air Chathams has decided it can't compete and it's pulling out. You're Tongans living in New Zealand and others in Australia and the United States and overseas, why is this any of your business?
MAKA: If you look at the Tongan economy it's actually supported by a huge number of Tongans overseas who actually contribute to it by way of remittances and other means. So while there's a lot of criticism about the way that we express our views, we have a right to see what's best for Tonga, because we look at this from a long term perspective. And this decision does appear to be undemocratic, because we think that Tonga about three years ago went through a process of democracy, but a decision like this will have an effect, an impact on Tonga, the economy, Tonga as a whole.
HILL: So are you concerned about the impact of this decision on internal air travel and do you think this could impact the tourist industry in Tonga negatively?
MAKA: Absolutely, at the moment because there's very little details actually coming from the minister who's in charge of getting the new airline. And I think our biggest fear is not only it will have an impact on tourism, but also employment.
HILL: But what effect would that have on the Tongans living overseas though? You don't live there so it's no skin off your nose if there's a problem for the tourist industry surely?
MAKA: You'd be surprised Bruce the number of Tongans who are actually going back to Tonga as a tourist. When you define tourist, you think a non-Tongan, but there is a huge number of us that actually travel back to Tonga. And we also do spend proportionally more than some of the tourists going to Tonga. Whatever category you want to put us, you can be either Tongans, or either be tourists, and we want to do is make sure that what Tonga is coming up with is a long term solution. What we are concerned about is when people are actually travelling for work there will be more remittances coming from the Tongans overseas. And I think our concern is quite valid.
HILL: Do you think the Tongans living overseas can afford to send more remittances back home? My understanding is the global financial crisis has hit overseas Tongans pretty hard and there's not a lot of spare cash to send back to Tonga?
MAKA: We know that but I also work with a company that's actually doing money transfers here, and I think it is quite astonishing. Even in these difficult times financially, but people here do still send money in large quantities back to families in Tonga.
HILL: Well if you have all this economic impact on Tonga do you think that you should have some sort of political say in what happens as well?
MAKA: There's a hope that we're trying to do, because some of us do have experience in terms of area like political business and also at governance level. As much as people are not willing to accommodate our views and also our experience overseas, I think that some of us really do have something to offer to Tonga.