Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

Tongan flag bearer Pita Taufatofua inspires travel lust search for South Pacific island

A huge increase in travel searches for Tonga could result in a tourism boom for the Pacific island

Pita Taufatofua's well-oiled torso has introduced the world to Tonga. Photo / AP
Pita Taufatofua's well-oiled torso has introduced the world to Tonga. Photo / AP

He only walked across the Olympic stage for a few minutes, but the appearance of Tonga's glistening flagbearer was enough to boost tourism and lead to a sudden demand for coconut oil.

Pita Taufatofua sent the internet into overdrive when he showed up during Rio's opening ceremony wearing only Tongan tapacloth and finery and slathered in coconut oil, as is Tongan tradition.

The 32-year-old - who is the country's first athlete to ever qualify for the Taekwando Olympics - caused onlookers to ask about the Pacific nation and coconut oil.

Rio de Janeiro, with Ipanema Beach pictured, is the most searched travel destination on Wotif.com since the Games began. Photo / 123RF
Rio de Janeiro, with Ipanema Beach pictured, is the most searched travel destination on Wotif.com since the Games began. Photo / 123RF

Unlike baby oil, coconut oil is distinctive in that at room temperature, it remains solid.

Made from the flesh of a coconut, it is a staple in homes across all Pacific nations.

Several Pacific beauty brands have reported a rush to buy coconut oils and coconut-based products since the opening ceremony. Island Rose Dream - which offers beauty products made from coconuts from Tonga - said it had received dozens of orders for its coconut oils, moisturisers and scrubs following the Olympic opening ceremony.

Founder Rosie Akauola-Fine said the most popular orders had been for their 200ml bottles of coconut oils which come in mango, watermelon, sandalwood and gardenia fragrances.

She said Lolo Tonga (Tongan coconut oil) was used for many reasons - as a moisturiser, sunscreen, hair product, massaging muscle pain and for dancers during traditional cultural performance.

"It's been used for centuries and it's used to glisten the body to beautify the dancer."
Pure Fiji NZ also reported larger orders than normal in the past week.

"Everyone seems to be going crazy over coconut oil at the moment and thanks to the Tongan flagbearer, Pita, even the Rio Olympics have caught onto the craze!"

The athlete himself said it was a great result for his country.

Taufatofua told the Herald: "It's a great opportunity to get Tonga and the Pacific out to the world. The publicity for Tonga has been great. I have had media interview after interview and get asked for [photos] a lot from athletes and volunteers alike. That being said, I still get my training sessions in every day.''

He said getting to the Games had been 20 years' worth of hard work and he encouraged young people never to give up on their goals.

"Absolutely do not stop. Do not give up. God will test you to see if you're deserving of the fruits of your labour, but those fruits only come about after years of hard work looking after your crop.

"People these days give up way too quickly because it's the easy option - don't."

Great snorkelling is part of the South Pacific island's attraction, not to mention 176 islands to explore. Photo / 123RF
Great snorkelling is part of the South Pacific island's attraction, not to mention 176 islands to explore. Photo / 123RF

Taufatofua is also being credited for a new international interest in Tonga, with thousands of people visiting the country's official tourism website in the past week.

Tonga Tourism spokeswoman Tupouseini Taumoepeau, said in the days after the opening ceremony, thousands of visitors had been to its website - which now boasts a large photo of Taufatofua in all his finery on its opening page.

There had also been hundreds of visitors to the official Kingdom of Tonga Facebook page and engagement via Twitter.

"Publicity over the last few days by Pita Taufatofua has definitely opened up international interest of Tonga and their curiosity about Tonga - which we hope, over time, will increase bookings and open up new tourist markets to Tonga."

It was too early to determine whether or not there had been a noticeable increase in bookings to Tonga.

"There has been a lot interest online and we are hoping this will convert into holiday bookings over the next few months," she said.

"We are currently working on website and social media promotions to further encourage this."

Meanwhile, Taufatofua's popularity continues to rise after what he has said was 20 years of blood, sweat and tears to get to the coveted Games.

He is set to compete in Rio this weekend.

On a fundraising website asking fans to help him get to Rio, a video includes exactly how hard it was to get there: "6 broken bones, 3 torn ligaments, 1.5 years on crutches, 3 months on a wheelchair, hundreds of hrs of physio. Worth every moment."

- news.com.au

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