It has no capital, no flag and no cars, but the tiny South Pacific nation of Tokelau is about to be hauled into the 21st century with plans for an airport, tourism and greater independence from New Zealand. The nation, which lies half-way between New Zealand and Hawaii, consists of three far-flung islands with a total population of fewer than 1,500. The islands have a total area of just 12 sq km - so crowded that domestic pigs have to be kept on outlying reefs. The only contact with the world is a fortnightly ship from Apia in Samoa, 480km to the south. Britain annexed the atolls in 1889 and made them part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. In 1925 they became a dependent territory of New Zealand. Now, the United Nations would like to see Tokelau take greater control of its own affairs. The UN's Committee on Decolonisation has identified Tokelau as one of 16 dependent territories it wants to nudge towards independence. Tokelau's leaders say the territory is too small and poor to become fully independent, and insist they want to retain their ties with New Zealand, which contributes 80 per cent of its economy through Tokelauans working there. About 6,000 Tokelauans live in New Zealand and if rising sea levels caused by global warming claim the islands, the remaining 1,500 would join them. 'I think full independence is out of the question,' said Pio Tuia, Tokelau's ulu, or head of state. 'It's very hard for us to chop off our links with New Zealand entirely. But we need to strengthen self-government, perhaps in free association with New Zealand. It's time for us to stand up and govern our own affairs.' 'Free association' status was conferred by New Zealand on its two other colonial responsibilities, Niue and the Cook Islands. Tokelau's remoteness means its traditional Polynesian culture has survived almost untouched. Its people still lead a largely subsistence lifestyle, depending on coconuts, home-grown vegetables and fish. But now there are plans for an airport and wharves to allow fish to be exported. 'The wharves are our main priority, along with widening and deepening reef channels to improve access for boats,' Mr Tuia said. 'An airport would also bring economic blessings. Many tourists would like to visit Tokelau but they can't come because there are no planes.' Last year fewer than 30 tourists visited Tokelau, most of them by yachts touring the South Pacific. The lagoons and coral reefs could support a diving industry, although the Lonely Planet guidebook on the South Pacific warns that with the nearest decompression chamber in Fiji, 'it might as well be on Mars'. 'Tokelau is very small and fragile and the islands are microdots,' said Lindsay Watt, the New Zealand administrator of the territory. 'The United Nations would like to complete the remaining business of decolonisation by the end of this decade but at the same time it accepts that Tokelau is unique. 'Independence is remote from people's everyday concerns. One cannot say it won't happen, but they don't regard it as a serious option.' The Tokelauans are acutely aware that greater contact with the outside world brings with it dangers. 'We have to cherish our culture and the beauty of our home,' Mr Tuia said. 'Tokelau is very special.'