Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to explore the tensions likely to arise in Pacific Island countries resulting from their high-population growth rates and poor agricultural productivity growth, the difficulties of accessing land for commercial purposes, the rapid rate of rural-urban migration, the relatively high numbers of poorly educated, unemployed youth, and the political instability in several of these countries. Design/methodology/approach - The approach of the paper is essentially conceptual, linking cultural, economic, and political arguments. There is some review of the relevant literature relating to these aspects of societal behaviour in these countries. Findings - The Pacific Island countries face significant difficulties in achieving economic development, particularly those arising from the tension between their cultural characteristics and commercialization of their economies. Practical implications - For example, this paper points to the limitations of efforts to develop indigenous businesses in the traditional sector or to increase agricultural productivity in the traditional sector in Pacific Island economies. It also points to the need to focus much more attention on the local government issues arising from the rapid rural-urban migration. It also points to other areas whether government attention should be focused such as youth unemployment. Originality/value - This paper is original in its development of the interactions between the cultural and economic characteristics of traditional Pacific Island societies.