Rangiroa:  The Human Environment and Sustainability

FIGURE 1. The clear waters of Rangiroa. David Siu 2011.

Rangiroa is a low lying coral atoll located in the Tuamotu archipelago of French Polynesia. It has one of the largest lagoons in the world and lies 355 kilometers northwest of Tahiti. The atoll itself is comprised of 415 non-continuous motu (small islands). The lagoon fills the former remnants of a volcanic island, is 80 kilometers long and varies between 32 and 5 kilometers in width.  Rangiroa is thought to have been first settled some time during the tenth century by Polynesian voyagers. In 1616 the island was discovered by Dutch explorers Le Maire and Schouten.  Rangiroa had a thriving economy during the 1700s, as well as strong connections with neighboring islands, until about 1770, when a conflict between Rangiroa and Anaa forced the inhabitants of Rangiroa to flee to other neighboring islands. In 1851 Europeans began to settle on Rangiroa. In 1865, Catholics missionaries started to grow coconut palms on Rangiroa which signified the start of European colonization on the island, and was responsible for a period of economic growth in the 1950s.

The current population on Rangiroa is employed by the hospitality, copra, or pearl industries on the island. Due to the history of catholic missionaries, the majority of the population is Christian.  As of 2007, Rangiroa has a total population of 2,473 inhabitants, and has a fairly stable population. Although Rangiroa is less accessible to tourists than closer destinations such as Moorea and Bora Bora, Rangiroa remains a popular diving attraction and is the most frequently visited island of the Tuamotu Archipelago.

Because of the pearl cultivation school on the island as well as pearl businesses such as Gaughin’s Pearls, black pearls cultivated in the  black-lipped oyster remain the primary export of Rangiroa. Since 1992, pearl profits have multiplied by 5.8% as opposed to 2.5 % for tourism. In the 1990s, the pearl business was responsible for 1000 jobs in the Tuamotus, as opposed to only 600 jobs in 1992. Gauguin’s Pearl Farm is located in the middle of the Avatoru motu. It has been in operation for 15 years and has rights to 400 hectares of the lagoon, and is one of the largest black pearl farms in French Polynesia.

FIGURE 2. The Black Pearls of Rangiroa. David Siu 2011.

An unlikely source of economic activity on Rangiroa is the privately owned vineyard Vin de Tahiti on the estate of Dominique Auroy near the center of the village of Avatoru. This vineyard is very unique as it is the only commercial vineyard in the whole of the French Polynesia. Although the vineyard provides employment for a couple of families on the island, the practice is not sustainable on Rangiroa, due to the less than ideal climate inherent to a coral atoll.

Two main types of fishing are common: lagoonal fishing and coastal fishing. Lagoon fishing is often a family activity and results in small yields feeding only the family and other community members, while coastal fishing is more commonly a commercial operation with higher yields meant to be exported to surrounding islands and Tahiti. Typical fish caught include tuna, bonito, mahi mahi, and swordfish.  The productive waters of the Tuamotus produce 436.2 tons of fish per year, of which 71.3% is transported to Tahiti. (In 1996, 612 tons of fish was transported to Tahiti.)  In the atolls, lagoon fishing yields between 10-15% per year of the total catch which ranges between 5000-6000 tons in a year. Rangiroa and its surrounding islands produce 90-95% of that catch. This percentage has been decreasing due to the surge in fishing activities in many of the eastern atolls, so although Rangiroa's annual harvest has decreased, an increased pressure on the fisheries of surrounding islands are responsible for a net increase of catch. In 1996 the Tuamotus received a revenue of 340800 Fr. CFP (3861 USD) from fisheries. The last few years has seen a decrease in the sale of lagoon fish and bonitos, while an increase in the sale of tuna and other deep sea fish.

Tourism on Rangiroa exponentially increased in 1965 when the airport was constructed as it made it vastly more accessible to visitors. Cheaper airline tickets also allowed tourists to stay on the islands longer, which resulted in more profits for the islands through hotel and recreation fees. From 1992-94 tourism increased 24% among the atolls. Hotel reservations increased 53% and the average stay length increased to 9.1 days from 8.5 days. In 1996 tourism decreased by 8.1%, most likely due to the nuclear testing that took place in French Polynesia by the French military in 1995. Tourism quickly increased in the following years, and an increase in the cruise business has led to a further increase in tourism.

FIGURE 3. The Reef of Rangiroa. David Siu 2011.

In 1998 revenue from tourism in the Tuamotus totaled 39.7 billion Fr. CFP or 450 million USD, which was a 6% increase from 1997. The Tuamotus of French Polynesia receive three quarters of their revenue, much higher portion than any other country. 46.6% of this revenue comes from the hotel industry. Space (hotels) are a limiting factor for tourism, but on the other hand there isn’t a large enough demand on the atolls for more hotel  rooms to justify the large expense of putting in more hotels or adding on to existing hotels. Four substantial hotels exist in the Tuamotus, three of which are on Rangiroa since it is the most frequented and largest of the Tuamotus. In 1995 tourists to Rangiroa totaled 15,000, in ‘97 it was 16,300, then in ‘98 dropped back down to 15,500. The tourist capacity seems to level off at 15,500 due to limited hotel capacity. The construction of more luxury hotels is not the best solution because it is very expensive and may not be economically viable. The demand isn’t great enough yet to justify such a project. Due to the isolated nature of the atolls the construction of large luxury hotels isn’t practical or cost effective. Weather patterns on the atolls also make constructing such a large project quite a challenge.

Scuba diving on the coral reefs is a principal tourist attraction.  Rangiroa, which is world famous for its diving sites, has eleven diving clubs—more than any other atoll in the region. The snorkeling is also a large draw for tourists, particularly from the few visiting cruise ships. Indeed, up to  90% of tourist attraction is due to the great scuba diving and snorkeling.

French Polynesia is looking to increase tourism and expand tourist capacity.  A lack of accessibility and air communications has been credited to the impeding of tourism expansion on Rangiroa and surrounding atolls. Increasing flights to the atolls is a way to encourage more tourists to visit the Tuamotus; effort is in place to increase tourist accommodations.  Despite these efforts, it is unclear whether or not the atoll can sustain itself through tourism in the absence of more significant exports.

FIGURE 4. The Generous People of Rangiroa. David Siu 2011.

Elizabeth Davis, Portland State University
David Siu, Rhodes College



Institute de la Statistique de la Polynesie Franeaise. “Recensement 2007”. 11 Jan. 2011.<http://www.ispf.pf/ISPF/EnqRep/Recensement/Recens2007/TableauxEtCartes/Population.aspx> Statistics from the 2007 french government census. Provides information about population, etc., in Rangiroa.

Institute for Research and Development, The. “Rangiroa”. 11 Jan. 2011.<http://www.com.univ-mrs.fr/IRD/atollpol/irdpoly/ukrangi.htm> The article discuses how the island has developed from a geological perspective. The article also talks about the history of the development of the human environment on the island as well as the tourist industry. Rangiroa has the largest tourism industry out of the Tuamotus.

Service de la Peche. “Rangiroa”. 11 Jan. 2011.<http://www.peche.pf/spip.php?page=recherche&lang=fr&recherche=rangiroa> A french web site that hold facts about the history of Rangiroa. The site also has some insight into the role of fishing and dolphins as a tourist attraction and the importance of protecting the lagoon from human impact.

Tahiti Tourism North America. “Rangiroa”. 11 Jan. 2011.<http://www.tahiti-tourisme.com/islands/rangiroa/rangiroa.asp> A commercial tourism web site that highlights many draws for tourists to the atoll. The site lists many of the activities that play a key role in the tourism industry in Rangiroa such as scuba diving and snorkeling, fishing, etc..

Earth Observatory. “Archipel des Tuamotu”. 16 Jan. 2011. <http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=44596> Fantastic satellite image of the Tuamotu islands. Followed by an article that talks about the positioning of the major town on Rangiroa near fishing sites and where black pearls can be cultivated.

Gauguin’s Pearl. “Direct From Our Farms in Tuamotus”. 16 Jan. 2011. <http://www.gauguinspearl.pf/en/La-Ferme.html> This web site is about the black pearl industry in the Tuamotus islands. It also explains the pearl harvesting process. The site focuses on Rangiroa which has the largest pearl farm in the archipelago.

Blanvillain, Caroline, et al.“Land birds of Tuamotu Archipelago, Polynesia: relative abundance and changes during the 20th century with particular reference to the critically endangered Polynesian ground-dove (Gallicolumba erythroptera).” Biological Conservation, vol 103 (2001). A research article that studied the decrease in many bird populations in Rangiroa and surrounding islands. The project compared past bird species populations, native to the islands, to current populations. The authors theorized that human colonization of the islands is leading to a decrease in birds on the islands.

Vin de Tahiti. “Vin de Tahiti”. 20, Jan 2011. <http://www.vindetahiti.pf/eng/englishlocation.html> The website about the Tahitian wine which is grown on a vineyard on Rangiroa and then exported and sold around the world. Wine is one of the main exports from Rangiroa.