The Development of the Tourism Industry in French Polynesia

The building of the international airport in Tahiti in 1961 essentially marked the beginning of tourism development in French Polynesia (STIM, 1). Immediately following, there was a boom in hotel construction, and hotel development began to spread to outer islands. By 1974, the number of visitors to the islands exceeded 80,000 (STIM, 2). There was a brief lull in tourism due to limited air access and inadequate hotel rooms but the new government, established in 1982, recognized the importance of tourism to the economy and attempted to encourage development (STIM, 2). As a result, airlines expanded, hotels made improvements, and the islands once again became a popular destination.

Tourism has become a leading source of employment for many French Polynesian island residents (CIA). Although tourism creates and sustains many local jobs, it can also cause problems for local economies because of increased competition with internationally owned companies. This paper seeks to discuss the role that tourism plays in French Polynesia and examine various complications linked to tourism. The goal is to assess possible solutions or alternatives to the harmful consequences associated with tourism.

While island tourism creates local jobs, it is difficult for the small, locally owned bed and breakfasts (called pensions) to compete with the larger, internationally owned hotels. In Tahiti, for example, there are seven hotels and 38 pensions. After visiting the Beach Comber Hotel in Papeete, it became clear why many of the pensions struggle to compete. Owned by an American, the massive hotel rests atop a hill on the ocean with a stunning view and luxurious accommodations. The local owners of the pensions often do not have sufficient funds to strive for similar accommodations and cannot hire many employees, making it difficult for their businesses to survive.

The problem with this competition is that instead of the money that is spent on the islands being put into the local economy, the majority of the money made from tourism goes abroad (Tourism and Development in the South Pacific, 202). This causes the economy to become less and less sustainable overtime, as only a fraction of the money made in the tourism industry stays in the islands. However, because of the islands’ small size, isolation, and lack of resources, tourism in French Polynesia is almost inevitable as it is one of the only ways to bring income to many people (Wilkinson, 153). For instance, Nuku Hiva, which has a population of only 3,153, wants to expand their tourism industry from 10,000 tourists per year to 20,000 tourists per year. They recognize the necessary role that tourism plays in bringing money to the island.  Deputy Mayor Deborah Kimitete does not want more than 20,000 visitors per year, however, because Nuku Hivans do not want the tourism industry to become so big that it changes the way of life on the island (Kaimitete).

When countries try to use tourism as a development strategy, they can quickly become entangled in a global system over which they have little control (Wilkinson, 158). Often, when a nation becomes a “tourist nation,” it gets taken over by large international companies and the business can become extremely difficult to regulate locally.  Small pensions struggle to compete with Tahiti’s American-owned Beachcomber Hotel because of their lack of resources, infrastructure, and often a lack of properly trained employees.

One way to attempt to fix the issue of the unfortunate competition between the international hotels and local pensions is through government intervention. Fakarava, for example, where the population is a mere 824, gets around 17,250 visitors per year, some passing through by ship. There is one large hotel dominating a part of the island, the Maitai Dream Fakarava, owned by a German, and 11 small pensions, mostly locally owned. Opened in 2002, the resort has 30 bungalows resting on vast oceanfront property. The resort includes an on-site diving center and has coral just off the beach for snorkelers (Kelly, 159). However, while this hotel may take some business away from the pensions in Fakarava, the government provides financial support to the pensions in an attempt to keep the locally owned places in business (Rosalie Tu & Freddie Burns).

One pension observed in Fakarava, Tetamanu Village, is located right on the oceanfront with six private bungalows and gets about 100 visitors per month. When asked how they make themselves known, the manager said that they put out advertisements in Tahiti and some in America and France, and they have a comprehensive website that visitors can view. Diving is a major attraction for tourists in Fakarava, as it is surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful coral reef. The pension in Fakarava seemed to be doing very well with its sufficient accommodations, beautiful scenery, and large stash of diving equipment. This pension serves as a good example for other pensions in French Polynesia and illustrates how a little government support can go a long way in helping the local businesses thrive.

Careful planning and integration in an attempt to balance the economic benefits and disadvantages of tourism could be very useful in places like Tahiti where the international hotels take the majority of the tourism business. The government could step in and regulate the large internationally owned hotels by putting certain limits in place.  The island of Martha’s Vineyard, MA (near SEA’s Woods Hole campus) has, for instance, set limits on who can build on the island in order to keep the “chain” hotels and other companies off the islands and to help stimulate the locally owned businesses. That way, the pensions have adequate funds to work on developing effective marketing plans, increase employee training and skills, and improve accommodations.

In contrast to the role that tourism plays in much of French Polynesia, very different observations were found on Kirimati Island. The only tourists traveling to Kirimati are sport fishermen who typically travel as groups of men for an average of one week to fish and surf. Kirimati has only one hotel and six motels. The Captain Cook Hotel, located in the town of Banana, is a row of converted army barracks with 152 rooms and they get around 12 visitors per week, mainly from America and Australia. In contrast to most of the hotels visited in French Polynesia, this hotel’s employees are all local and the government owns it. One of the motels, Tekabaia, is family-owned and run by the daughter. It has seven rooms, all of which were occupied at the time of our visit by a group of fishermen and their sons. Government officials also typically stay at the motels when they come from the capitol at Tarawa to work for a few weeks at a time, but other than government officials and fishermen, very few people travel to Kirimati.  There is only one flight per week to the atoll, making it extremely difficult for anyone to come and go.

Overall, tourism plays a unique role on each of the islands visited. While it may be a successful industry on some islands, it does not work as well on others. In Tahiti, tourism is a main source of income for many people, but has not worked to the advantage of local island residents as foreigners have come in and taken over the industry. Tourism in Fakarava is also pretty significant considering the number of visitors to the island per year is about 20 times the population, even though some of these visitors are just passing through on their way to other destinations. In contrast to the state of the pensions in Tahiti due to the intense competition with international companies, pensions in Fakarava are able to thrive due to government support. Tourism also plays a fairly large role in Nuku Hiva, with about three times as many visitors per year as local population, and they hope to expand their tourism industry by doubling the number of visitors per year, making it an even bigger part of their economy. Lastly, the role that tourism plays in Kirimati is entirely different from that of French Polynesia in that the tourism industry is very small and the island rarely gets any visitors aside from fishermen. Tourism is not and probably never will be a major source of income in Kirimati simply due to the nature of the island, its isolation and lack of resources.

Caroline Yeager, Boston College

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How to cite this page: 
Caroline Yeager. “The Development of the Tourism Industry in French Polynesia,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2013.  Web. [Date accessed]  <html>