Transportation and Globalization in French Polynesia

The 125 islands of French Polynesia are home to some of the most isolated populations on earth. They lie roughly 4,000 km from New Zealand, 6,000 km from Australia and North America, 8,000 km from Latin America, 9,500 km from Japan, and 18,000 km from their mother country, France.[1] This isolation led the early Polynesians to develop local subsistence economies based on agriculture and fishing, which remained fundamentally the same until World War II.[2] Now though, Polynesians on islands like Rangiroa, Nuku Hiva, and Tubuai are plugged in to the rest of the world through the internet and have developed a taste for global products.  Their isolation makes the challenge of actually getting these products a complicated issue, and the logistical realities of transportation slow down rapid modernization in the outer islands. All international traffic moves through Papeete, which is over 350 km from the hubs of the other archipelagos, including Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, Rangiroa in the Tuamotus, and Tubuai in the Austral Islands.[3] From these hubs people and goods must be transported around land area less than a third the size of Connecticut, spread out over a geographic area the size of the entire continent of Europe.[4] Extreme isolation is the underlying theme of recent modernization in French Polynesia, and this paper will consider the way transport has figured in this story. Nuku Hiva is an especially interesting case study in the balance of modern influence and local culture, and I will focus on that island.

French nuclear testing in the 1960s brought jobs but also intensive infrastructure development. This, along with falling world prices for raw materials and rapid population growth, caused massive migration from remote islands to urban port towns, most notably Papeete.[5] Many Polynesians left behind lifeways based in local economies for growing towns linked to global commerce and governance. A pilgrimage to Papeete, in search of bright lights and the chance to se promener, or “stroll around town,” became a rite of passage for young, rural Polynesians.[6] Imports soared, increasing 57% between 1960 and 1966, while exports stayed relatively constant.[7]

This migration soon led to overcrowding and harsh conditions in and around Papeete.[8] (See “Urbanization in Tahiti.”) In response the government sought to strengthen connections between the islands of French Polynesia and to encourage reverse migration back to outlying islands. In 1978 a sea transport plan was drawn up and enacted which increased inter-island services. The Fonds D’Amenagement et de Dévelopment des Iles de la Polynésie (FADIP, or Fund for the Growth and Development of the Islands of French Polynesia), created in 1979, gave financial assistance for the transportation of families back to rural island homes.[9] To this day, the local and territorial governments struggle to make the rural islands feel less isolated, so far investing 5 billion Pacific Francs (XPF) on improving telecommunications and social services.[10] In 1977 18 cargo vessels serviced French Polynesia.[11] Now the fleet consists of 29 ships.[12] Air transport also greatly contributed in this time to the connection of the islands; during the 1980s, international air traffic rose by 49 per cent.[13]

Still, these efforts have been only marginally successful in inducing rural migration, and the map below highlights this result. In the 2007 census results, displayed here, the Iles du Vent (or Society Islands) dominated by Tahiti, constituted 74% of the total population.[14] The centralization of transport and cargo through Papeete certainly contributes to this long-term trend, as it discourages infrastructure development in other regional ports.[16]

Figure 1: Population Map.[15]

Figure 2: The Port of Papeete. In the foreground at right is Aremeti 4, one of the Tahiti-Moorea ferry boats. Receding in the background are Tahiti Nui and Taporo VII, which serve the Leeward Islands. The white ship in the far background is the well-known Aranui III. Photo Marty Schwartz, February 2012

Figure 3. Quay workers at Rangiroa, hub of the Tuamotu Archipelago, loading the supply vessel Dory with construction materials. The red crates are full of Coca-Cola from Papeete. The tall boxes at right hold an imported washing machine and refrigerator. Photo Marty Schwarz, February 2012.

Although the Tuamotu archipelago the is closest to Tahiti, modernization has been relatively slow there. As Deputy Mayor Manua Niva said in a presentation to S239 students on February 8th, 2012, the Rangiroa commune (including several adjacent islands) has a total of 3,245 people but no high school. Children over 12 travel to Papeete for school and there tend toward the cosmopolitan values of the city. The supply vessels Dory, Aranui III, Mareva Nui, and Saint-Xavier Maris Stella 3 call weekly or monthly with construction materials, fuel, food products, and miscellaneous goods.[17] Tubuai, the hub of the Austral Islands, is about 800 km from Tahiti. Many outsiders still consider it to have “primitive” living conditions, but residents have access to imported foods and manufactured items sold at the island’s two general stores.[18] Tubuai also exemplifies a general shift in French Polynesia from sea to air transport. It only gets one ship, the Tuhaa Pae II, about every two weeks.[19] But in the past two decades flights to and from Tahiti have increased from two per week to roughly two per day.[20] The following map shows the routes of various cargo ships around all of the archipelagos. Comparison with the population map gives a great idea of the current state of connectedness.

Figure 4. Cargo routes in French Polynesia.[21]

Lying 1,400 km away from Tahiti, Nuku Hiva, the major island of the Marquesas archipelago, presents a very interesting case in terms of modernization. Its 2,800 inhabitants did not have telephone or radio until 1987, and the internet didn’t come until 1998.[22] In the 1990s, the first newspaper was started.[23] Since then Nuku Hiva has become much more electronically connected with the outside world; many rooftops in Taohaie feature satellite dishes. Still the island remains physically isolated. Only two cargo ships dock at its shipping pier--the Aranui III every three weeks, and the Taporo IX roughly every two weeks.[24] Despite Nuku Hiva’s abundance of natural food resources, these cargo ships import most of the food sold at the island’s small grocery stores.[25] Yet the boundaries of this formal economy in imported goods are much more fluid than in urbanized Tahiti. Many islanders rely on the fish and fruit of the island, just as the native islanders did in centuries past.[26]

The scene at the shipping pier, which S239 students observed on 16 February, 2012, illustrates the gradual dynamic of modernization very well. With a ship in port, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon locals drive up and wait in pick-up trucks. One of the cargo ship’s cranes drops down a small kiosk, in which an employee of the ship promptly begins selling shipping tickets to locals laden with boxes labeled “Papeete,” “Tuatmotus,” etc. A fuel line runs directly from the ship to the gas station on the pier. The woman in the kiosk mentions that not long ago, all the cargo was transferred by hand from the ship. Now, she explained, the cranes make everything easier. Everyone goes about their transactions in an efficient, routine, but friendly manner.

Nuku Hiva has been very lightly touched by tourism for the simple reason that once a foreigner makes it to Tahiti, he or she has to spend up to another 80,000 XPF ($1,000 US) to fly to the Marquesas.[27] Between January and April, Taiohae Bay welcomes 6-7 cruise ships, but none the rest of the year.[28] The deputy mayor (and zoning commissioner) suggested that her island would be better off if it were directly connected to France.[29] An international harbor and airport in Nuku Hiva would be the first step in developing the island’s tourism and fishing industry, which are, at the moment, quite small. The local government’s goal, their focus for the past fifteen years, is to make the Marquesas a well-known stop between Hawaii and Tahiti, just as Easter Island is a common stop on the way to Peru. They see this goal as feasible, as France accomplished this for two islands in the territory of Guadeloupe in the 2000s, Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthélemy.[30] Another important strategy is Air Tahiti’s tourist pass, with gives tourists one discounted package of flights to several islands throughout French Polynesia. Still, the mayor stressed the need for prudence when putting these first development plans into action; she said they need to learn from the example of Tahiti and prepare for the developed future so that they don’t sacrifice the current high quality of life. The simple logistical difficulty of getting to Nuku Hiva has allowed modernization take place slowly, in relative balance with earlier ways of life. The challenge now is to maintain that fragile balance.

Figure 5.  Sign at the Pier at Kiritimati.  Photo Marty Schwartz, March 2012.

Tahiti represents French Polynesia’s most connected island, and Nuku Hiva represents one of its least. To place both in a broader Pacific context, however, it is instructive to turn to the case of Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Republic of Kiribati. It lies over 1,000 km from Tarowa, Kiribati’s capital, to the west, and from Honolulu to the north. Twenty years ago Kiritimati only saw one cargo ship per year, and its economy was almost completely local. That has changed somewhat, but even as billboards advertising international products line the roads, few of these products fill the shelves at small local stores. This is because Christmas sees a freight plane only once a month and gets at most 5 ships per year. Residents can only count on two ships a year from Tarowa; due to the easterly trade winds, the journey takes up to two weeks to Tarowa, and up to a month to return to Christmas. In 1999, the first communications came to Kirmiati, through the government owned TSKL internet service. Not until last year did a private internet channel emerge, and it is now run out of the “KPA True Café,” a converted shipping container adjacent to the shipping pier. Weekly passenger flights from Honolulu and Fiji bring tourists from the east and west, mostly anglers in search of the prized bonefish, but their only accommodations are a few modest lodges.[31] There are two private high schools on the island, so university study requires the move to Tawara or beyond, a move more involved than a trip between the islands of French Polynesia. The case of Kiritimati alongside these others highlights the way that social trends in these island communities are tied to policy decisions and economic forces operating over great distances.[32]

Marty Schwarz, Carleton College


[1]  Gilles Blanchet, , “A Survey of the Economy of French Polynesia, 1960-1990,” Islands/Australia Working Paper No. 914 (National Centre For Development Studies, Australian National University: 1991): 1. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

[2]  Victoria S. Lockwood, “Development and Return Migration to Rural French Polynesia,” International Migration Review 24.2 (1990): 350. JSTOR. 22 Jan. 2012.

[3]  Institut de la statistique de la Polynésie française. (ISPF), 2009. Web. 19 Jan. 2012. <>.

[4]  “Australia-Oceania: French Polynesia,” CIA World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agnecy, 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

[5]  Blanchet, “A Survey of the Economy of French Polynesia,” 9.

[6]  Lockwood, “Development and Return Migration,” 352.

[7]  Blanchet, “A Survey of the Economy of French Polynesia,” 9.

[8]  Lockwood, “Development and Return Migration,” 351.

[9]  Lockwood, “Development and Return Migration to,” 353.

[10]  Lockwood, “Development and Return Migration,” 353.

[11]  Gilles, “A Survey of the Economy of French Polynesia,” 22.

[12]  Les Transports Maritimes Interinsulaires en Polynesie Francaise: Atlas des Routes Maritimes 2011 (French Polynesia: Direction Polynesienne des Affaires Maritimes, 2011): 5. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

[13]  Gilles, “A Survey of the Economy of French Polynesia,” 32.

[14]  Les Transports Maritimes, 5.

[15]  Les Transports Maritimes, 5.

[16]  “Port of Papeete,” World Port Source, 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

[17]  Statistiques Maritimes Interinsulaires 2009 (French Polynesia: Direction Polynesienne des Affaires Maritimes, 2010): 26. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

[18]  Lockwood, “Development and Return Migration,” 359.

[19]  Les Transports Maritimes 2011, 7.

[20]  “Trafic Aérien Commercial International par Compagnie, February 2011,” (French Polynesia, Service D'Etat de l'Aviation Civile: 2011). Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

[21]  Les Transports Maritimes 2011, 3.

[22]  Deborah Kimitete, Deputy Mayor of Nuku Hiva, Personal Interview. 17 Feb 2012.

[23]  Kornegay, Van. “Journalism Comes to Paradise.” American Journalism Review 19 (Jan-Feb 1997): 19. Questia. 22 Jan. 2012.

[24]  Les Transports Maritimes 2011, 13.

[25]  Kimitete, Personal Interview, 17 Feb 2012.

[26]  Kimitete, Personal Interview, 17 Feb 2012.

[27]  Kimitete, Personal Interview, 17 Feb 2012.

[28]  Kimitete, Personal Interview, 17 Feb 2012.

[29]  Kimitete, Personal Interview, 17 Feb 2012.

[30]  Kimitete, Personal Interview, 17 Feb 2012.

[31]  Jack Reraro, Manager KPA Tru Café, Personal Interview, 29 Feb 2012.

[32]  For useful broad-scale consideration of these development trends across the region, see these recent articles by Stewart Firth: “Future Directions for Pacific Studies,” Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003): 139-148; “The Pacific Islands and the Globalization Agenda,” Contemporary Pacific 12.1 (2000): 177-192; and “Pacific Islands Trade, Labor, and Security in an Era of Globalization,” Contemporary Pacific 19.1 (2007): 111-134.

How to cite this page: 
Marty Schwarz. “Transportation and Globalization in French Polynesia,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.  2012. Web. [Date accessed]  <html>