Paul Sloan, CEO of Tahiti Tourisme Global // © 2018 Emma Weissmann
Feature image (above): Tahiti is known as the birthplace of the overwater bungalow accommodation. // © 2018 Emma Weissmann
French Polynesia has long lured lovers with the promise of postcard-worthy views, luxurious hotels from globally recognized brands and — of course — overwater bungalows.
But the more than 100 islands that make up the region’s archipelagos offer more than just a place for honeymooners to swoon and shop — a message heard loud and clear at Tahiti Tourisme’s first Parau Parau Tahiti (PPT) conference, which took place March 19-20 at Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort on the island of Tahiti.
The two-day inaugural event was attended by 32 international tour companies from eight countries spanning the Americas and the South Pacific — a market that collectively represents nearly 50 percent of overall tourism arrivals. Attendees participated in one-on-one meetings with up to 47 locally based operators.
“The idea of PPT is to expand the awareness and distribution of all the products we have,” said Paul Sloan, CEO of Tahiti Tourisme Global.
He noted that while the tourism board had attended travel marts in other countries in the past, PPT offered the chance for smaller operators — who may not have the personnel or financial ability to attend the marts — to come face to face with some of the biggest international players in the game.
Here’s what else we learned.
Air and Cruise Arrivals Are Projected to Boom
Last year was the fourth consecutive year that tourism to French Polynesia rose, with an 8 percent year-over-year increase from 2016, according to Gina Bunton, chief operations officer for Tahiti Tourisme.
Most U.S.-based tourists travel from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti, via Air Tahiti Nui. The airline just announced four new “Tahitian Dreamliners,” the first of which will roll out in November. Additionally, two airline carriers — United Airlines and low-cost carrier French Bee — will begin service from San Francisco to Tahiti this year, offering clients additional routes from the West Coast. French Bee’s announcement is particularly noteworthy; its 411-seat Airbus 350 will service the destination three times per week beginning in May and will offer an affordable option for value-minded clients. United will begin its service in October.
The news was met with optimism from U.S.-based tour operators during a panel on selling the destination to Americans.
“I’m really excited when there’s a change of any kind, because the destination — in terms of product — has been pretty static for about a decade,” said Jeanine Cater, managing director of Tahiti.com.
Joelle Arriola, product director for Classic Vacations, agreed. She said that more airlift has the potential to give agents an increased flexibility in selling.
“United coming into the market brings in new customers — because they have a huge database — and what the airlines are doing is putting Tahiti into (clients’) consideration when they never thought of it before,” Arriola said.
This year is also shaping up to be the biggest for cruising in over a decade. In 2018, 24 cruise companies will call on French Polynesia with 1,100 calls — a record-breaking number for the country. Additionally, a new cruise terminal that will accommodate 2,500 passengers is currently under construction in Papeete.
Diversity of Product
Another focus of PPT was the destination’s variety of offerings and new aspects of Tahiti Tourisme’s “The Islands of Tahiti, Embraced by Mana” global campaign, which launched in 2016. The campaign tells the story of the Polynesian people through local suppliers, who function as the islands’ ‘storytellers,’” Sloan said.
“The reality was that travelers were coming for the postcard we were marketing, but they were also discovering the people,” he said. “And it was that personal Polynesian experience that distinguished the destination, no matter what category they were staying in. And travel agents tell us that it’s something they can sell against.”
One of the campaign’s newest initiatives is to bring increased awareness to family-friendly offerings and Tahitian guesthouses.
“We want to keep what’s working well and see how we target a buyer for every product,” Sloan said. “I’m a big fan of all the activities you can do with families; Tahiti is a place that’s safe, and it offers kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving and more. We can’t do the storytelling without the product, and once we have the storytelling, travel agents seal the deal and reel them in.”
Although the country aims to double its hotel capacity over the next five years, French Polynesia has nearly 1,500 rooms currently available in family-run Tahitian guesthouses, or pensions. These accommodations range in size and amenities, but generally sit at a price point of about $100 per night, according to Sloan.
He added that those looking for a more authentic, local experience may prefer staying in a guesthouse — of which there are 300 spread across the islands — or choose to mix and match offerings by booking overnights at a pension but visiting nearby resorts for spas, restaurants and more.
The U.S.-based panelists said that although they still sell more resorts than guesthouses, they’re open to learning more about pensions and finding clients who may be a good fit for them.
“For the honeymoon market, it’s still all about the overwater bungalows,” said Tahiti.com’s Cater. “But having attended this conference, I’m seeing how Tahiti Tourisme is doing work on promoting the guesthouses and helping guesthouses know how to work with us; I think we’re understanding each other better.”