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As the sun begins its descent and the trade winds blow a cooling breeze, the bride and groom, bedecked in tropical flowers, glide to shore in separate canoes. A trio of musicians drums a centuries-old beat, and ladies dressed in traditional pareus perform a ceremonial dance. The couple is wrapped in a tifaifai, a Polynesian wedding quilt, and given Tahitian names for themselves and for their future children. Singing and dancing elevate to a fever pitch, and the tropical party begins. Sound like a dream wedding? That’s because, for many American couples, it is.
“Tahiti is a dream romance destination that has been on couples’ lists for a long time,” said Kleon Howe, CEO and president of The Art of Travel in San Diego, Calif., “and to be the person that creates an amazing trip for them is very special.”
But tying the knot in Tahiti hasn’t always been a practical option. In the past, non-resident couples had to apply for a visa and complete a 30-day residency in French Polynesia before the ceremony could take place, which was not only a serious time commitment but also cost-prohibitive. A new law, passed by the French Republic in May of 2009 and put into practice the following year, is simplifying the process for overseas couples. The new law allows non-residents to wed as early as the day they arrive in French Polynesia as long as they have submitted their paperwork to city hall 45 days before the ceremony. The legally binding wedding will take place at the city hall, and the wedding ceremony, typically held at a beachside resort, follows.
Since the law change, out of Tahiti’s 118 islands and islets, most couples have chosen Bora Bora for their nuptials. According to Tahiti Tourisme North America, of the couples who have tied the knot on Bora Bora since last year, 35 percent were from North America. And of that 35 percent, most were from the Western U.S.
“There is a lucrative opportunity for agents [in the Western states] who want to become pros at selling destination weddings,” said Jonathan Reap, deputy director of Tahiti Tourisme North America. “In general, Tahiti is not the easiest destination to book because you need international flights, ground transfers, inter-island flights, excursions, accommodations and more. Therefore, travel agents are absolutely essential — especially for honeymoons, romance vacations and destination weddings.”
The Nitty-Gritty To legally wed in French Polynesia, the couple must complete a multi-step application process — including a Marriage of Foreign Citizens in French Polynesia application, a Letter to the Mayor and a Certificate of Non-Marital Status — and translate some documents to French by an approved translator.
“The application process is not that complicated, truth be told. It’s just time-consuming because the couple needs to request certified copies of their birth certificates. In California, for example, this can take up to 12 weeks,” said Reap.
Once the couple requests their birth certificates, any agent who has done her homework can take over the application and charge a flat rate for the service. On top of an agent service fee, the wedding application could cost clients anywhere between $500 and $750, including the fees for a lawyer and a French translator.
“The translator and lawyer can be located on the French Consulate website, AmbaFrance-US.org. And, then, many of the steps will be completed at the consulate,” said Tina Karimi, communications manager, Tahiti Tourisme North America. “But, at every step of the way, we are here to help agents and assist them with this process.”
Of course, the couple could skip the rigmarole by having their civil ceremony in the states and holding a non-legal Tahitian ceremony in the islands thereafter. For some clients, however, having a marriage certificate from a destination as exotic as Bora Bora makes all the difference.
“If your clients are those people, than the application process is well worth it,” said Reap. “The couples who have done so are extremely happy with the end result.”
Becoming a Romance Expert With a demand for romance travel to Tahiti on the rise, where do agents start? Alison Adam — a Tahiti wedding specialist with Tahiti Travel Mate in Las Vegas — suggests that agents enroll in the tourism board’s Tahiti Tiare Specialist program to qualify for fams and make key contacts. Tahiti Tourisme also hosts 30-minute-long destination wedding webinars on the first Wednesday of the month and by demand.
Each spring, the tourism board invites 80 to 120 North American travel agents to the islands for a workshop series and fam trip, called the Tahiti Travel Exchange. In addition to site inspections and excursions, agents receive a full day of Tahiti Tourisme training, which is particularly helpful for agents interested in becoming a Tiare Specialist — after the training, participants will have met three out of the four requirements.
Tiare agents can specialize in different niches such as gay/lesbian travel, cruises and honeymoons. And the tourism office is currently designing a destination weddings course as an additional specialization.
“If you haven’t been to Tahiti, get on a tour operator fam trip and travel to Tahiti so that you can understand the destination better because it’s going to make it much easier to sell,” said Reap. “Next, get your first Tahiti wedding under way, leaning on the tourism office for advice and support.”
In Howe’s opinion, the best ways for agents to break into Tahiti’s romance travel market are to get a feel for the destination and understand the pricing structure for these types of vacations.
“One of the most challenging aspects about selling Tahiti is getting used to quoting higher per-night costs and explaining why the costs are this way,” he said. “This comes from knowing where the values are that are worth the distance and the cost.”
The typical romance vacation in Tahiti is going to cost more than its counterpart in Hawaii, Mexico or the Caribbean, but clients are signing up for a different product. Most likely, they are interested in seclusion, spending one-on-one time in an overwater bungalow and feeling that they are in a very remote place, far away from city lights and packed beaches. In that regard, Tahiti most definitely delivers. According to the tourism office, Tahiti receives as many visitors in a year as Hawaii receives in approximately 12 days. And, although it seems like a world away, Tahiti is only an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles International Airport.
To put the value of the vacation further into perspective, Howe’s strategy is to ask the couple what they are looking for, how long they have to travel and their approximate budget. He then gives them a price breakdown of the international airfare, the intra-island airfare and a per-day cost for meals and any excursions.
“I find that, if I can give clients clear guidelines on costs, which in turn gives them more control over costs, they relax,” he said, “and we can find them a great itinerary within their desired price range.”
Matchmaking There are many different experiences to be had, so matching the right island resort to your clients is key. Couples who want a more traditional Polynesian getaway would feel right at home at either the Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa on Moorea or the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort on Bora Bora. Both of these Tahitian-managed resorts offer Polynesian wedding ceremonies on the beach, complete with musicians and dancers, leis and pareus for the couple, an officiant and the services of a translator.
After the ceremony, newlyweds will return to their bungalows to find a bottle of bubbly and a bed meticulously decorated with fragrant petals of hibiscus and plumeria.
Brides and grooms concerned with perfection need not look further than InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, which aims to impress guests from the start. Wedding guests and VIPs are treated to a dramatic arrival experience during which “warriors” blow conch shells and wave their spears at guests arriving via water taxi. The resort’s Blue Lagoon Chapel — featuring a glass-bottom floor and views of Mount Otemanu — is air conditioned and can fit approximately 25 guests. After the nuptials, fire dancers perform on the beach as guests enjoy a cocktail created especially for the couple.
Couples who wish to accommodate the whole family will want to consider Legends Resort Moorea, which features 46 two- and three-bedroom villas with full, modern kitchens. The hillside property affords sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding lagoon. The resort’s private motu, visited by the likes of Bill Gates, is an idyllic spot for a traditional ceremony or a romantic coconut crab dinner for two.
The celebrity-obsessed will earn bragging rights for having their wedding at the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort. Not only was “Couples Retreat” filmed here, but several Hollywood icons, including James Cameron, Charlize Theron and Carrie Underwood, have helped generate buzz for this five-star resort. With a signature restaurant spearheaded by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and a menu featuring local barracuda, the St. Regis will not disappoint. Offering seven wedding locations, including a private motu and a coconut grove, Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora is ideal for guests who are looking for both variety and expertise. Even though this resort is the newest on the island, it laid claim to the first legal North American wedding — a couple from Laguna Beach, Calif. — in June of last year. In August, the Four Seasons will debut its new wedding experience on a 48-passenger, custom-crafted catamaran, featuring a rooftop sundeck, dining tables and a full bar.
Most of the resorts can arrange receptions on the beach as well as unique in-room dining experiences for couples or small groups.
“The canoe breakfast is a favorite,” said Adam of Tahiti Travel Mate. “There is nothing quite like hearing the sound of conch shells and watching locals paddle outrigger canoes — filled with platters of sweet tropical fruit and champagne — to the deck of your overwater bungalow.”
Going Legal To be eligible to wed in Tahiti, both spouses must be at least 18 years old, currently unmarried and be of the opposite sex. They cannot be of French origin, have French residential status in France or its territories or be related by direct lineage.
After qualifying, the couple must complete a thorough application process that includes translating some documents to French by an approved translator. Approved translators can be located on the French Consulate’s website, AmbaFrance-US.org.
The required forms — a Marriage of Foreign Citizens in French Polynesia application, a Letter to the Mayor and a Certificate of Non-Marital Status — are available to download on Tahiti Tourisme’s website, TahitiTourisme.com/Weddings. The Certificate of Non-Marital Status must be signed by a lawyer, translated to French and legalized by the French Consulate. The consulate must also legalize authenticated and translated copies of the couple’s birth certificates. All of these documents, in addition to proof of residency for both spouses and copies of their passports, must be sent to the commune no later than 45 days prior to the ceremony.