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Editor’s Note: Since this story was published, Jean-Marc Mocellin, CEO of Tahiti Tourisme, has released this statement addressing a possible end date to the border closure: “While the COVID-19 pandemic shows a significant drop in French Polynesia for several consecutive weeks, both the French and our local government have decided to restrict travel to The Islands of Tahiti for international visitors through March 31, and impose a 14-day quarantine for those entering the country for a compelling reason as defined by the website of the High Commission, given the spread of new variants around the world. If in the short term, it is indeed a disaster for the whole tourism sector, we want to remain positive. Indeed, since we have to go through these measures anyway, better it happens now during our low season, keeping our fenua safe for our visitors and getting ready for our next season. We hope to be able to welcome visitors back by this April or May. We will certainly communicate on this once we have a firm reopening date.”
Tahiti tourism stakeholders were unable to persuade French government officials in a last-minute meeting on Monday to reconsider the closure of French Polynesia’s borders to international visitors on Feb. 3.
News of the indefinite border closure broke late last week when France announced that, in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, it would suspend all travel to and from non-European Union destinations — except in urgent cases — and extended the moratorium on leisure trips to its overseas territories, including French Polynesia.
Jean-Marc Mocellin, CEO of Tahiti Tourisme, met Monday afternoon with the French High Commission in Papeete, according to tourism officials, and Air Tahiti Nui’s executive team also convened with that governing body Monday, according to Nicholas Panza, the airline’s vice president for the Americas.
It creates a difficult situation in that we’re dealing with many, many thousands of people who will be calling to rebook their travel.
Panza was hopeful earlier Monday that an arrangement might be reached to keep the destination’s visitor industry open, and he acknowledged the dramatic toll a Feb. 3 border closure would have on business.
“It creates a difficult situation in that we’re dealing with many, many thousands of people who will be calling to rebook their travel,” Panza said. “There will be a lot of work.”
By Monday afternoon, Tahiti Tourisme officials and other stakeholders appeared to have officially accepted that the coming border closure would indeed take place, and Tahiti Tourisme issued a statement Monday night, saying only travelers “who can justify one of the compelling reasons — health, professional, family [or a] return home” will be allowed entry.
“Faced with the resurgence of COVID-19 cases around the world and in order to preserve French Polynesia, which has for its part shown significant improvement for several consecutive weeks, the authorities have decided to temporarily suspend travel to Tahiti and her islands, including for tourists from all origins, until further notice,” the statement reads. “Travelers currently in French Polynesia whose return is scheduled during this week can end their stay normally. Beyond that, it is advisable to contact your airline to check your flight schedule.”
Faced with the resurgence of COVID-19 cases around the world and in order to preserve French Polynesia, which has for its part shown significant improvement for several consecutive weeks, the authorities have decided to temporarily suspend travel to Tahiti and her islands, including for tourists from all origins, until further notice.
Panza said in an email Monday evening, meanwhile, that “this week’s flight schedule will be maintained as is” for Air Tahiti Nui, and “we believe passengers leaving the U.S. on our flight tomorrow night will be exempt as they departed Feb. 2.”
Tour Operators and Travel Advisors Act Quickly Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said the wholesaler was already working Monday with travel advisors who have clients traveling to French Polynesia in coming weeks, examining a range of rebooking options.
“Our problem is we have people leaving tomorrow,” Richards said Monday. “We have 77 bookings traveling between now and the end of March and 152 traveling through April, so that’s a big number.”
Richards said Pleasant is helping some advisors rebook clients to alternate destinations, and he said the wholesaler may soon offer perks for travelers who decide to keep their travel dates but vacation elsewhere.
We want the advisors to keep the business on the books. We don’t care where it goes. We’re just trying to maintain it for the advisor and the company.
“We’re discussing whether we should offer them an incentive to shift to another destination, like Hawaii, the Caribbean or Mexico, but we haven’t gotten that far along yet,” he explained. “We want the advisors to keep the business on the books. We don’t care where it goes. We’re just trying to maintain it for the advisor and the company.”
News of a coming French Polynesia border closure was particularly tough for Laurel Louderback, the owner of True Tahiti Vacation in Redondo Beach, Calif., who first learned of the possibility late last week.
“It was a gut punch,” Louderback said. “Friday afternoon, I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. I think all of us did because it was so unexpected and out of left field. … There was no talk of this, no preparation that this may happen.”
France’s overseas minister Sebastien Lecornu said Sunday in an address to French Polynesian citizens that the new, more infectious strains of the virus are a growing menace and require new mitigation strategies.
“Today, the threat for French Polynesia is great,” he insisted. “If one of the variants were to be detected, we could face an explosion of cases and a hospital system that is completely overwhelmed.”
Lecornu acknowledged the impact an indefinite suspension of tourism to French Polynesia would have on the small nation’s visitor-dependent economy, but he insisted the decision to close borders was critically important.
Controlling the flow of travelers, by limiting them to what is strictly necessary, is absolutely essential to limit the mixing of populations and lower the risk of introducing a COVID-19 variant into Polynesian territory.
“I know the economic sacrifice this implies for you, but we cannot compromise with the health of our fellow citizens — that must remain our priority,” he said. “Controlling the flow of travelers, by limiting them to what is strictly necessary, is absolutely essential to limit the mixing of populations and lower the risk of introducing a COVID-19 variant into Polynesian territory. This is a necessary evil so French Polynesia is protected and it can reopen tourism as quickly as possible.”
Through Feb. 1, French Polynesia reported 18,101 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 132 deaths, according to its ministry of health. Prior to the tourism restart on July 15 last year, however, the country had reported just 62 cases and no deaths.
Heimata Hall, who was born and raised on Moorea and owns Tahiti Food Tours, said in an email Monday that the border closure decision “is not in the best interest of French Polynesia.”
“It was a decision made by the President of France via his overseas minister; the French Polynesian government was not consulted prior,” Hall said. “I had hoped and wished our Tahitian government would have asked for more time from the French government to be able to come up with a better strategy to keep our borders open. We have worked so hard since the July 15 reopening last year … and it has been proven with the statistics from the past six months that the COVID-19 spike here was not due to U.S. tourists coming to French Polynesia, but from French government workers who traveled here.”
Hall said the border closure “will be catastrophic” for his food tour business.
“Cancellations for February and March have already started coming in due to the announcement of the shutdown of the borders,” he explained. “Ninety percent of my business is based on international tourists.”
Kristin Carlson, managing director of Tahiti Tourisme U.S., appeared to share in Hall’s frustration, saying in an email Tuesday morning that pre- and post-arrival COVID-19 test requirements mandated for all visitors since the July 15 reopening last year had proven particularly effective.
“We are disheartened to announce a temporary closure of our borders to international tourists,” Carlson said in her email. “With an extremely low incidence rate and consistent drop in the number of new cases, we are optimistic that we will be able to welcome travelers in the very near future.”
If there is no ending date attached to this order, I think it’s absolutely devastating for the destination because no one knows when it’s going to reopen, so they’re not going to book.
Even so, the currently indefinite timeframe for the border closing will be especially challenging for travel advisors, according to Louderback. The longtime Tahiti expert, who lived for a time on Moorea, has 12 clients booked to the islands of Tahiti in February, and many more in months that follow. There’s no penalty to reschedule those vacations later this year, she said, but there’s been no indication yet from French government officials about when the islands of Tahiti will reopen to U.S. visitors.
“If you tell me this an indefinite thing, that’s when the panic starts for me personally. That becomes untenable,” she said. “If this goes beyond a month, you start to affect high-season bookings, and these resorts, they need high-season bookings.”
Both Louderback and Richards felt the Feb. 3 border closure would also have a longer-lasting impact on consumer confidence. The July 15 reboot last summer came after a nearly four-month border closure due to the pandemic’s onset, but the islands of Tahiti had not deviated from their initial pre- and post-arrival testing requirements through the end of this January.
“Tahiti did a good job getting organized and communicating and was very stable in terms of their day-to-day regulations,” Richards said, noting the destination had been one of Pleasant’s top performers for months, thanks in large part to that consistency. “This throws it totally into chaos. … If there is no ending date attached to this order, I think it’s absolutely devastating for the destination because no one knows when it’s going to reopen, so they’re not going to book.”
The DetailsTahiti Tourisme www.tahititourisme.com