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It hasn’t been easy, but Laurel Louderback, owner of True Tahiti Vacation in Redondo Beach, Calif., is booking trips to French Polynesia.
The key is working with flexible clients, says Louderback, who has sold Tahiti vacations for nearly 20 years and once lived on Moorea.
“When I’m booking new people, it’s not business as usual,” she said, referring to the significant amount of time she’s recently spent reworking itineraries after flight cancellations. “Prior to COVID-19, [the client can] be pissed off that Air Tahiti Nui has canceled the flight. But now, I don’t want them to be pissed off. I want them to go into this [process] knowing it can happen."
Attaining a COVID-19 Test Prior to DepartureNavigating French Polynesia’s mandate that all visitors provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of boarding an incoming flight has also been difficult, but Louderback has enjoyed recent success with Los Angeles-based testing provider Good Life Medical Services, a business that Air Tahiti Nui recommends on its website.
Louderback’s Florida-based clients flew into Los Angeles earlier this week; got tested at Good Life Medical’s drive-thru facility; received their results within 24 hours; and flew from Los Angeles to Papeete on a nonstop Air Tahiti Nui flight the following day. Clients from states such as Oregon, Washington and Georgia are slated for similar routines in the coming weeks. (Good Life Medical charges $125 per person for its drive-thru COVID-19 tests, but there is an additional $125 fee to expedite results in 24 hours.)
“Nobody’s complaining to me about the cost of staying three nights [in Los Angeles ahead of the trip] or the testing prices,” Louderback said.
She also says that most of her new Tahiti bookings have come from folks whose trips elsewhere were canceled.
Air Tahiti Nui recently released revised flight schedules for September and October, according to Nicholas Panza, vice president for the Americas at Air Tahiti Nui. The carrier operates three flights per week to Papeete out of Los Angeles, and Panza says that bookings have performed better than expected, given the current environment.
“Unfortunately, we do not have a crystal ball into the future,” he said. “We don’t know when U.S. to Europe routes will reopen, and we don’t know the state of COVID-19 in the U.S. several months from now.”
Thus, the airline’s schedules have been set for 60-75 days of continuity without a change during that period.
“I believe that we are no different than any other airline or cruise line in this respect, adjusting schedules as we cope with the uncertainties of COVID-19,” he said. “As much as we may not wish this to be the case, our advice to travel professionals is to be aware of this possibility and to advise their customers of the possibility of adjustments of up to 24 hours.”
Earlier this spring, the airline employed nurses to perform temperature checks prior to departures at Los Angeles International Airport, according to Panza. The healthcare staffing business that the airline worked with in March later partnered with Los Angeles-based physician Dr. Jeff Toll to form Good Life Medical Services.
Toll, Good Life Medical’s medical director, says the company has since tested a few hundred passengers booked on Air Tahiti Nui flights.
“I don’t think we’ve had even a single one [passenger who] didn’t get their result back on time,” Toll said. “Because of our lab relationships and the volume of testing we’re doing, we’re one of the very few testing sites that can actually offer a legitimate 24-hour turnaround with automated results.”
About 40% of Air Tahiti Nui’s passengers have reached out about COVID-19 pretest requirements, and some clients have had challenges completing a test and receiving results within the 72-hour window, Panza says.
“But the majority of our passengers have been able to successfully obtain a test,” he added. “And if our clients cannot obtain a test in time, we will assist them in changing their booking without a change fee.”
The majority of our passengers have been able to successfully obtain a test. And if our clients cannot obtain a test in time, we will assist them in changing their booking without a change fee.
Another place to obtain a COVID-19 test with quick results is Los Angeles-based My Concierge MD, according to Diego Stembert, general manager at Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, who recommends the service to clients booked at the hotel.
“We found out about Dr. David Nazarian and My Concierge MD through our sister hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills,” said Stembert, whose Bora Bora property has welcomed several hundred guests since its July 15 reopening. “The process works well, with the option of the Beverly Hills or Los Angeles drive-thru test or home testing. People can choose what works best for them.”
Nazarian, who started the Beverly Hills-based company to provide care to the entertainment industry, says that although COVID-19 testing for travelers has been extraordinarily busy the past few weeks, turnaround times for results have remained consistent.
“Getting the results for us is not difficult,” he said. “We can do that easily in typically 24 hours. Sometimes we’ll have results for them on the same day.”
The Current State of COVID-19 in the CountryNearly 7,000 visitors have traveled to French Polynesia since the destination reopened its borders July 15, according to Tahiti tourism officials who report that the nation’s enhanced safety protocols and COVID-19 test requirements have been effective thus far.
“There has been a nominal number of positive cases among travelers to the country since [July 15], which has demonstrated that the testing and containment measures have been working, especially given that we only know of one case of a U.S. traveler testing positive,” said Kristin Carlson, managing director of Tahiti Tourisme U.S.
French Polynesia announced its COVID-19 pretest plan in early June, but a week before the July 15 reopen date, Tahiti officials said additional mandatory in-destination testing would also be required for all visitors. Tahiti travelers are all now given a COVID-19 test kit upon arrival, and they must administer the self-test after four days in the destination.
That safety protocol detected an infected traveler earlier this month on a Paul Gauguin ship, where an American woman tested positive for COVID-19 and was subsequently isolated. The rest of the ship’s more than 300 passengers were retested soon after returning to port in Papeete, according French Polynesia health officials, but none were positive.
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There have, however, been some bumps on the road since. A member of an Air Tahiti Nui cockpit crew tested positive for COVID-19 after completing a flight to Tahiti from Paris earlier this month, according to Panza. He also says that other members of the crew were tested soon after, and none were positive.
French Polynesia, meanwhile, is currently suffering a worrisome spike in cases.
“Seventy-one new positive cases in four days; this is too much,” said Edouard Fritch, the nation’s president, in an Aug. 11 speech, lambasting what he described as “the irresponsibility of a few people.”
Fritch was quick to note the new cases were not linked to reopening Tahiti’s tourism industry, pointing to the detection and isolation of the infected Paul Gauguin traveler as an example of enhanced safety protocols and testing mandates working effectively.
“It is not the tourists who are to blame for this spread of the virus; they have followed the protocols carefully,” he said. “Partying and alcohol have helped spread the virus brought in from outside by our residents or officials assigned to Polynesia.”
It’s not the tourists who are to blame for this spread of the virus. They have followed the protocols carefully.
Home to more than 118 islands and just under 300,000 residents, French Polynesia has reported 133 confirmed COVID-19 cases through Aug. 12 and no deaths, according to research from the World Health Organization.
“Since we started flying July 15, we’ve moved a few thousand passengers to Tahiti,” Air Tahiti Nui’s Panza said. “And to the best of our knowledge, we have that one person who tested negative before going but then became positive. The [encouraging] side of the story is the safety protocols in place. French Polynesia picked that up very quickly.”
The DetailsAir Tahiti Nui www.airtahitinui.com
Four Seasons Resort Bora Borawww.fourseasons.com
Good Life Medical Serviceswww.goodlifemedicalservices.com
My Concierge MDwww.myconciergemd.com