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Traveling last fall on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Papeete, Tahiti, to Honolulu, I found myself wondering why more vacationers don’t combine trips to Hawaii and French Polynesia. Flying home to Oahu, after a media visit featuring several stops in the Islands of Tahiti, I thought a vacation to both celebrated destinations sounded like a terrific idea.
There are, no doubt, many similarities between the two destinations — including white-sand beaches, warm ocean waters, jagged green mountains and elements of Polynesian culture — but the Hawaiian Islands and French Polynesia certainly offer travelers contrasting experiences.
The most immediately recognizable difference is probably the language. English is common around many of the Islands of Tahiti, but French, of course, is everywhere, as one of the nation’s official languages. U.S. visitors will most definitely discover a much more European feel in French Polynesia. As a Hawaii resident who once lived and worked in France, I simply adored the Euro-French vibe that permeated so many facets of life not only in the South Pacific nation’s Society Islands but also the Tuamotu Archipelago. I also think it’s fair to say visitors are far more likely to find a really terrific croissant or pain au chocolat during a resort breakfast in Tahiti.
Another dramatic difference is simply the tourism infrastructure one finds in Hawaii vs. what exists now in French Polynesia. The Hawaiian Islands welcomed more than 8 million visitors in 2015, while the total number of tourism arrivals to French Polynesia was close to 185,000 last year. Although there are busier tourism locales in the Islands of Tahiti, the overall destination seems to provide a sleepier feel and a much slower pace that many might argue travelers once enjoyed more commonly in Hawaii decades ago.
According to Peter Ingram, chief commercial officer and executive vice president of Hawaiian Airlines, some of French Polynesia’s tourism infrastructure limitations have hampered demand for the airline’s nonstop service between Honolulu and Papeete.
“The level of the frequency is determined by demand, frankly,” he said of the carrier’s HNL-PPT flight, noting that Hawaiian Airlines has generally offered nonstop service between Oahu and the island of Tahiti only once weekly for more than 10 years. “I think we would be happy to respond to increased demand with greater frequency. But it’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing for us. There’s not as much hotel and tourism infrastructure in Tahiti as there is in Hawaii. It’s also a farther destination from the West Coast, and that has kept it a relatively low-frequency market for us.”
For Susan Tanzman, owner of Martin’s Travel and Tours in Los Angeles, the low frequency of Hawaiian Airlines’ service between Honolulu and Papeete — which is the only nonstop flight connecting the two destinations — makes selling Hawaii-French Polynesia combination vacations tough.
“Airlift is a problem,” she said, adding that the generally higher cost of Tahiti vacations also poses a challenge for clients. “You can’t find many young people that can afford it.”
Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, says that the Los Angeles-based wholesaler does sell Hawaii-French Polynesia combo trips occasionally, but he described the option as a “rare booking.”
“For the most part, travelers tend to book these destinations separately, preferring to book multiple Hawaiian Islands as one vacation or multiple islands in French Polynesia as one vacation,” he said.
Still, Pleasant does arrange combo itineraries to both Hawaii and French Polynesia for its customers each year and, according to Richards, those products typically begin with a visit to Oahu.
“A typical combo vacation would be three to four nights in Waikiki, plus seven nights in Tahiti,” he said. “Hotel accommodations are four- and five-star due to the overall price of the Tahiti vacation.”
Tanzman has also sold some Hawaii-French Polynesia combos over the years, booking a couple from New York on a trip to both destinations last year because the clients were looking for some urban nightlife along with downtime in the sand.
“I put them at Kahala Hotel on Oahu, which they absolutely loved,” Tanzman said. “They really enjoyed the great restaurants in Honolulu, and then they went to the St. Regis Bora Bora and did nothing but not move on the beach.”
The combo option has typically made the most sense for Tanzman’s affluent clients in the past, but she’s also put together Hawaii-Tahiti vacations where couples were married in the Aloha State and then honeymooned in French Polynesia. She’s also used Hawaii as the first leg of a trip to Tahiti to help break up the air time for U.S. travelers not fond of long-haul flights.
And while it seems pretty clear that a combination Hawaii-French Polynesia vacation isn’t likely to become a major selling product any time soon, it does appear to be an option agents may want to at least keep in mind. The trips are perhaps most effectively scheduled by first flying clients to Hawaii for a few days, then stopping in Tahiti before flying directly back to Los Angeles. Both Air Tahiti Nui and Air France offer nonstops between Papeete and Los Angeles several times per week.
The Hawaii-French Polynesia option may also make sense for affluent clients who are already quite fond of Hawaii. Scheduling a little familiar, urban nightlife on Oahu before a brand-new international adventure in a far sleepier destination could be just the ticket for the right luxury travelers.
Despite the low-frequency flights and expenses that can make the Hawaii-French Polynesia combo difficult to sell, there are still clients to be found who are the perfect fit for this itinerary. For this Hawaii resident, at least, the combo certainly made for a wonderful experience late last fall.
Martin’s Travel and Tourswww.martinstravel.com