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Beginning July 15, French Polynesia is set to officially welcome its first international tourists in nearly four months, reopening an industry that has been crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The destination was one of the first to announce a virus pretest requirement for all arriving travelers, but following the recent spike in new cases across the U.S., Tahiti officials have recently instituted new safety protocols, including additional mandatory testing once visitors are in the islands.
“Upon arrival in Tahiti, a COVID-19 test kit will be distributed to all passengers, who will proceed to carry out a self-test four days later to ensure they are still negative,” said Jean-Marc Mocellin, CEO of Tahiti Tourisme, on July 7.
Offering an assessment of the pandemic in Tahiti’s major tourism source markets, Mocellin said Europe appears to have the virus under better control, but parts of North America remain worrisome.
“We are concerned about the situation of the U.S., our main feeder market, which is currently still in a critical situation,” he said.
Home to more than 118 islands and just under 300,000 residents, French Polynesia closed its borders in late March this year, effectively shutting down a tourism economy that welcomed more than 235,000 visitors in 2019 (who spent more than $600 million across the destination).
Those border restrictions have, however, helped produce impressive virus containment results. Through July 8, French Polynesia has reported 62 confirmed COVID-19 cases and no deaths, according to research from Johns Hopkins University.
Although many tourism destinations have now announced virus pretesting protocols — including Hawaii, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Alaska — French Polynesia was one of the first to make its plan public. In early June, the South Pacific nation said it would reopen its borders on July 15, requiring all visitors to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours of boarding the incoming flight.
The recent decision requiring additional in-destination testing for visitors days after they complete COVID-19 exams in their countries of origin separates Tahiti, however, from the safety protocols of many other destinations, where travelers must either pass a test before they depart or after they arrive — but not both.
Visitors who test positive while in French Polynesia will be “handled on a case-by-case basis depending on their health condition,” according to Tahiti tourism officials.
Greg Kiep, a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based advisor with Protravel International, says he has seen more Tahiti inquiries in recent weeks, but he has not yet made any new bookings. Kiep says the mandatory testing requirement before and after arrival likely will not discourage his clients from visiting the South Pacific nation.
“People understand that these are unique times, and destinations are trying to protect their citizens while still welcoming tourists in a safe manner,” he said. “My clients want to feel that properties and destinations are doing what they can to protect them as well.”
People understand that these are unique times, and destinations are trying to protect their citizens while still welcoming tourists in a safe manner. My clients want to feel that properties and destinations are doing what they can to protect them as well.
Gigi Becker, owner of Virtuoso-affiliated Empyrean Travel Management in Los Angeles, has sold Tahiti for more than 20 years. She says she has also seen more interest in the destination in recent weeks and has even made bookings to the island of Bora Bora for later this year.
But, she says her clients’ reaction to the destination’s testing protocols will vary.
“It could be, ‘Great, I’m glad the people I’m flying with do not have COVID-19,’” she said. “Or, it could be, ‘Oh no. What a hassle.’ I think it just depends on the individual.”
Tahiti Tourisme, meanwhile, launched a new global marketing campaign June 19 entitled “Reconnect With the World,” which is scheduled to roll out in two phases, according to tourism officials. The first is aimed at raising reopening awareness while emphasizing the destination’s natural and cultural beauty and reminding people of the South Pacific nation’s remoteness. The second phase will work toward encouraging bookings.
Tahiti Tourisme has also created an online dashboard for advisors, informing users about what hotel properties, activities and tours will be open in French Polynesia, along with further specifics regarding COVID-19 safety protocols, including documents travelers need to complete before boarding a plane.
Acknowledging the reluctance many now feel about booking vacations, Tahiti Tourisme’s Mocellin said his organization has been working with stakeholders to provide potential visitors more confidence.
“Tahiti Tourisme has [brought] together all the main players in the tourism sector to sign an agreement waiving cancellation and change fees until June 2021 for all new reservations and maintaining rates until March 2022,” he said.
Tahiti Tourisme has brought together all the main players in the tourism sector to sign an agreement waiving cancellation and change fees until June 2021 for all new reservations and maintaining rates until March 2022.
Mocellin also noted several carriers will resume service to French Polynesia this month, including Air Tahiti Nui’s nonstop between Los Angeles International Airport and Papeete beginning July 15. United Airlines is scheduled to return flights to Tahiti in early August.
Krista Betts, a Virtuoso-affiliated advisor at Balboa Travel in Austin, Texas, has also seen Tahiti inquiries increase in recent weeks, but has not yet converted new bookings. She says the islands’ lack of crowds has been a key point of interest for her clients.
“It’s not a place where you come in contact with a lot of people,” she said. “They have fewer visitors annually than Hawaii sees in seven days.”
Betts said private catamaran and yacht sailings, as well as visits to The Brando luxury resort on the island of Tetiaroa, offer lots of current appeal. She is also confident about booking with Paul Gauguin Cruises, which is slated to begin sailings for international travelers in early August.
“[The Paul Gauguin ship] is small, and there are less than 400 people onboard,” Betts said, noting the vessel has impressive new cleaning and safety protocols. “It has enhanced air filtration systems onboard. I would definitely go in a heartbeat.”
Each advisor interviewed also mentioned the attractive privacy of Tahiti’s extensive collection of overwater bungalows.
“Often, when you’re staying in those, you wonder ‘Where is everybody?’ — even when a property is operating at high-occupancy,” Becker said.
Still, none of the advisors were bullish on a vigorous 2020 restart for Tahiti tourism. Citing their clients’ persistent concerns about the unknowns of travel to any destination at the moment, each suggested business to French Polynesia may pick up next year.
“As confidence in plane travel increases, I think Tahiti will be an even more sought-out destination,” Kiep of Protravel said. “It has so many outdoor and ocean activities. You can really isolate in your own overwater bungalow. So much of the dining is already outdoors. It just checks a lot of the boxes for my clients.”
The DetailsTahiti Tourismewww.tahititourisme.com