Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
The resort shop at The St. Regis Bora Bora carries the typical assortment of items for a high-end luxury beach resort: sunscreen, logo apparel and a number of bride and groom matching accessory sets.
But nestled into one corner of the shop, past the display where shoppers can mix their own blend of Tahitian monoi oil, is a subtle betrayal to the otherwise normal looking tableau: a sewing machine. The shop assistant spends time — in between interactions with customers — sewing COVID-19 facemasks for guest welcome packets.
This is but one example of how the guest experience has modified since French Polynesia’s reopening to international visitors on July 15. I arrived here in early August, and I have noted that the changes have been noticeable, albeit slight.
I arrived here in early August, and I have noted that the changes have been noticeable, albeit slight.
Plastic partitions have found their way onto hotel registration and concierge desks, and printed menus are a newly endangered species. Instead, many resorts have opted to present guests with a QR code to scan on their mobile device to read menu items in lieu of printed menus.
Touch points have also been reduced during the registration process, and clients will hear a new question posed upon check-in: “Have you already taken the self-test?” (Not only must visitors have a negative COVID-19 test taken within the subsequent 72 hours to present prior to boarding their flight to Tahiti, but they are also given a self-test upon arrival at Faa’a International Airport.)
RELATED: Tahiti Will Require Additional COVID-19 Testing to Incoming Visitors
The test envelopes are stamped with the date to be returned, and visitors must administer the test themselves on their fourth day in the country. It’s a simple nasal and oral swab that takes just a few minutes to perform, and the results can be dropped with the resort’s front desk or guesthouse owner for submission to the country’s health authorities. Visitors also receive a list of health centers at which to return the tests, for those not staying in resorts or pensions (Tahitian guesthouses).
There’s also a hotline for travelers to call if they experience any of the symptoms of COVID-19 while in the country, so that the local health authorities can monitor trends among visitors. Clients are additionally required to have travel insurance or otherwise certify their willingness and ability to pay for their own healthcare while in the country.
Those wondering how French Polynesia reopened so quickly — while other destinations such as Hawaii continue to struggle with outbreaks and visitor restrictions — need only compare the relative size of such destinations. French Polynesia’s only international gateway is on the island of Tahiti, where there are perhaps one or two daily flights to North America (regular nonstop service to Japan, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Chile is still suspended).
An international border also helps. Unlike domestic arrivals, where infrastructure needed to separate and screen inbound passengers isn’t in place, existing border control stations are easily modified. At Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport, there’s a separate desk for verifying health-related entry requirements just before passport control.
RELATED: How French Polynesia Is Faring With COVID-19 One Month After Its Reopening
French Polynesia also has the access to resources of the French Republic behind many of its health efforts. French forces provided support to remote parts of the territory during the lockdown period, and the president of French Polynesia and the French High Commissioner jointly announce most health updates.
In my opinion, it’s not a bad time to visit. Visitor volumes remain low, and several resorts that closed during the shutdown have elected to extend their closure periods to perform renovation work. The resorts that are open also appeared to be doing renovation work on portions of their guestrooms, and many have limited hours of operation in some resort restaurants while closing others.
When I arrived at InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa on Aug. 2, the main restaurant, Te Tiare, was closed except for breakfast, and a limited menu was available at the bar or via room service. The biweekly dinner shows were canceled, and the Le Lotus gastronomic restaurant was only open on weekends. By the time I returned from Bora Bora just over a week later, menus and opening hours had expanded, and Te Tiare is once again the resort’s three-meal restaurant.
Some of the service innovations are notable. InterContinental Tahiti continues its popular Sunday Brunch, complete with a local dance show. Masks are required at the buffet, and traffic patterns are clearly marked out to help maintain distance. Instead of serving utensils at each station, guests pick up a personal set of tongs or a spoon to use while at the buffet, dropping it off afterward in a bowl to be sanitized.
The St. Regis Bora Bora has elected to do away with the breakfast buffet, instead offering a la carte service. Guests are welcomed with a glass of fresh fruit juice and a bakery basket before being invited to order off the menu. Then, it’s a parade of eggs Benedict, the quiche of the day, fresh fruit, raw tuna tossed with coconut milk, lime and crunchy vegetables and whatever else one desires.
That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t anxiety over COVID-19 in the country. New cases cropped up within weeks after the nation’s reopening, although it’s notable that a large cluster infections were recorded at a farewell party for departing police officers at the end of their rotation returning to France — not by inbound visitors.
Restrictions were quickly added following the spike, but they’re not any more onerous than what most North American visitors will have left behind: discos and nightclubs are ordered closed, masks are required when not seated at a table in a restaurant, and large gatherings are banned.
Masks are also required in shops; onboard flights, ferries and boat shuttles; and in terminals. Establishments and individual violators can be fined (with individual fines starting at around $160).
A mask doesn’t prevent the wearer from tucking a fragrant tiare blossom behind one ear, and the local greeting ‘ia orana’ is no less melodic through a floral fabric.
Air Tahiti flights between islands are especially well-monitored for compliance. In-flight service is suspended as masks must be worn the entire flight, and passengers are advised to remain in their seats and not stand, move about the aircraft (unless necessary) or congregate during the flight.
Aside from masks and some resort closures, the visitor experience in French Polynesia will look remarkably similar to a return traveler. A mask doesn’t prevent the wearer from tucking a fragrant tiare blossom behind one ear, and the local greeting “ia orana” is no less melodic through a floral fabric. They’re also being faithfully worn by most visitors; on my jeep tour of Bora Bora, the only time any of the participants removed their masks was for a quick photo at a scenic viewpoint.
Now that the Islands of Tahiti are once again open, the territory’s people are ready to welcome visitors in warm Polynesian style. The DetailsInterContinental Tahitiwww.tahiti.intercontinental.com
St. Regis Bora Bora www.stregisborabora.com