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Editor's Note: Tahiti Tourisme officials announced on April 8 that French Polynesia would be reopening its borders to international visitors on May 1, 2021.
French Polynesia will remain closed to tourists through at least the end of April, according to Tahiti Tourisme executives, who still haven’t announced a firm date for when the destination will welcome back leisure travelers.
“The Islands of Tahiti will be extending their closure through the month of April with the objective to open in May,” said Jean-Marc Mocellin, CEO of Tahiti Tourisme, in a March 10 statement. “Although the number of new cases remains extremely low, the government wants to take the time to be proactive in protecting both the population and the travelers who are vacationing.”
During a March 16 public address in Papeete, French Polynesia’s President Edouard Fritch said that the precise date for when tourism might restart in May remains undecided, referring to comments made days earlier by French High Commissioner Dominique Sorain.
“The High Commissioner said recently our reopening would be scheduled for May — whether it will be early or late May remains to be seen,” Fritch said. “For my part, I hope this opening will take place as soon as possible.”
RELATED: French Polynesia Is Closing Borders to Tourism
Home to more than 118 islands and just under 300,000 residents, French Polynesia closed its borders to international visitors Feb. 3 after government officials in France suspended all travel to and from non-European Union destinations — except in emergencies — and extended that ban on leisure trips to France’s overseas territories, including French Polynesia.
On Monday, the French Polynesian Ministry of Health said 11 new COVID-19 cases were reported across the country in the last 72 hours, and just four people suffering from the virus are currently in the hospital there.
More than 145,000 new COVID-19 cases have, however, been reported across France in the past week, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The stark contrast in those figures has some tourism stakeholders wondering whether French Polynesia will be allowed to reopen for tourism before the alarming COVID-19 surge in France improves.
My fear is France is driving these decisions based upon their experience and not what’s happening in Tahiti.
“My fear is France is driving these decisions based upon their experience and not what’s happening in Tahiti,” said Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, on Monday. “France is a totally different animal. Their cases are going up. They locked the country down for another three or four weeks. … But if you look at Tahiti, their cases are relatively stable.”
Richards said Pleasant learned late last week that the leisure travel ban in French Polynesia would be extended beyond March 31 and continue now through at least April 30. The wholesaler has since been working with travel advisors to notify affected clients and rebook as many of them as possible. So far, most are choosing to hold onto their reservations, Richards said, and opting to push back their dates.
“We’re not processing a lot of cancellations,” Richards said. “It’s relatively minor at this point, but as we get into April, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Airlines and Hotels Respond to Extended Restart DelayAir Tahiti Nui, meanwhile, notified its travel advisor partners on March 18 that the carrier would be extending its suspension of nonstop service between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Papeete through April 30.
United Airlines said on Monday the carrier would also extend its suspension of three-times-weekly service between San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Papeete through at least the end of April.
Nicholas Panza, Air Tahiti Nui’s vice president for the Americas, described the extended moratorium on leisure travel to French Polynesia as “frustrating,” and said the carrier has largely been operating cargo-only flights between Papeete, Paris and Los Angeles. He was optimistic, however, about a tourism restart in May and said a majority of those booked on April Air Tahiti Nui flights between LAX and Papeete have not asked for refunds.
“More than 60% of those booked in April are rebooking,” Panza said. “Mostly, it appears to be from June onwards.”
Ten different resorts across French Polynesia, meanwhile, have now announced they will be closed through at least end of April, according to Tahiti Tourisme officials, including the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, Le Taha’a by Pearl Resorts and The Brando on Tetiaroa.
“The estimated May 1 reopen date remains subject to change, depending on the evolution of the border regulations and policies,” said Silvio Bion, general manager of The Brando, in a March 9 statement. “We will still maintain several functions active within the resort to ensure a quick and efficient reopening of our property when the time comes.”
Lack of Opening Date Strains Tourism Businesses in Tahiti; Described as “Missed Opportunity”Heimata Hall, a Moorea resident who owns Tahiti Food Tours, indicated French Polynesia officials are also now working on a vaccine passport program for visitors, but he said prolonged indecision about when leisure travelers might actually return to the destination is especially tough for those who make a living in the visitor industry.
You can feel the crunch today as all tourism-related businesses have had to dig into whatever savings are left.
"Having the borders closed with no certainty of when they will reopen has been very challenging," Hall said. "You can feel the crunch today as all tourism-related businesses have had to dig into whatever savings are left. The consensus here is we hope we will at least reopen the borders for the high season of June through December."
Lack of a firm tourism restart date is also creating challenges for Keith Smith, managing director of Venture Tahiti in Boca Raton, Fla., who said some of his clients with French Polynesia vacation plans have already rebooked their trips three times since the start of the pandemic.
“Any kind of uncertainty makes our job more difficult,” Smith said. “Not having a definitive date raises the apprehension level with the current clients that are booked. … And with people we’re talking to who are ready to book, who would be new bookings, a lot of them are taking a wait-and-see stance. When there is uncertainty like this in Tahiti, they look at other destinations that are open. They may have a certain window when they can travel, and obviously if their window was in April, that’s a missed opportunity.”
Pleasant’s Richards also described April as a missed opportunity for the Islands of Tahiti, noting that the wholesaler has seen a tremendous surge in inquiries and bookings to destinations like Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean in recent weeks, motivated in part by positive vaccination news.
“We are seeing a lot of last-minute bookings and big pent-up demand coming in, and Tahiti is missing out,” Richards said. “I think we would have added a lot more travel in the month of April had they not made this decision.”
When there is uncertainty like this in Tahiti, they look at other destinations that are open.
Even so, Richards noted Pleasant is seeing strong bookings for travel to French Polynesia for June through December of this year, and Panza at Air Tahiti Nui agreed, saying the carrier is already seeing relatively solid load factors for flights between LAX and Papeete this summer.
“The seat factors are north of 60%, which is very good right now,” Panza said. “And even for the month of May, the seat factors are reasonable. So very clearly, Americans are ready to go, they want to go, and despite this small setback in April, they are rebooking. And every month from June to the end of the year, we’ve had positive growth.”The DetailsTahiti Tourismewww.tahititourisme.com