French Polynesia seeks to make some waves with campaign

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A row of overwater villas at Le Tahaa Island Resort & Spa, which is a 45-minute boat ride from the Raiatea airport.
A row of overwater villas at Le Tahaa Island Resort & Spa, which is a 45-minute boat ride from the Raiatea airport. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
PAPEETE, Tahiti — A new campaign from Tahiti Tourisme aims to educate travelers about the much broader diversity of its hotel and destination offerings, particularly those meeting the growing demand for authentic experiences.


Tahiti Tourisme CEO Paul Sloan announced the "Take Me to Tahiti" campaign last month to showcase French Polynesia as more than a honeymoon destination, one with many options for couples and families as well as a rich, welcoming culture.

The campaign was announced at the group's inaugural Parau Parau Tahiti travel mart, which brought 32 tour operators from North and South America, Australia and New Zealand for two days of one-on-one meetings, along with options to add fam trips across some of its more than 100 lesser-known islands.

Parau Parau Tahiti, Sloan said, was organized, in part, to help the tour operators learn more about French Polynesia's many hidden islands, unique activities for travelers of all ages and small guesthouses, the owners of which can't afford to travel to the larger Pacific and international travel trade shows.

"A big chunk of what we are doing, a big objective, is to show the diversity that we have," Sloan said."Overwater bungalows were invented here 50 years ago. But now they're found everywhere in the world. … So what we have is awesome. But the reality is, what sets us apart is the other part of the experience."

During a panel discussion, tour operators talked about the need to educate travelers and agents about destinations beyond Bora Bora, which is known largely as a honeymoon and romance hot spot.

Tahiti, said Tara Lano, director of leisure marketing at Flight Centre USA, has hotel chains "that Americans are not familiar with, islands that Americans have never heard of."

Tour operators also emphasized the need for more product, especially when the low-cost carrier French Bee and United Airlines launch service from San Francisco later this year. French Bee's inaugural flight is May 11, and United is expected to start service in October. Currently, the only direct flights from the mainland are from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, which will take delivery of its first of four new Dreamliners this year.

To help meet new and growing demand, Sloan said Tahiti Tourisme is working to connect guesthouses with tour operators so they can more easily develop comprehensive packages that tap into the island's family-run inns, which range from rooms in private homes to small properties with four or five luxury beach bungalows, across Tahiti's far-flung islands.

Tahiti has 2,800 traditional hotel rooms and 1,400 guesthouse rooms, offering great opportunities for packages that Sloan said let travelers "totally mix and match," spending a few days on a remote island backpacking and experiencing a true slice of Polynesian life, then moving to one of the bigger luxury resorts for the iconic overwater experience and spas.

Mary Jeanine Cater, managing director of Tahiti.com, said she is excited about new opportunities for selling Tahiti, noting there is "huge, swelling demand for culturally rich experiences."

The island of Raiatea, for instance, is home to a new Unesco World Heritage Site, the sacred Taputapuatea marae from which Polynesians launched their expansion across the South Pacific some 1,000 years ago.

Although visitor numbers to Tahiti were up 8% last year (the fourth consecutive year of increases), conference delegates also noted that supply in Tahiti has been stagnant, and they talked about the competition from lower-cost destinations like the Maldives, which Sloan said now has two-thirds of the world's overwater bungalows. Destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean are also adding the once Tahiti-centric product, along with all-inclusive packages that many Americans like. The only all-inclusive product in Tahiti is at the Brando, one of the world's most exclusive destinations.

Guesthouses, Sloan said, offer a more authentic taste of Polynesian life at a lower price point that averages about $100 night.

Although popular with European travelers, the challenge, said Marta Visu, vice president of Pacific Holidays, is getting to know the product and which guesthouses meet American travelers' standards.

To help, Kristin Kemper, managing director of Tahiti Tourisme USA, said the group's new website has pages where guesthouses and activity operators can add information about their products. Tahiti Tourisme is also focusing public relations efforts on promoting guesthouses and products like sailing charters and dive shops.

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