PAPEETE, Tahiti — When the New Year dawns in the South Pacific, Tahiti's challenge will be to convince world tourism, particularly the U.S. travel market, that Tahiti and its Polynesian islands are an affordable, timely and still exotic destination.
The reward would be a stronger economy for French Polynesia, which then would become capable of coping with the realities of today's world while preserving the mood of Bali Hai.
From the Tahiti Beachcomber resort hotel, just outside of Papeete and looking 12 miles across the South Pacific to the isle of Moorea, the moment last fall was as beautiful for us as it was more than 40 years ago for James A. Michener, who was writing his "Tales of the South Pacific."
The day after we left for Australia, a dock strike in the port of Papeete brought out the local French Foreign Legion to maintain order and resulted in a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Papeete and four neighboring towns. The situation returned to normal in a few days, and has remained so since late October.
Tahiti has an image as an expensive destination. It is of particular concern on this island that depends on the United States for up to 50% of its tourist income.
Cost of Dining Out
Many of Tahiti's restaurants, including those in top tourist hotels, are participating in a government program to reduce the cost of dining out by 20% to 50%.
The Council of Ministers of Tahiti and Her Islands on Sept. 1 instituted a duty and import tax cut on food and alcoholic beverages.
When we arrived here, more than 40 restaurants on the isle of Tahiti had responded by introducing Tourist Menus that offer hors d'oeuvres, the main course and dessert at prices varying from about $15 at Les Bougainville to $29 at the Jade Palace, restaurants in the capital city of Papeete.
At the Beachcomber hotel, the price of the Wednesday night barbecue dinner and Tahitian dance show was cut from about $41 to $29.50 per person. This was a representative reduction for other evening dinner and entertainment programs.
The nearby luxurious Sofitel Maeva Beach Hotel has introduced menus with 35% to 40% price reductions. Bar prices also were slashed.
Lower food and beverage prices are the first stage of a government and private industry effort to reduce the cost of visiting Tahiti.
Room Rates Vary Widely
Hotel room rates may be more difficult to reduce, but they can be indirectly affected by reductions in the cost of breakfast and dinner under the Modified American Plan, often booked by guests along with accommodations. The meal plan for guests has been reduced by the Bali Hai hotel group by 20% to about $28 per day.
Room rates vary from the luxury resort hotels to smaller hotels and guest houses. A resort like the Tahiti Beachcomber aims for the upscale market.
Depending on U.S. dollar's rate of exchange, which has been about 97.08 francs to the dollar, a double room at the Beachcomber, with a dramatic view of Moorea, is about $225 per night, plus a 7% government tax.
Tennis and badminton courts at the Beachcomber are free to guests, along with equipment. Reasonable hourly and daily rates cover water sports, with or without lessons, from snorkeling and scuba diving to windsurfing, water skiing and Hobie cat sailing.
Dinner is highlighted at 8:30 each evening by the music, songs and dances presented by Tahitian performers on the Garden Terrace in front of the open-air Tiare Restaurant.
The Hotel Royal Tahitien, two miles from the port of Papeete, offers an ocean-view double room above the black sand beach for about $110. Several years ago, we had our Thanksgiving dinner in the Royal Tahitien Restaurant looking out toward the silhouette of Moorea.
Guest houses around the islands have accommodations for two as low as $40.
Development in High Gear
Here on the main island of Tahiti, which has more than 50% of the 170,000 inhabitants of French Polynesia, with 24,000 in Papeete, the impact of the current five-year economic development plan is visible.
The key tourist industry and the campaign to make a Tahiti visit less expensive, remains the focus of this plan, but there is also an emphasis on agriculture and ocean resources. These include cultured pearls, mother-of-pearl shells, vanilla and coffee. The goal is to give this French Overseas Territory a more stable and broader-based economy.
The black pearl is becoming French Polynesia's biggest export item, accounting for around 20% of all exports. Some 30,000 black pearls, valued at about $3.2 million, went on sale at Papeete's ninth-annual international pearl auction in October.
The biggest buyers were Japanese firms, but there were also buyers from the United States, Switzerland and France. Visitors shop for pearl bargains in Papeete.
Cruise tourism dropped sharply last January, when American Hawaii Cruises withdrew its 715-passenger Liberte from Tahiti. Now Exploration Cruise Lines leads the way in French Polynesia.