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On a Budget

Price Is Right for Polynesia

April 26, 1998|ARTHUR FROMMER

Long a fairly exclusive, mostly European affair, tourism to the Society Islands of French Polynesia--including Moorea, Bora-Bora, Huahine and Tahiti--is now undergoing a sea change of sorts as the islands make a bid to lure more Americans at surprisingly low prices.

Just over 44,000 of the roughly 180,500 annual visitors to the fabled South Pacific isles of Paul Gauguin and "Mutiny on the Bounty" now hail from our own shores. But arrivals from the United States in the first months of 1998 have zoomed as high as 44% more than the same period last year.

One of the main reasons is the appearance in recent years of a slew of U.S. tour operators--both new and established--selling weeklong air-land packages from the West Coast for as little as $759 and $799 per person (based on double occupancy).

For those who consider Hawaii the epitome of paradise in the Pacific, Tahiti is a revelation. Its population of less than a quarter million is three-quarters pure Polynesian, and its skies aren't marred by Waikiki-style high-rises. In short, it brings to mind the Hawaii of generations ago, with the added charm of a French accent (it's part of France).

Hotels tend to be low-rise--and some have thatched roofs and bungalows on stilts over crystalline lagoons. You can wander the dramatic emerald isle of Moorea for hours without seeing another soul, and the night life is minimal. Yet it's more accessible than many Americans imagine. The plane ride from the West Coast takes just two hours longer than that to Honolulu, and English is widely spoken in the tourist sector.

The new players have sparked a bit of a price war that has driven prices for a one-week vacation at Moorea's most basic lodging, the Cook's Bay Hotel, as low as $759 and $799, air fare included (though there are supplements for summertime travel, usually ranging between $100 and $200, depending on the tour operator). The more romantic and exotic properties with over-the-water thatched huts and the like are definitely not budget territory, however.

Prominent among the upstarts is Tahiti Legends (telephone [800] 200-1213), a self-described "small boutique" company founded in 1996 to focus exclusively on Tahiti. Its $799 "Paradise Perfectly Priced" air-land package combines six nights at Cook's Bay (which has several eateries, a pool and sports facilities, but--be forewarned--its accommodations in 76 rooms and 25 Polynesian-style bungalows are definitely on the plain side), with one night in a modest hotel in Papeete, the territory's capital, located on the island of Tahiti.

For more local flavor, Tahiti Legends president Alain Bernard recommends his $899 package, which uses somewhat more picturesque properties such as the Moorea Village and the Royal Tahitian.

Bigger companies have gotten in on the act as well. Pleasant Holidays (tel. [800] 242-9244), for years a powerhouse to Hawaii, since last September has been using its size and experience to capture market share in the South Pacific from its smaller rivals. "We're definitely going to be the largest--if we aren't already," says spokesperson Ken Phillips.

Pleasant, too, offers a $799 package combining six nights at Cook's Bay with a night in Papeete (throwing in a half-day tour of Moorea), and its next cheapest deal goes for $999.

Previously established operators to Tahiti have managed to hang on, partly by moving toward matching the newcomers' prices. The most economical trips offered for $759 and $799 by Sunmakers (tel. [800] 841-4321) and Islands in the Sun (tel. [800] 828-6877), the 33-year-old granddaddy of them all, generally mirror those of Pleasant and Tahiti Legends, while Tahiti Vacations (tel. [800] 553-3477) allots the entire week to Moorea and skips Papeete. All also offer plenty of deals combining other nearby islands (for more money, naturally).

Independent types might get a kick out of booking their own flights (typically ranging from $475 to $600 from the West Coast), staying at clean but modest pensions or motels that charge as little as $35 per night and eating at little restaurants, sometimes for $10 or less.

An air fare consolidator called Discover Wholesale Travel of Irvine (tel. [800] 576-7770), is currently selling round-trip air fare between Los Angeles and Tahiti for $510 on Corsair and $560 on AOM French airlines (those rates ascend considerably in summer).

And for your independent land arrangements (hotels, guest houses, sightseeing), Tahiti Tourisme (tel. [310] 414-8484, fax [310] 414-8490) offers a comprehensive travel planner. Most people, though, find it easier and about as economical to opt for the packages.

With tourism their only big money-earner, the islands, facing a gradual phaseout of subsidies from the French government, are carefully moving ahead with new hotel and infrastructure development. Half a dozen generally upscale hotels are being built by companies such as Meridien and Outrigger; Radisson and Renaissance are adding Tahiti to their new cruise itineraries; and a new Tahitian airline is set to debut this fall.

But even with this mini-boom, hotels will total just 62 by early next year. That means that while Bali Hai has never been more accessible and affordable to Americans, it's fortunately unlikely to turn into Waikiki any time soon.


This new column from Frommer, the longtime budget travel expert, will appear weekly in the Travel section.

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