On February 2, six and a half months after first reopening, the islands of French Polynesia announced they were suspending entry for nearly all travelers. The border closure for islands like Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea is an attempt to protect Polynesians from contagious new variants of COVID-19 and prevent a full lockdown like last spring’s. Instead, locals and residents on the 67 inhabited islands are allowed to move around freely while following the COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates in place. At minimum, the travel pause for visitors to French Polynesia will last until April 1.
Travelers who have a compelling health, professional, or family reason to visit, or who are returning home to the islands will still be allowed to enter, but tourism is no longer a valid reason to enter the country. (Instituted by the French government, the border closure also affects other French territories, like Guadeloupe, St. Barts, and more in the Caribbean.) As a result, the country’s tourism industry is at a near standstill.
“Our large international hotels, our small family-run hotels, and our airlines will be hit hard,” said French Polynesia’s president, Édouard Fritch, in a press conference last week. “The many providers of tourism activities, tourist transporters, artisans, shops … will also be affected.”
Currently in low season, many large hotels and resorts on the islands—best known for their overwater bungalows—have decided to close completely for the duration of the travel pause, says Tahiti Tourisme managing director Kristin Carlson. For hotel and resort employees, tour operators, and more that find themselves furloughed during the closure, the government is offering financial assistance, providing compensation for up to three months for those who have lost their income, president Fritch said in the press conference. ADVERTISEMENT
Hotels that won’t see guests for two months are working to find a silver lining. “We are taking this as an opportunity to continue working on some resort enhancements without disturbing our clients,” says Stuart de San Nicolas, general manager at the Readers’ Choice Award–winning Conrad Bora Bora Nui Resort, which closed temporarily alongside with the borders. “The staff will be getting ready for the opening of the hotel and planning some new offers and activities for our guests when they return in the spring.”
The hotels that are staying open are working to entice local travelers into booking a room or dining at hotel and resort restaurants.
In preparation for the unpredictable nature of border closures and travel restrictions amid the pandemic, the country’s tourism board had already been offering a widespread, flexible cancellation policy in conjunction with a number of local resorts, tour operators, and airlines, including Air Tahiti Nui. For trips booked before the end of this March, cancellation and change fees have been waived at certain resorts and from tour operators in a variety of situations: if French Polynesia locks down, if a traveler’s country goes into lockdown, if a traveler receives a positive pre-travel COVID test. Those in the travel industry who signed onto this common cancellation policy also agreed to keep prices the same through March 31, 2022, so travelers can rebook at generally the same rates. The tourism board hopes to extend the cancellation policy into the early summer.
“It’s a difficult time for travelers to make the decision [to travel], and there’s a lot of risk involved, so we’re doing everything possible to make sure that they feel confident to book now,” says Carlson of Tahiti Tourisme. “And should something happen, they can be assured that their trip can be resumed whenever the conditions are right.”
When the borders do open up to travelers once again, Carlson expects they’ll have to follow the previous testing policy for entry, which included a PCR test taken within three days of departure and a self-administered test on the fourth day of their stay.
“This has been a punch to the gut [for the tourism industry],” says Carlson. “But we’re hoping that we can rebound quickly when the borders do reopen.”
Stay apprised of French Polynesia’s travel restrictions and cancellation policy on Tahiti Tourisme’s site.