Exclusive Interview: French Polynesia’s Minister for Tourism, International Transport, and Institutional Relations, Nicole Bouteau
The Islands of Tahiti continue to grow as a luxury tourism destination, but the diversity of the destination’s offering also continues to expand. We asked French Polynesia’s Minister for Tourism, International Transport, and Institutional Relations, Nicole Bouteau, how her Ministry is getting the message across via its DMO.
The campaign launched two years ago by Tahiti Tourisme, “The Islands of Tahiti – Embraced by Mana” is paying off, and this duality, and showing the true strength of the region, which is the Polynesians, the warmth of their welcome, and our human, natural and cultural heritage, is working well, enabling us to stand out from so-called “competitor” destinations, who also sell over-water bungalows, beach and palm trees.
MAJOR HOTEL DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS, SUCH AS THE TAHITIAN VILLAGE ON TAHITI, AND THE CREATION OF NEW HOTELS, ARE ENVISAGED IN THE MAIN ISLANDS AND ALSO IN THE SOCIETY ISLANDS AND TUAMOTU
Sustainability is growing as a criterion in the decision-making process of savvy travellers. How are you addressing this?
It’s important for us to remind people that French Polynesia was the first country to create a sanctuary for marine mammals, and today it’s the biggest such sanctuary. The concepts of ecotourism or sustainable tourism are of concern to all the actors and decision-makers of tourism in our islands. The first element is that of blue tourism. We need to design and regulate the development of boating tourism, the nautical charter and floating accommodation in general, but also for luxury yachting as well. Sports practices and nautical tourism activities are at the heart of our offer — almost all of our tourism activity can be related to blue tourism. Each of the sectors is fairly structured, even if it is necessary to make further progress, in particular for the local authorities, the municipalities, where the problems to be solved may sometimes seem complex. On land, we must underline the efforts of operators such as Dick Bailey (eds: The Brando, Pacific Beachcomber, Paul Gaugin Cruises, etc.), who developed in Polynesia the first SWAC systems (eds: a pioneering deep seawater air-conditioning system). It’s not just a paradise-like destination; it’s also an important and responsible preoccupation about this nature which is our wealth and which needs to be protected.
How important is tourism in your GDP and in terms of employment and what actions do you envisage taking in the short to mid-term? What are your priorities?
For French Polynesia, for The Islands of Tahiti, the economic weight of tourism is higher than the French national average and closer to the world average, since tourism accounts for about 10% of our local GDP and 40% of our own resources. In addition, expressed in full-time jobs, tourism accounts for about 20% of all jobs (public and private). The contribution for the French Polynesian economy has no equivalent in the world. The development challenges for French Polynesia go well beyond tourism alone. The expanse of our territory, the scattering of our islands and the concentration of tourism and economic flows are criteria which are obviously taken into account when designing our tourism development strategy.
Furthermore, the measures we take must best preserve us from external circumstantial fluctuations, whether monetary, climatic, commercial, etc. This is why we need to strengthen our structures, our structuration. This is how we consider our mid-term action.
The Islands of Tahiti are today very well-known thanks to Bora Bora and its luxury hotels. But a much more diverse offering exists in terms of accommodation types. What means are you employing for this diversity to become better known?
You are right. Various measures need to be taken. Regarding the type of accommodation you are mentioning, which we call family-run hotels or guesthouses, I can tell you that their level of professionalism has considerably increased over the past years. They are now rated through French or international labels. They have also streamlined their commercial circuits, and they are slowly developing networks and relations with TOs and TAs, mainly national ones, but also recently, an opening onto North America and various European countries.
Are any new air links planned?
French Bee and United Airlines have announced new services via San Francisco starting this year. We are also engaging talks with other companies to service the destination from other markets. We have been in a phase of continuous growth for the past three years after the crisis from 2008-2012, and are now reaching new levels of turnover that had never been reached before, with around 200,000 tourists. We are implementing a global plan to upgrade existing, unclassified or certified accommodation in order to respond in a reactive manner to the increase in the supply of seats in the air. We have embarked on an in-depth overhaul of our accommodation regulations, allowing, among other things, to develop and create a new dynamic in the medium term in the small family hotel sector, our Tahitian guesthouses, which are one of the key selling points. In the longer term, major hotel development projects, such as the Tahitian Village on Tahiti, and the creation of new hotels, are envisaged in the main islands and also in the Society Islands and Tuamotu.
The Professionals’ Viewpoint
What do some of the world’s top travel professionals think of ongoing tourism initiatives concerning The Islands of Tahiti?
French Polynesia is much more than over-the-water bungalows. We now immerse the traveller into the culture as well as its ocean sanctuary, offering a true appreciation of the differences between the islands. It is on everyone’s bucket list of destinations to visit, but now, it’s becoming the place you wish to return to over and over again. With its focus on sustainable tourism, it’s guaranteed to be loved by our children and their grandchildren and beyond. The local tour operators and their staff are the keys to experiential excursions. They offer truly authentic and rich experiences not found elsewhere. The resident guides and tour staff are genuinely delighted to share French Polynesia with all visitors and welcome them warmly.
Polynesia is a “safe” destination – free of terrorism and natural disasters, and remote – a factor that has always contributed to its myth. It is also a destination that has a large number of assets that should be better known, such as the culture, traditions, fabulous beaches, nature and sports. Ecotourism, UNESCO World Heritage status and new campaigns are all contributing to a growth in tourist numbers. The opening of new air links will engender an augmentation in the offering of hotels and pensions, in particular homestay, in the sense of a greater human/nature relationship, which the destination wishes to develop. The financial convention that has just been signed in Brussels will also assist the destination in its strategy of transmitting its cultural patrimony, while pushing each actor to do their all to preserve the environment
Photo: Nicole Bouteau – Minister for Tourism, International Transport and Institutional Relations, French Polynesia