Believe it or not, the flight time from the west coast of the U.S. to Tahiti is just eight hours. Yes, the paradise of pearls, vanilla, and powdery white sand beaches is more convenient than Europe for the western half of the U.S., and yet its remote location in the center of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between California and Australia, makes it seem so much farther. After texting a friend last week to say I was headed from LAX to Tahiti on Air France, I texted again when I’d landed and been lei’d at the capital’s Fa’a’ā International Airport (PPT). My friend’s response was a simple and astonished, “Already?!?!”
In truth, Tahiti has never been easier or more affordable to reach—and people are paying attention. It’s a three-part comeback: A new breed of travelers is attracted to the active pursuits offered by the islands (from kitesurfing to diving with manta rays), Tahiti’s cultural exports are cool again, and increased flights from the U.S. on new planes are getting people to the island more efficiently.
In May, low-cost airline French Bee launched no-frills flights between San Francisco and Tahiti on a new Airbus A350 with larger windows, improved onboard air circulation and humidity control, and updated in-flight entertainment. Then, major player United Airlines followed with a new Tahiti route in October, also flying from San Francisco but with a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner with similar cabin comfort enhancements. The increased competition put downward pressure on airfares, and flights from the west coast to Tahiti have recently sunk as low as $600 round-trip, half what the lowest priced tickets cost in years past.
French Polynesia flagship carrier, Air Tahiti Nui, took note. It’s now in the midst of replacing its small fleet of five aging Airbus A340 aircraft with new, fuel-efficient Boeing 787-9s, with all the same bells and whistles as United’s Boeing planes. To celebrate, the airline offered L.A.-Tahiti fares of $787 round-trip.
Last but certainly not least is Air France, which has been flying its Tahiti-bound routes from the west coast for nearly 60 years. Today, the airline jets from Los Angeles to Pape’ete twice weekly with Boeing 777s, which Air France has outfitted with lie-flat, all-aisle business class, a premium economy cabin, and economy with in-seat power and USB ports, as well as HD entertainment systems. Not to mention, Air France is the only airline pouring complimentary Champagne in all cabins, served on the Pape’ete route by chiefly Tahitian crew in traditional dress. In October, Air France made it even easier to fly to Tahiti with the launch of the airline’s first U.S. credit card. The Bank of America-issued Mastercard offers a 25,000-point sign-up bonus, putting travelers just 500 points shy of a “free” flight to Tahiti.
These new routes and airline updates are in response to a perfect storm of cultural and celebrity happenings which, over the last couple years, firmly reignited America’s infatuation with Tahiti.
First came former president Barack Obama, who spent a month in 2017 tucked away from the world to write his memoir in the atoll of Tetiaroa, staying at The Brando. An ultra-private resort of just 35 beachfront villas a 20-minute flight away from Pape’ete, The Brando’s privacy sealed the deal for Obama’s stay, and continues to attract. “Having the president stay with us, choosing Tahiti and Tetiaroa, proves the privacy here is unmatched. The incredible press we had from his stay—despite no photos of him on the island getting out—really put us on the map,” says Pierre Lesage, vice president of sales and marketing at the resort. It also helped that Ellen Degeneres and Margot Robbie happened to be there at the same time, and haven’t been so shy about sharing their island encounters with Barack.
Tahiti is also benefiting from a resurgence in popularity of its cultural exports. Tiki bars are popping up across the country, and Seattle’s Navy Strength won best new American cocktail bar this year at Tales of the Cocktail. Overwater bungalows, first introduced in Tahiti and modeled on traditional fishing structures, are trending in hotel design from the Maldives to Southeast Asia. Even resorts in the Caribbean are building them. Polynesian folklore is also coming to the forefront, thanks to Disney’s 2016 animated blockbuster “Moana.” With these, America is renewing a fascination with Tahiti that began more than 50 years ago, as Polynesian cultural ambassador Tahiarii Yoram Pariente explains: “Tahiti has been present in the minds of Americans for decades. What ‘made’ Tahiti were the 5,000 G.I.s who were on Bora Bora during World War II and then went home to all over the United States, saying that this is paradise.”
Pariente also points out that the makeup of travelers to Tahiti is rapidly changing. “In the past, a resort here needed only a beach, a bar, and a chapel,” says Pariente. “Travelers would wait 60 years, until retirement, to come here, or would be honeymooners with their travel paid for by family. Today you can be successful in your 30s and pay for your own luxury vacation, so the tourists coming to Tahiti now are younger and looking for experiences, to do things while in Tahiti instead of simply sit under the sun.”
So now that Tahiti is potentially 2019’s hottest destination, how will it handle an influx of interest and visitors? Pariente has an idea: “Most visitors here only make it to Tahiti’s main island and Bora Bora, but now that there are more and more affordable flights, it will be easier to keep going and visit others of our 118 islands. This is not just an exciting time for Tahiti, but for all of French Polynesia.”
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