A Cautionary Tale from Paradise

Mountains of MooreaOnce upon a time in Paradise, hotels and resorts sprung up like flowers in spring. The rulers of Paradise and international hotel chains smiled, “Paradise will be the new destination for our tourists.”

And so it was. Tourists flew in and experienced the pleasures of Paradise.  But along the way, the wind changed direction and nearly twenty years later decayed and abandoned resorts dot the isles of Paradise.

These tourism wastelands are not obvious in French Polynesia. At first. In fact on a recent visit to Moorea, after a 33 year gap, I was pleasantly surprised. The island seemed little changed: a bit more traffic, a supermarket, a larger ferry, a few more people.

But after a few days I couldn’t find where we had  stayed three decades back.

“Oh, that’s gone.  Club Med’s gone too,” our shuttle driver told us, “And that resort up the hill’s in receivership. And Cook’s Bay Hotel (overlooking the bay much loved, from the days of Captain Cook and his crew) it’s all boarded up.”

The same tune played out a week later, on Tahiti. Big resort names, The Sofitel, The Hilton, Hyatt Regency. Closed. What about Bora Bora, said to be the crème de la crème of destinations? A Kiwi couple from Mosgiel sniffed. “Once you’ve seen the mountains on Bora Bora, there’s not a lot else to do.“ Paradise not up to expectations perhaps?  Yes, Bora Bora’s had its share of resort closures too, as has its sister island Huahine. Complex land ownership issues have often compounded the problem of these abandoned resorts.

Our Moorea driver said, “After the 2008 financial crash, Americans stopped coming,” Yet Philippe Bachimon in her 2012 paper Tourist Wastelands in French Polynesia lists 32 tourism wastelands with closures dating back from 1980.

Tourist arrivals in French Polynesia dropped by 42.9% between 2007 – 2102, Céline Perelli showed in her 2013 thesis, Trouble in Paradise. But she believed that the world economic crisis was not the sole reason for this fall in tourist visits.

Her figures also show a decline in repeat visits to French Polynesia. As well as dented expectations, maybe it’s the cost. An over-water bungalow on Bora Bora could set you back NZ$1000 a night. Yet some will argue that’s the price you pay to visit Paradise.

Yes, French Polynesia’s a long way from anywhere – half way between New Zealand and South America –  with 118 islands spread over a piece of sea the size of Europe. And this all makes for a heavy reliance on international and domestic airlines and effective marketing, Perelli wrote. And of course again, there’s the cost.

On Tahiti, like Moorea, the ‘abandoned places’ were not immediately obvious. Near Papeete, the former Hyatt Regency still sits, hidden, but abandoned on eight hectares of prime coastline in what was once naturalised and carefully tended landscape. But in this tropical climate vegetation grows fast. And these abandoned resorts come with overgrown jungles and “squatters, looting and graffiti.  Not a good look for future investment,” our Tahitian driver told us.

However such are the vagaries of tourism, that paradoxically, in the next breath he said that the Sofitel had recently been bulldozed and a Chinese Company is about to build a resort in its place, stretching along Tahiti’s coast, facing the mountains of Moorea.

 Like the Americans decades before them, the Chinese Consortium believes that French Polynesia will be the new destination for their tourists. Reuters reported in December 2015 the resort will cost US$2.5 billion and will help French Polynesia’s ailing economy.

Now back home in New Zealand – in Godzone – I keep having this dream. I see Lake Pukaki.  The lake is turquoise. The Southern Alps are white and the sun’s about to set on Aoraki / Mt Cook.

 And on the shore of Lake Pukaki are two large resorts. They look stunning. They blend into the landscape: they’re built of rock and timber; there are tussocks in the gardens.

Then I see wilding pines. And rabbits. And broken windows…

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Janet Hart

Janet Hart lives in Nelson, where she taught English in secondary schools for nearly 30 years, before dabbling in a little historical New Zealand Art. In 2012 she took up Magazine Journalism, which now consumes her.