Tahiti to welcome foreign tourists in July

Spectators gather on “taxi boats” as they prepare to watch local surfers in action at Teahupoo off the coast of Tahiti in French Polynesia on May 11. Teahupoo has been chosen to host the surfing events of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. (AFP Photo)

Tahiti and other islands will be opened to international travel next month as French Polynesia tries to salvage its vital tourism industry, the government said on Saturday.

The French overseas territory in the South Pacific halted all international flights in March in a bid to contain the coronavirus, and it has reported just 60 cases of the disease and no deaths among its population of about 280,000.

But with no tourists for three months, the economy has been ravaged, and all of its hotels have been shuttered, triggering calls in the industry for an easing of the virus restrictions.

“We are going to open up our country even more to save jobs,” said President Edouard Fritch, adding that nearly 19,000 Polynesians have jobs in or related to the tourism sector.

French Polynesia — which boasts over 100 tropical islands including Tahiti stretching over 2,000 kilometres in the South Pacific — will begin opening up on July 3 when its citizens will be allowed to return and quarantine restrictions on arrivals will also be eased.

From July 15, it will once again accept international tourism from its main markets in Europe and the United States.

“We are no longer in a health emergency, but we are facing an economic and social emergency,” said Tourism and Employment Minister Nicole Bouteau.

In a related development, officials in Sri Lanka announced plans to reopen the tourism industry to foreign guests from August but under strict guidelines, including multiple coronavirus tests during their stay.

Tourism was only just recovering from the effects of last year’s Easter Sunday bombings that killed 279 people, including 45 foreigners, when the virus halted international travel to the island and forced hotels to shut, leaving tens of thousands of people jobless.

The tourism ministry said travellers would be able to visit from Aug 1, but they must carry a Covid-19-free certificate issued not earlier than 72 hours before boarding.

Even with this document, tourists will have to take a virus test at the airport upon arrival. A further check will be done four to five days later — and a third if staying for more than 10 days.

“While this may be inconvenient it is essential to safeguard everybody and provide peace of mind,” the ministry said.

The regular visa fee of $40 has been increased to $100, visitors can only stay in hotels designated by the ministry, and are not allowed to use public transport on the island.

In addition, only those who will spend a minimum of five days in Sri Lanka will be allowed in.

The number of visitors to Sri Lanka dropped to 1.91 million last year, from 2.33 million in the previous year.