Tourism is the main source of income for French Polynesia and one would think that the Territory would protect its main attraction- its natural beauty. However, The Lonely Planet Guide is correct: "Atolls and high islands are ecologically fragile places, easily susceptible to damage, and unfortunately French Polynesia has been slow in implementing environmental protection." (p. 30) Garbage abounds and only Bora Bora has modern public sewage treatment facilities. Drink bottled water unless you are sure the resort has safe treatment facilities. There are no marine or land nature reserves. Some species are protected, but damage to coral from tourists' carelessness, agricultural runoff, infrastructure development, and coral bleaching is extensive. Furthermore, the French government conducted nuclear tests in the Moruroa Atoll until 1996. The French government finally confirmed in 1999 that radioactivity had escaped and that the coral reef was cracked. In addition, coral reefs continue to be mined to produce fill for road building. This results in slit that smoothers the marine organisms. Pearl farms as well are unregulated resulting in operations that produce toxic organic wastes destroying the ecological balance in lagoons.
While Huahine on land appeared to be rather unkempt, but relatively clean with a sort of Third World charm to the mess, the same could not be said for Moorea and for Bora Bora in particular. We had an air conditioned room on Bora Bora at Le Mai Tai Polynesian and a good thing too because the entire row of hotels along this side of the island smelled like garbage on a warm summer day with a hint of overheated swimming pool. Le Mai Tai is expanding its facilities and this involved cutting into the side of the volcanic mountain which seemed to be producing considerable run off. My main complaint about the Sofitel was its daily use of pesticides. Every morning they run a honking big machine around spraying the facilities. So there were no cockroaches or mosquitoes to speak of- but where does all the run off end up? At the Bali Hai on Moorea, the roosters crow from about 4 AM on, but that wasn't so bad- at least the eggs are all free range and the chickens seemed to be eating a lot of bugs. The issue is- should you let your kids run around bare foot?
It would be wise to research the extent of the water activities offered by a resort in its advertising. Then consult one of the resources listed below for a description of the status of the coral reefs near the resorts. Both places we stayed in on Bora Bora and Moorea exhibited a high level of eutropication with brown-green algae overgrown the corals, silty water, low visibility, and few fish at their beaches/waterfront. The Moorea Bali Hai has a 6 inch drainage pipe extending out from the resort into the lagoon about 40 feet where it disappears into the silt. Stay away from the place- it is run down, shabby, and dominated by Americans. And the food sucks too.
On Moorea controversy had arisen a few months before we got there in which the Territorial government had granted a resort developer permission to dredge a lagoon for sand to create a sandy beach for the resort. This operation was strongly opposed by local residents and the resort decided to discontinue construction. See this report by the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre This is the page of an activist visitor: drGoose.org.
Most of the islands run boat tours which usually involve a stop to "feed" the sharks and/or rays. The animals are harmless and have become so accustomed to the feeding that tourists mill about with them in the water. Needless to say this is not their natural behavior (the fish- the tourists' natural behavior appears to be to spend lots of money and take lots of pictures.) Please respect the animals and avoid this ecologically unsustainable attraction. On Moorea, the upscale resort Beachcomber Park Royal offers a 30 minute swim with captive dolphins for $135.00 at Dolphin Quest. Again, please respect the dolphins and observe them in their natural state, not as captives (remember Willy?) You can go on Dr. Micheal Poole's Moorea Dolphin Watch on Moorea for less money and a more realistic ecological tour the proceeds from which support his research. On occasion, he says, the dolphins "invite" observers to swim with them- so bring your snorkel gear just in case.
For more information on nuclear testing see Greenpeace and this Resource Guide and the Activist Group Pacific Concerns Resources monitors both the environment and political actions. Information about the environmental impact of pearl farming can be found at:Planning for Sustainable Development in the Pacific Islands. This page has information about the extent of damage to the corals: Pressures in French Polynesia.
The loss of coral reefs is not a problem in French Polynesia alone. In fact, according to the most recent report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the Pacific has been least affected by reef destruction. Coral reefs are like the rainforests of the ocean. Abundant with life; they serve as nurseries for numerous species. The loss of the reefs of the world is a major environmental disaster. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network in its 2000 Report estimates that 60 percent of the world's coral reefs will be dead by 2030. You can read about efforts to save the world's coral reefs at: The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network
Finally, please enjoy your visit- French Polynesia is still beautiful. But bear in mind that environmentally responsible tourism helps to both stimulate the local economy and contribute to the preservation of natural beauty. Please see our Tips for Travel to Tahiti page for suggestions.