When you think of Tahiti, you think of palm trees and reefs and beautiful people living the simple island life. All of this is true, but French Polynesia is a semi-autonomous territory of France and it's a slick operation. In the words of Etienne Boutin, CEO of Tahiti Ocean, "When it comes to superyachts we've got everything covered!" We recently caught up with Etienne in Tahiti's Marina Taina to find out more.
How did you start out in the yachting industry?
I started to work in Tahiti as a shipping agent and I serviced my first large yacht some twenty five years ago when asked by Allan Jouning and Phil Tomlinson from 37°South, then the only yacht agent in the South Pacific, to deliver a package to a new build from kiwi yard Sensation Yachts, which was stopping briefly in Papeete en route to Europe. It was a bit of a luck as these guys picked me up in the phone book!
What was it about Tahiti that made you want to stay?
After that first encounter with luxury yachting, I bought a small sailing yacht and lived aboard at Marina Taina where yachts of increasing size came by. It was great to make friends with the crew and feed my growing passion for sailing adventures. I didn’t go very far with that boat but I heard many amazing stories and saw life though them.
What led you to become a yacht agent and when did you start Tahiti Ocean?
1994 was a turning point as I was offered a partnership in a pearl farm in the Tuamotu islands, at this time a very promising project. Eventually, it was Gary Wright, then captain on MY Calixe, and later founder of Y.CO, who convinced me there was an opportunity to start my own company, Tahiti Ocean, to cater for the many large yachts under construction in the boom years of our industry.
To what extent did the Americas Cup and the Sydney Olympics put Tahiti on the map for yacht owners and charterers?
At the turn of the century, there was a decent number of yachts in the Med and the Caribbean, all ready to explore somewhere new. These two big events in New Zealand and Australia attracted the attention of owners, and a few audacious brokers also came by to get a feeling for the place, looking for fresh ideas. We suddenly jumped from 10 yachts staying for a couple of weeks, to 50 yachts wanting to stay several months. Luckily, Marina Taina, on the west coast of Tahiti, already had a small dock for superyachts but it took five more years to get a proper extension that could fully accommodate this sudden influx.
How many superyachts (sail and motor) visit Tahiti each year and are the numbers growing?
Since the Millennium, French Polynesia receives around 50 yachts each year, which is a bit strange when you consider the growth of the total world fleet. What has improved is the length of stay, which now averages 90 days.
When high profile owners visit the islands we’re told they relish the anonymity afforded by the Tahitian people – this must be very attractive for certain clients?
Well, we had one paparazzi in Tahiti some years ago, but he had to move to the French Riviera to make a decent living! Our islands are isolated and offer just too many secluded anchorages to hide. On top of that, the Tahitian people seem to resist today’s reverence for celebrity and high profile visitors really appreciate the lack of pressure.
Since French Polynesia is so remote, visiting Tahiti is often part of a wider voyage – what are the most common routes?
Tahiti is naturally placed on the milky way run. A few yachts come from the US West Coast and back, but most will be on a world tour, generally coming from Panama, with some daring to face prevailing winds on a route from South East Asia. A fair number also come back after maintenance in New Zealand or Australia. This year for instance, a quarter of yachts returned.
Air Tahiti Nui is the only major airline serving Tahiti – where are the main connecting hubs?
The local company ATN has around a 60% share of the market but we also have regular flights with Air France from Los Angeles and Air New Zealand from Auckland, plus Lan, Air Calin and Hawaiian airlines linking us once a week to Chile, New Caledonia and Hawaii respectively. Faa’a airport, five miles from Papeete city and Marina Taina, is the international commercial hub.
What are the facilities for private jets in Tahiti and the surrounding archipelagos?
We have two fbo’s in Faa’a airport and jets can also request permission to land in a few islands like Bora Bora, Nuku Hiva or Rangiroa, depending on their size. These jets are getting bigger every year so we're hoping for a few runway extensions in the future!
When’s the best time to visit French Polynesia?
The nicer season is from April to October. The high tourist period is in the austral winter, from June to August, but my preference is in between, April/May or Sept/Oct. The winds are a bit down then and the sky is just perfectly clear.
Which types of owner/client are particularly attracted to this region?
You would think only the old gentleman sailor or the exploratory type of owner would come our way but I have seen a fair share of jet setters as well. Bora Bora has major appeal for them, even if it doesn’t have the big clubs. Another major draw to French Polynesia is the diving experience which is second to none. At least one owner I know built his yachts with the specific goal to come and dive in the Tuamotu islands.
Which services do you typically provide for superyacht clients?
I started providing all the usual services expected from a yacht agent like clearance, provisions, logistics, financial or technical support, but I soon found out I had to offer concierge services to ensure the owners and charter guests could make the most of their vacation in Tahiti. I applied for a travel agency license and I'm the only yacht agent able to offer direct bookings for local tours, shows, hotels, car rental, etc. I also make sure the crew get good deals!
How good is the general infrastructure in Tahiti and how easy is it to obtain the right produce?
Tahiti is part of France, and we have a Carrefour supermarket in walking distance from Marina Taina. We get the best cheese and wine just like in Antibes. It's more expensive of course, as we have to import, but we also ship provisions to the outer islands which is great when yachts are on long charters in remote places. We've been using the same provisioner for 20 years and Bruno is a life saver for the chefs.
Currently yachts above 60m berth in the downtown marina but you mentioned plans for a dedicated superyacht quay in Marina Taina – what’s the likely timeframe for this?
I’d like the decision to be made already but the cruise ship industry is getting very important for our islands during the Austral summer. The next port investment will be a cruise terminal, so we will still accommodate yachts over 65m in downtown Papeete for a while.
How does bunkering work in Tahiti and are yachts able to buy duty free fuel?
Since 1998, we supply all visitors with duty free fuel for their private cruises and it allows large yachts to stay with us for long periods. The odd thing is that charterers have to pay full tax. There's a negotiation ahead for us !
How long does it take to acquire a charter licence and what are the associated costs in terms of tax and VAT in this region?
We now have a tested charter license system and 140 licenses have been granted since 2005. We offer free application and the bureaucratic process averages six to eight weeks in total. The tax collected by agents is currently 5% of the gross revenue, excluding APA, and it covers Customs and port taxes as well as documentation and paper processing. We make it as straightforward and risk free as possible so brokers can promote the destination more easily.
What are the most common concerns or questions from a captain planning a trip to Tahiti?
The challenge for most owners when letting their yacht cruise the world is the distance they will have to travel themselves for the little idle time their jobs allow. This of course impacts the crew so we work with them to plan and maximise the time available. We have to consider long distances between the archipelagoes, prevailing winds, available transportation, the island activities on offer as well as the mix of ages and tastes of guests onboard. We also have to be flexible as plans have a habit of changing.
An obvious attraction is the magnificent diving and snorkeling around the reefs, but what types of activity are available on land?
Every step inside our islands leads to a tropical garden. Add a pinch of culture and indiginous animals, and lace it with a total absence of danger and you have the perfect landscape for adventure. I always recommend a trip to discover how vanilla is grown in Taha’a, or a visit to the winery in Rangiroa, the only one in a coral atoll. You can also trek in Bora Bora's Valley of Kings, or take an ATV tour of the pineapple plantations in Moorea. Fun guaranteed.
What are your top tips for anyone visiting French Polynesia for the first time?
My main tip is to come for a minimum ten to twelve days as there is so much to explore. I also advise cruising for a few days, or hopping on and off the yacht with the local airline or charter planes to visit the three main archipelagoes of French Polynesia: the Tuamotu for the incredible diving, the Leeward islands for great outdoor activities and Tahiti island for the best of the local culture. Time permitting, a journey to the wild Marquesas islands is always an unforgettable experience.
What do you think would persuade more yacht owners to base their vessels here for a season, or longer?
I am hoping the expansion of influential management companies in Asia and Australia will entice more owners to look outside the Med box. But with many new destinations on offer, the challenge for Tahiti and the South Pacific will be to attract interest by promoting all the things that set us apart - our people, our culture and the exceptional diving. We're also praying for Team New Zealand to win the next America’s Cup and bring the focus to our region again!
Are there good maintenance and repair facilities on the islands, and what is the relationship with the larger yards in New Zealand and Australia?
We have a 300 ton private travelift and a 3,800 ton floating dock operated by the Navy. We mostly do bottom paint jobs and some emergency repairs. The customary South Pacific program is guest cruises in the tropics during the Austral winter and a maintenance period in New Zealand or Australia in the summer, away from cyclones. Tahiti has plans to develop better refit capacities but it will remain marginal, mainly as a backup for the busy Kiwi and Australian yards.
Do you operate in any other destinations and what is your association with Asia-Pacific Superyachts?
Yes, I am partnering with Chloe Morin in Noumea Ocean. This is in New Caledonia, a place not too many people can point to on a map, but we're trying to change that. It's a surprising country with two sides, the very French city of Noumea and the wild Melanesian outback, and it's sure to become a regular spot for large yachts over the coming years.
My association with APS comes from my conviction that the future of yacht agents lies in cooperation and joint ventures, whether they are corporate or simply loose associations. It can take time for fiercely independent self-made men to accept teamwork but we are now confronted with the digital revolution and collaboration is becoming a question of survival.
Are you a member of any industry associations and, if so, what are the benefits to your professional role?
I have been a member of AYSS since my early beginnings, and have been on the Council for several years. It is a great way to break isolation and discuss the same challenges with colleagues around the world. This association of the best agents is also celebrating its 25th anniversary during the Monaco Yacht Show this year.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your job?
I can say that generosity is important in business. The more you give to your clients in terms of free information, paying attention to what they say, predicting their needs, the more you get back. For sure, it won’t make you rich. But I believe it's the key to obtaining recognition which is invaluable.
What would you change if you could?
All the directories and apps around don’t tell how reliable the companies are, just how much money they are spending on marketing. I think the industry needs to invent better independent ways to identify the valuable companies and people and also track the wrong ones.
Who do you most admire in the world of yachting?
If most owners buy a yacht for entertainment, some do it with something else in mind. I am thinking of Jim Clark, Tom Perkins, Alexander Dreyfoos, Andrey Melnichenko and several more of these seemingly lunatic thinkers. I was lucky to step on board many of their yachts, daring to be atypical, and I think they illustrate the essence of life when conformity is its dark opposite.
What was your greatest experience on a boat?
My two weeks’ crossing on an 8m sailing yacht from Trinidad to Puerto Rico with two British gentlemen. Three men in a boat and a dead power steering after just three hours of navigation. The 2-8 am watch, hand steering amidst the Caribbean islands, was so awe-inspiring that I volunteered for it every day.
Which is your favorite yacht and why?
My favorite yacht is the one I have drawn in my head and will most likely never build. A narrow and sleek looking motor yacht with foils and a manly axe-bow like Predator cutting the waves, yet running on coprah oil with a marinized tractor engine for easy maintenanc, with a bunch of energy saving tricks to maximize cruise time in the most remote places on earth. I forgot the French chef serving appetizers and rosé on the expanding aft deck giving stability at anchor.
Which is your favorite destination?
In French Polynesia, I love Avea bay on the South West corner of Huahine island, one of the Leeward islands. It's the perfect tropical mix of emerald lagoon, luxuriant inland with white sandy beaches. I have the same perfect feeling in the isle of Pine, south of Noumea with the finest sandy beaches in the whole South Pacific. When I travel away, I like to go to St Tropez and visit the countryside behind the amazing Verdon Gorges.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
My family is my traditional exit from work but, now that my boys are grown up, I get more time to travel off season and visit the old villages in the South of France. I also try and write novels, a daunting but exhilarating passion.
Which three objects would you take to your desert island?
A solar panel to produce electricity, a sat phone to get internet and a computer to skype my family and write books.
What is your motto?
How can I help?
Tahiti Ocean assists crew and owners of large yachts visiting French Polynesia, from the Marquesas all the way to the Seychelles. For assistance please call Etienne Boutin on: +33 (0)783 647 074.