Tahiti's sudden tourism restrictions provide a lesson to people who can't wait to travel

Travelers may have read that now is the "perfect time" to visit Tahiti, but they will be surprised to find it — and the rest of French Polynesia — is suddenly closed to them.

As vaccinations are opening borders to some countries, Covid mutations are causing others to close. The volatile nature of the pandemic's current stage is a reminder to travel-starved holidaymakers that the risks of traveling right now extend beyond contracting Covid-19.

On Jan. 29, the French government suspended tourism to its overseas territories and collectivities, which includes French Polynesia in the South Pacific Ocean, Saint Martin in the Caribbean and Saint Pierre and Miquelon near eastern Canada.

Only visitors with "compelling reasons" related to professional, health, personal or family concerns will be allowed to visit French Polynesia from Feb. 3, according to the country's state services' website. Those able to enter will be subject to 14-day quarantines.

The sudden restrictions, which are part of a wider effort by France to tighten its borders, are a result of new Covid variants that are emerging across the world.

Variants are 'massively affecting' the world

The decision to close French Polynesia's borders was "motivated by an obligation of health prevention in the face of the threat of Covid variants which are gradually and massively affecting our planet," according to a press release on Tahiti's tourism website.

Summarizing key points in a speech made by French Polynesian President Edouard Fritch, the press release said: "Faced with this new wave of the pandemic, we must once again take our responsibilities. We must protect ourselves to save the lives of the most vulnerable."

Although thousands of Covid variants have been identified, new strains first identified in South Africa, Brazil and the U.K. are more transmissible than previous ones.

Concerns that current vaccines may be less effective against them have dampened the excitement surrounding the global vaccine rollout that began in December 2020. On Sunday, South Africa stopped issuing the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine after clinical trials showed it was not protecting trial participants from becoming mildly to moderately ill from the more contagious variant found there.

'Safe' travel in a pandemic

French Polynesia announced the tourism suspension on the same day that a travel article in Men's Journal declared that "Right now is the perfect time to visit Tahiti." The story said that Tahiti, the largest and most developed of the country's 118 islands and atolls, is "safe" and "empty" of tourists.

Home to around 280,000 people, French Polynesia has confirmed more than 18,000 cases of Covid-19 to date, including 333 new cases in the past two weeks. While infection rates have declined since last November, when 1,384 cases were confirmed in a single day, French Polynesia is still battling active outbreaks that began after it ended quarantine requirements for incoming visitors last July.  

Travelers must also avoid infections in airports to get there, and in the case of Tahiti, the journey may include long-haul flights that range from 8.5 hours from San Francisco and Sydney, to 16.5 hours from New York and nearly a full day of flying from London.

"We will not reach true reduced risk of travel until we achieve herd immunity," said Harry Severance, an adjunct assistant professor at Duke University School of Medicine.  

Until that time, he said travelers would be safest to travel under a "two-factor system" that includes a vaccination coupled with a recent negative Covid antigen test. 

"Even that is not 100%, but will be close to it," he said.

Another risk: Sudden cancellations

Severance said that due to "Covid fatigue" — or the mental burnout caused by worrying about and being restricted by Covid-19 —  people are "demonstrating that they are now willing to accept increased risk and are now increasingly traveling on vacations, family meetings and other such ventures."

For that reason, travelers may need to face the potential for sudden cancellations, which can happen with little to no warning. Tahiti Tourisme announced the tourist suspension to French Polynesia on Feb. 1; the restrictions went into effect on Feb. 3.

"We are still in a pandemic and the conditions are unpredictable and can change rapidly," said Karen L. Edwards, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.

Travelers in French Polynesia who were scheduled to return last week were able to end their stays as planned. Beyond that, Tahiti Tourisme advised travelers "to contact your airline."

French Polynesia indicated it will ask that the French government impose the shutdown for no more than two months.

A letter dated Feb. 2 from Nils DuFau, the president of St. Barts' tourism board, was more pointed.

"St. Barts' authorities are right now negotiating with the French government to ease the entry restrictions and find an alternative solution," he wrote. "Our aim is to reopen the island's borders as soon as possible."

The temptation of 'empty' tourist destinations

The pandemic has largely remedied one age-old travel complaint — overcrowding. Famous tourist sites and popular destinations are welcoming far fewer travelers — a fact which is now being put forth as a reason to visit them.

That argument has been made to support visits to Walt Disney World, New York City's Little Italy neighborhood, and the celebrated wine regions of northern California at various points of the pandemic.

Last August, at least one blog gave six reasons to go to Disney World, and one reason to wait. The one reason? The global pandemic. Still, there are no guarantees how many people may show up on a given date or whether those who do will social distance.

"Current social distancing practices significantly reduce risk of spread, but are imperfect," said Severance. "I regularly see lapses and breakdowns in these practices."

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