Territory of French Polynesia

Territoire de la Polynésie Française



An overseas territory of France, French Polynesia's 118 islands and atolls are grouped into 5 archipelagos (group of islands) scattered across some 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) in the South Pacific Ocean midway between South America and Australia. The islands have a total land area of 4,167 square kilometers (1,609 square miles), slightly less than one-third the size of Connecticut. The 5 archipelagos include the Society Islands (which include Tahiti and Bora-Bora); the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Archipelago; the Marquesas Islands; and the Austral Islands. Together they have 2,525 kilometers (1,569 miles) of coastline. Only 65 of the islands are inhabited, and the overwhelming majority of French Polynesians live along the coastlines. The most inhabited island by far, with about 70 percent of the total population, is Tahiti, which also accounts for a quarter of the islands' total land area. Half of Tahiti's population lives in its major urban center, the capital city of Papeete (population, including surroundings, 69,000, 1996 est.). Tahiti is also the largest island, with a land mass equal to 1,041 square kilometers (402 square miles).

The islands represent a wide variety of topographies (land surfaces), from the plunging waterfalls and extinct volcanoes of Tahiti or Moorea to the low-lying, white-sand lagoon coral-reef atolls of the Tuamotu and Gam-bier groups. One of French Polynesia's most serious long-term problems is the threat presented by global warming and the rising of the world's water level, estimated by the United Nations Environment Program in 1993 to rise by more than 25 inches by 2100. If this proves correct, entire archipelagoes like the Tuamotus may eventually disappear. In the meantime, pressure from the ocean is eroding the available cultivatable land and contaminating the groundwater.


With its large tourism industry and public sector , the economy of French Polynesia is heavily service-oriented, with services accounting for 78 percent of GDP (1997). Industry, especially pearl cultivation, is also important, making up 18 percent of GDP. Workforce figures reflect this division, with around 40 percent working for the government, 40 percent in services, and 10 percent each in industry and in agriculture.



French Polynesia's tourist appeal is legendary. Even before the paintings of French artist Paul Gauguin gave form to the islands' paradise-like mystique, the islands held a special place in the Western imagination. Tourism proper, however, is relatively recent, largely a consequence of the opening of Tahiti's Faa'a Airport in 1961. Tourist numbers are still only a tiny fraction of those of Hawaii, which gets more visitors in 10 days than French Polynesia gets in an entire year. Still, tourist arrivals have continued to increase, bolstered by new hotel construction and renovation in the mid-1990s, which increased the number of hotel beds by 29 percent between 1990 and 2000. From 139,705 arrivals in 1989, numbers have climbed to 210,800 in 1999, an increase of more than 50 percent (with a 16.8 percent rise from 1997 to 1999 alone). Arrivals are estimated at 240,000 for 2000. Growth has been particularly brisk in terms of North American visitors, with an increase of 48.9 percent from 1997 to 1999. Some 85 percent of these are from the United States. There has also been an increase in cruise-ship traffic, whose generally older and more affluent tourists are especially valuable sources of revenue. Other important markets are Europe (40.1 percent of visitors in 2000, with two-thirds of these from France) and Asia (16.8 percent, with about two-fifths of these from Japan and two-fifths from Australia and New Zealand).

In 1997, tourism generated US$340.2 million in foreign exchange, and accounted for 4,000 jobs and 9.5 percent of GDP. In 2000, receipts of $396.2 million were expected, and a total GDP share of 10.1 percent. The tourism industry is dominated by multinational corporations , as most facilities are foreign-owned and managed—a situation that has tended to cause unease among the indigenous Polynesians. Some 80 percent of tourist spending, however, is for goods imported to the islands, and so brings little real gain to the territory's economy. In the long term, though, the hope is that tourist revenue will replace transfer payments from France.


French Polynesia is served by 4 main banks: the Banque Socredo, Banque de Tahiti, Banque de Polynésie, and Australia's Westpac Bank. Offices are only on the main islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea.


Retail services vary widely. Papeete, with its long-established French presence, high standards of living, and extensive tourist trade, is a cosmopolitan city of expensive hotels, restaurants, cafés, cinemas, bars, and nightclubs. Papeete features a range of shops and markets selling jewelry, designer clothes, souvenir handicrafts,

Trade (expressed in billions of US$): French Polynesia
Exports Imports
1975 .025 .286
1980 .030 .547
1985 .040 .549
1990 .111 .928
1995 .193 1.008
1998 N/A N/A
SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.

books, and art. This is also true to a lesser extent for the other major islands, Moorea and Bora-Bora. On remoter and more sparsely populated islands, where agriculture may still be the main form of livelihood, retailing becomes much simpler, with local food markets and general stores predominating.


French Polynesia has no territories or colonies.


Stanley, David. Tahiti-Polynesia Handbook (3rd ed.). Chico, California: Moon Publications, Inc., 1996.

"An Update on French Polynesia." Honolulu: Bank of Hawaii, August 2000. <> . Accessed March 2001.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook 2000. <> . Accessed June 2001.

—Alexander Schubert




Comptoirs Français du Pacifique franc (CFPF), also known as the Pacific Financial Community franc or Pacific French franc. One CFPF has 100 centimes. There are notes of CFPF500, 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000, and coins of CFPF1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100.


Cultured pearls, coconut products, mother-of-pearl, vanilla, shark meat.


Coconuts, fuels, foodstuffs, equipment.


US$2.6 billion (1997 est.).


Exports: US$212 million (1996 est.). Imports: US$860 million (1996 est.).

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