As of this week Tahiti and all of French Polynesia are now Covid-19 free with no active cases. All restrictions have since eased. Even bars and nightclubs have re-opened. This week inter-island travel is authorized for everyone, including private boats. Everything is getting back to normal. Many of the local businesses were forced to close for just over five weeks. When they were told they could open it happened the following Friday was a holiday. I have to chuckle at the laidback entrepreneurialism of the island’s business owners. After opening for three days, they all closed again for the long holiday weekend.
Tahiti is expensive. Lunch in Chinese Restaurant (shared entrée and appetizer) is about US$45. Cindy and I used to buy a Chinese food lunch from a takeout place in St. Petersburg, Florida for under US$8 in the good ol’ days. Fellow cruisers warn of this on various websites we consulted. Coming here from Central America makes the sticker-shock on some items even harder to swallow. In Panama, we rented a car for about US$300 per month from Avis. Here we are struggling to find a weekly rental for under this price. Taxis are a main means of transportation in Panama and Colombia and fares are very inexpensive. A 5-mile trip is under US$3.00 (with a good tip). On Tahiti, the same ride is twenty dollars.
The local currency is Pacific Francs (XPF). It has the same exchange rate as the Euro. Fortunately the U.S. Dollar is trading favorably right now with the Euro at US$1.08 per Euro. For many years the exchange was closer to the US$1.30 area. So, I guess things could be worse. But wait, there’s more.
Cindy and I walked down to the local Ace Hardware. We had serious sticker shock on many of the items we saw. Not that we are in the market for one, but I notice a Weber kettle BBQ. These are the standard backyard BBQs found in many American homes. I couldn’t believe the price on it. I asked Cindy, “Am I reading this correctly”. She agreed I was. When I got back to the boat, I looked on Amazon (USA) for the Weber grill. It listed as US$109 with free shipping to the 48 contiguous states. I am deadly serious. I am not making this next sentence up. The identical grill at this ACE hardware is US$409.00. Can you understand why I couldn’t believe my eyes?
So why are things so crazy stupid expensive? The answer is: French Polynesia has no income taxes on individuals, no wealth taxes, and no inheritance taxes. New businesses are tax-exempt for their first 12 months of operation. But, they sure as heck make it up everywhere else. If I understand correctly, French Polynesia has about a 30% duty tax on everything it imports. Since just about everything has to be imported, this is sort of like a got ya tax. But even if items are locally produced, they are still subject to the TVA sales tax of 16%. So this equates to about 45% in taxes on most items. Even at this rate, I still do not see how the grill is over four-hundred dollars. The mark-up at the store must be in excess of 300%. Yikes! Where’s Wal-Mart when you need them?
A long time ago, I read an article about using McDonald’s restaurants as a gauge to a country’s ranking on the cost of living scale. Funny but, this has sort of stuck with me over the years. I do like the occasional Big Mac. Although an interesting concept, I have since learned this theory doesn’t always work. In very low cost-of-living countries such as Colombia, McDonald’s is considered very expensive by many of the locals. They can feed a family at a regular restaurant for a lot less than McDonald’s. So while the Mac theory says Colombia is mid-tier, it is way off. Cindy and I often ate lunch out in Colombia for under US$5.00, total bill including tip for both of us. The Big Mac index can be found here. Although French Polynesia doesn’t make the list, I can assure you it would definitely be towards the top. For both of us to eat a Big Mac Combo meal cost about US$25.00. A hamburger and fries at a local restaurant (without a drink) is about US$17.00 each. It’s very easy to spend US$50 for lunch out.
I should note here tipping is frowned upon (some places might add a small service charge). So when eating out, the total is the total. The wait staff in the restaurants are paid a good wage and provide exceptional service. Most are also bi-lingual. A recent waiter told us he learns his English from American TV shows. This reminded me of the young lady we met in Buenos Aires at a bakery who told us she learned her English from watching Peaky Blinders. She even had the Irish accent down pat. I still wonder how she managed to speak to us without swearwords (the series is known for its raw language).
Some food items are subsidized by the French Polynesian government. Red tags identify the items on the grocery store shelves. These include most staple items. We are learning to shop the items with the red tags to save money. An example: a liter of milk is 150 xpf for the red tag brand (about US$1.35 or about US$5.10 per gallon). Other brands of milk are about two to three times this amount. A baguette is just 50 xpf or 45¢. I imagine it is considered to be unconstitutional for the French islands to have expensive French bread. I see a lot of baguettes in our dining future.
One of the more common complaints we have already heard from other cruisers is regarding the price of beer. I looked at the price. I thought it was a little bit expensive but not too bad. A six-pack of beer is about US$15. On the flip side of this, a beer served in a restaurant is about US$3.50. Much less than restaurants in the USA, Europe or some Caribbean Islands. So, while it is more expensive in stores, the price in restaurants is tolerable. We have since learned French Polynesian restaurants get a break on duty fees for imported alcohol. In some cases it can be cheaper to order a beer in a restaurant than buying one in a store.
There is a rumor in the marina among the cruisers about a wine shop in Pape’ete where we can buy duty-free alcohol and/or wine. This store caters to cruise boat passengers. We are hoping this is true. We had a similar option in Grenada as tourists visiting the island can shop certain stores duty-free by simply filling out a form at the time of purchase. The hunt is on!
Some things here, like boat parts, are crazy stupid expensive. I think the chandlery is owned by the same person who owns the Ace. And we thought the mark-up at Ace was high. Needless to say, we are setting up a customs agent so we can have items shipped to us from outside French Polynesia duty-free. Because our vessel is classified a yacht in transit (YIT), items used specifically for the vessel can arrive tax-free for up to three years. Even with freight costs added, this can prove to be considerable savings. We can take our time doing this since Tahiti’s airport is still closed due to the virus. Only sea-freight items are being allowed in at this time.
AliExpress (the Chinese eBay) is a favorite of mine. Shipping items by China Post is dirt cheap. It can take up to six weeks for an item to arrive. We do not mind this since we are stuck here for a while. Items under 2,000 XPF (US$180) are not charged duty and we can ship these to the marina. Because the Chinese freight is cheap, we can place many small orders instead of one big one. AliExpress guarantees the items arrival or a full refund is issued.
As I am placing orders on AliExpress, our American bank completely locks up all of our accounts. The first three credit card charges went through okay. But, then the remaining items were declined. I had to call the bank and assure the security department I hadn’t been hacked. I guess when you think about it, multiple small charges in China for shipping to Tahiti probably set off all sorts of alarms. Nice to know they are looking out for us.
Credit card companies state they have programs watching customer’s purchasing patterns. As a customer’s shopping pattern changes, the charge may be flagged. The normal pattern for us must be very different when compared to others. We do not hesitate to shop globally. So long as FedEx and DHL charges can be avoided, oftentimes shopping in other countries of the world can offer significant savings.
Since arriving here we are tackling a long list of projects. We figured we’d wait for the island to completely reopen before we put our tourist’s hats on. On our passage to Tahiti, Cindy banged her wrist. It hurt for a couple of days and she didn’t think much was wrong. That was about 4 weeks ago. While cleaning the boat she shifted herself on the floor and felt a little pop in the same wrist. The next day she could hardly move her figures and was in a lot of pain. Dr. Google diagnosed the problem as a torn ligament. For a few days she took some pain pills and kept it wrapped. The next step: get a splint.
I know you have already heard me talk on this blog about exceptionally good healthcare outside of the USA at prices a fraction of those charged in the USA. Don’t worry, this is not another rant. But once again, I am impressed. There is a large pharmacy near the clinic building just down the street. Cindy went to there and talked to the pharmacist. This is where things are very different. No doctors are involved. After a few questions, the pharmacist knew exactly what Cindy needed. No expensive X-rays or MRIs needed to confirm it isn’t broken. Instead, a simple and logical approach is taken. If it gets better, then good. If not, come back and see the doctor. The pharmacist measured her wrist, selected the appropriate size splint, and explained how to use it (all in perfect English). She spent about ten minutes with Cindy making sure she was taken care of. (BTW – it is getting better, slowly)
On the subject of healthcare, we spend a lot of time in the sun. It just can’t be helped. We really try to avoid sunburn but sometimes we just get caught. When a spot on the skin pops up, it is best to get it looked over by a professional. We paid the full price since we are not on the French healthcare system. A 30-minute appointment with a Dermatologist in Pape’ete (English speaking), removal of a spot, some antibiotics and cream, a confirmation of nothing to worry about, all this for less than US$90. No insurance (we only have catastrophic care), no co-pays. Just a straight up and down transaction.
Speaking of sunshine, we need to watch the weather here. The island is very green and covered in beautiful flowers. The reason it is green, it rains. Since we walk to most places, we try to plan an outing such as a grocery store trip on days when the chance of rain is slim to none. This means getting on the local news page and looking at the weather. Some days we get a real chuckle from the Google translation:
WEATHER TAHITI ET MOOREA
This Monday, the sun is well annoyed by the clouds responsible for the showers on the island of Tahiti, a little later on Moorea. Tuesday is a gray weather with more frequent rains on the relief and the South and West coasts. Forecast extreme temperatures: 23 and 30 degrees Celsius.
As I mentioned previously, things are pretty much back to normal on Tahiti. Things are changing for the better. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have the entire island to ourselves as we start our tourist activities. During the period of anti-virus precautions (I detest the word lockdown) some of the local people got nailed by the police for breaking the rules of the mandated anti-virus measures. On a Tahiti news page a couple of days ago, it was mentioned more than 7,000 people were issued citations with potential fines up to 89,400 XPF (US$815). In an incredible move to “to repair the civility by solidarity”, those who were fined can now make a donation of 5,000 XPF (US$45) to the Red Cross to make their citations disappear.
If you have ever doubted how much the odds in a casino favor the house, you needn’t look any further than this for proof. This is by far the largest private yacht I have seen. I watched, mouth agape, as this 354 foot Benetti giga-yacht named IJE entered the marina area. A quick Google search revealed it is owned by an Australian billionaire, James Packer. The name might be familiar to you if you follow People Magazine. This is the billionaire Mariah Carey was engaged to for a short time. IJE was completed in 2019 at a cost of two hundred million U.S. Dollars (estimate). His family made their fortune in the casino gaming industry. And, this is not his first mega-yacht although, it is certainly his largest. I can’t help but wonder if he has already ordered a bigger one.
Seeing something as ostentatious as this often provokes an emotion in people. Some are angry about greed, for others it might be jealousy. For me, I am in awe of the engineering feat and love to read the stats. For example, this yacht holds 91,000 gallons of diesel. To top up the tank would require about US$270,000 and about 7 fuel tanker trucks to come to the dock. The operating cost is estimated to be twenty-million dollars a year and has a crew of 29 people to take care of the vessel and cater to the owner and guests. This incredible engineering feat took over 500,000 man-hours just to complete the interior. Think about this next time you sit at a Black-Jack table with high hopes of beating the house.
This week we have an island tour scheduled with a guide. I hope to share lots of awesome pictures so, stay tuned.