We made it to Bora Bora. This will be our last stop in French Polynesia. There is a funny saying, I went to Bora Bora and left poorer poorer. And, this adage is justly due. This place is the world’s ultimate tourist’s trap. Personally, I think the real purpose of Bora Bora’s place in our world is to establish the absolute maximum amount of money a tourist is willing to pay for anything.
Bora Bora has targeted itself as a tourism destination from the USA. The goal is to separate Americans from their money as quickly and as much as possible. Few Europeans come here. They have discovered the Seychelles and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. To fly here from the EU would be a very long flight. They have much closer alternatives.
Hotels here are crazy stupid expensive. Some of those fancy huts over the water can EASILY run you upward of US$3,000 per night. Ouch! I wonder if people realize they can get an entire house on Tahiti (or Bora Bora for that matter), with a personal chef and housekeeper for much less than this. But for whatever reason, people find the hut on the water appealing and are willing to pay through the nose for the experience.
I forget the news site, but a little while ago when I was surfing local news in Tahiti, I came across an article about how upsetting it was a Bora Bora hotel was now no longer the most expensive resort in the world. The prize to separate people and their money has since gone elsewhere. Sorry, I don’t recall all the details of the story as to where. But regardless, I came away from the article thinking the Bora Bora property was going to have a price increase in the near future.
I was chatting with Cindy and made a comment wondering aloud how they managed to maintain insurance for the property. One cyclone and it’s game over. Bora Bora sits well within the cyclone belt and is most definitely not immune. So this begs the question: Do they have insurance? Then it dawned on me. Perhaps this is why the room rates are so high.
Factored into the business matrix might be a “shelf life” of the hotel calculated by an actuary regarding the number of years before it gets wiped off the map or needs a massive repair. It kind of makes sense when you think about it; the owners could be self-insured and pass the cost to the guests. Then after x years of escaping a pounding from a cyclone, the property has enough funds for a rebuild and the rest is gravy to the bottom line of the P&L.
Many of the reviews on travel sites have guest comments about the rooms appearing worn on the inside. This is partly due to Bora Bora being in the middle of nowhere. Ordering new bedside tables means importing them by ship from somewhere in the world, probably Asia. I imagine the replenishment or repair of interior items is a logistical nightmare. But, it might also be the owner of the hotel is just waiting for the next cyclone to hit and then does a complete renovation with the slush fund.
There is a Bora Bora Facebook tourist group page where people love to toss about their experiences in over the water bungalows. I discovered it when I was trying to find things to do in Bora Bora about a year ago. The short answer is, there isn’t very much. Other than the activities offered on the resorts and the touristy things like parasailing, jetskiing etc, the island is basically a support compound for all the massive resorts here.
When on the page one day, I laughed hard when the discussion revolved around how much booze a person could carry on their trip here so they could save money at their 5-star resort. I would think that saving twenty bucks on a bottle of booze would be the last thing to impact the Bora Bora vacation budget.
Bora Bora is often ranked as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. I’m not saying it’s not beautiful here. But, I can’t help but think how many people believe it is the most beautiful because they are told to think this by the travel industry. Yes, it is beautiful. But to be honest, I think Tahiti was much prettier, or certainly as pretty. As I mentioned in other posts, we found many places in Tahiti that just took our breath away. Other than the resorts, there really isn’t much to Bora Bora.
Resorts are everywhere here. Just about every major hotel chain from every country has a presence. Interestingly, the resorts are located on the barrier islands surrounding the main island, Bora Bora. The only way on and off these smaller islets is by the hotel ferry (probably an extra fee). This wouldn’t suit the way we travel. Yes, we enjoy a nice hotel. I mean, who doesn’t. But, we also enjoy adventure and discovery. Getting out into the place we are visiting and finding gems well off the tourist path is what makes us want to travel. I’m not sure I could stand being pent up on a resort for a week.
If a tourist does venture off the resort and decides to rent a car for a couple of days to explore, they are in for a bit of a shock. First, the cost of a rental car starts at more than US$100 per day for a tiny tiny tiny car. It is easy to spend US$200 per day for a rental car. Second, if you keep the car overnight, you’ll need a place to park it so you can catch the ferry back to the resort. Ha! Good luck with that.
I really do not mean to insult anyone with this – but I now look at Bora Bora as: Disney – French Polynesia (for people in their 40’s). It really doesn’t depict the people, culture, or essence of the French Polynesian islands. It is really a faux Polynesian experience. Granted, it’s a nice experience but at the same time not realistic.
If you are a regular reader, you know already we couldn’t wait to wet our snorkel gear and jump in the water. We were excited about seeking out new underwater fish hideaways. Disappointment is the word that immediately comes to mind. On a nice calm day, we set out in our dinghy after researching a few recommended spots. We tried a few places. The water wasn’t nearly as clear as in other places we’ve dived in French Polynesia.
After about three attempts to find a good spot, we saw a tourist boat anchored. They have about 20 people in the water. Perhaps, a good sign? As we motor over, the tourist boat leaves. Great, now we can have the place to ourselves. Not so fast. We see another one coming but the reef appears to be large and there is plenty of room for us to stay clear and have our own space. I jump in. More disappointment. While there are plenty of fish, the water is murky and the current is strong. We have been so very spoiled in other parts of French Polynesia. The bar is very high now and expectations are copious. From the pictures we’ve posted in the past, you know we found some incredible places. Our absolute favorite still being the massive coral garden at the end of the runway in Tahiti. Bora Bora isn’t even close.
When we arrived in Bora Bora, our aim was to stay 4 days. Thanks to the incompetence of French Customs and Immigration we are stuck here. The government is trying to implement an online system for boaters to register upon arrival, track movements, and check out of the country. It sounds great, right? Well, think about this. Most boats arriving do not have internet access immediately since the French have a stupid system limiting access to 4G SIM cards. After a few hassles, you might be able to get a 4G monthly plan. The prepaid plans they offer are still stuck in 2G mode and it takes forever, to download a form from customs. I wonder how they expect people to register if they have to do it at internet speeds equivalent to those of the 1990’s.
While we were in Tahiti, Cindy got word of this new system through the news. Note: It wasn’t from the French Authorities who, by the way, happen to have all of the visiting boat’s email addresses since we have to enter it into a box on more than one form at check in. Nope: we heard she read it on a news website. Cindy took a few hours to register our details at this online site.
The site says, when we are ready to exit the country, we are to go online and fill out a form, they will process the form and return a verified copy. If we need a passport stamp, as we do, the local gendarmerie (national police) will stamp the passport if we present the forms we receive online. Once we are issued a zarpe we are good to go. A zarpe is a document we need. It is presented at the next port of entry to show we exited the previous country legally. Without a zarpe it is problematic to clear into a new country with the boat.
Cindy said, our account constantly showed as processing. It has been like this for a couple of months. She wrote to the general inquiry email and asked what was needed. They told us to go to the gendarmerie in Bora Bora and get a form DD26. So we did, on Thursday. And, they wouldn’t give us one.
Instead, the gendarmerie asked us for our account ID number. They disappeared from sight for about half an hour and when they returned said, you are all set. They told us we’d get a clearance email from Tahiti Customs within the next 24 hours and when we receive it bring our passports in to be stamped. We told them were wanted to leave in two days on Saturday. No problem they assured us.
On Saturday, we went to the gendarmerie again. We told the officer we were trying to leave and didn’t get the email they said was forthcoming. Furthermore, we have written to the online inquiry address 3 times and haven’t had a response. He told us we now needed to fill out the forms and needed to do the entire process manually. The online system is not working. No shit, Sherlock! He told us this changed on Friday.
I am going to point out two obvious things here. First, they have our email address and could have easily sent out a blanket email to boaters waiting (we are not the only ones – we ran into others with the same issue). Secondly, this is the most western point of French Polynesia with a population and a place where just about every boater checks out as we travel these islands from an east to west direction. In every other civilized country we’ve visited, we go to the authorities, fill out a couple of forms, present our passports and we’re done. Here’s the zarpe – bon voyage! But, not the French. They have to maintain the badge of the world’s worst bureaucracy. After all, bureaucracy is their word, so why not make all efforts to preserve the word they invented?
The officer told us since it was Saturday, we’d probably not have clearance until Wednesday. I was on one side of the officer and Cindy was on the other side. It was at this point we both lost it. He must have felt like someone turned on the stereo bitching machine – at full volume. How hard is it to get a zarpe! He tries to explain the person he needs to scan and send the paperwork to doesn’t work on weekends. Even if he sent the documents today they’d not be processed. Can you imagine telling an airplane full of people they can’t leave because the officer isn’t working today? I can’t help but wonder why they think it’s okay to treat boaters as second-class citizens and not provide access to clearance on weekends as they do all other tourists.
It gets better! The officer points to his watch. Then, he proceeds to tell us there are a lot of forms to fill out and its 15 minutes to his lunchtime and the police station closes from noon until 2 pm. At this point I’m laughing. Ya know, you just can’t make this shit up. We have a moment of zen and ask him for the forms. I calmly tell him we will take them with us, find a café, have lunch, and return with them completed afterward.
Over our two-hour lunch awaiting for the police station to reopen, Cindy completed the 8 forms. Each form basically asked for the same information over and over again. The silver lining to this day is we found a fairly decent café, Aloe Café. The food was better than most we’d had during our 3-year stint here. I had a cheeseburger and Cindy had a chicken panini. We even sprang for dessert: profiteroles. Yum! Dessert is unlike us. We usually skip it. I think we felt a little guilty taking a table for two hours at the height of the lunch trade. We looked about and they always seemed to be an open table so we didn’t worry too much. In true Bora Bora fashion, this basic lunch was US$75.
After the lunch with paperwork, we thought we stop at the local grocery store to pick up a few fresh items. Thinking we might like a salad for dinner we are disappointed by a grotty grocery store offering minimal fresh veggies. No lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, or carrots. I know for a fact there are tomatoes and lettuce somehow available since I just had some on my burger. But, apparently they are not sold at a supermarket. The available fruit wasn’t fit to be eaten. Oh well! We give up. Can we just please get a zarpe and go!
We return to the police station (gendarmerie). Cindy points out on the form there are multiple spots for the date we plan to leave. She asks how are we supposed to fill this out when you have no idea when the paperwork is going to be delivered to us? The officer says he will make sure it is transmitted on Monday and to return Tuesday with passports in hand for clearance. I wonder if this is actually going to happen.
In true French fashion, out comes the series of rubber stamps. The French bureaucrats love their rubber stamps. Each form receives at least two stamps. This is somewhat comical since the stamp pad is out of ink and the image on the form is barely visible.
In the meantime we sit in a mooring field where Bora Bora has mandated all boats must go when visiting. The fee for the privilege of a mooring is 4000 xpf per night (about US$40). Like anything else in Bora Bora, this is the most we’ve ever paid for a mooring. I actually don’t mind the mooring mandate because it saves the seabed and coral. But, there are no discounts for a weekly or monthly stay. Since we are trying to leave, we need to keep making trips to the ATM for cash to pay for this. If we take Polynesian Francs with us, the chances are will not have need for this currency again. Cindy stands at the ATM and asks, how much should I take out? I shrug.
So I don’t end this post on a completely downer note, I’m going to echo what I wrote in my previous post about people in French Polynesia. The gendarmerie officer was super nice. I realize it isn’t his fault and he is trying hard to help. When he was helping us an Asian guy came in and sat down. He said something to the man in Mandarin Chinese. What? How many languages do you speak? He tells me he speaks 8 languages and can read and write in 3. Wow, right! He says this is why he is stationed in Bora Bora. They have people from all over the world visit and sometimes they need help. We tell him he lives in a beautiful country and he responds by telling us he hopes to see us again one day.
If you are reading this, we are now underway and westward bound. We have finally escaped from Bora Bora!