Throughout the tropical island paradise of French Polynesia, hotels and resorts welcome more than 200,000 visitors each year, with numbers rising as the economic rebound from COVID-19 continues to bolster international tourism, which makes up a significant percentage of the country’s $17,000 GDP.
More than 100 islands make up French Polynesia, covering areas as vast as Europe. French Polynesia is home to at least 300,000 individuals, and 55% of the most populated islands live off less than $1,150 a month.
The State of Poverty
At 10%, the unemployment rate is high in French Polynesia, where 13% of the population works harvesting local agriculture such as coconuts, pineapples, cassava, sugar cane, eggs, tropical fruit and tomatoes and another 19% in the growing industry throughout the islands.
Currently, 16% of French Polynesia live below the poverty line and roughly 75,000 live on less than $600 monthly. One Pacific franc equals $0.0092 and maintains a consistent decline in exchange rates.
In correlation to being a territory of France via considerable autonomy, France subsidizes $300 million per year to French Polynesia. This money is often used to aid with the availability and purchases of everyday goods such as rice, beans, baguettes and crackers. Air Tahiti Nui is also subsidized to help boost tourism and local jobs.
Living Conditions in French Polynesia
In harsh reality, when searching “Tahiti homes,” photos indicate a false correlation between how locals truly live, often showing luxury vacation homes and beachside getaway huts. On the other hand, when searching “Tahiti homes, poverty,” these results represent the vast majority of home size, condition and expectations of how most live.
In reference to supplies mentioned earlier, only the islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora have access to tap water, which is often heavily sanitized and can cause stomach sickness. Large water jugs are used throughout the island as water is collected and sealed from springs high in the tropical mountains.
“I remember walking down the streets and seeing homes that are so different from what I’d seen in America,” said Matthew Ward, former missionary and resident of two years. “I’d walk into these homes no bigger than a normal-sized American kitchen, and all they had was in that small area. Seeing the poverty in French Polynesia was a humbling experience that I’ll never forget, not only seeing it but living like them too.”
The impoverished live throughout the main islands but are particularly heavy in cities like Fa’a’ā and other poor regains near Papeete, where 20,000 remain dispossessed as large getaway homes scatter the shorelines and mountain hillsides.
“Most people would have what they needed, bare necessities, you could say,” Ward said, “I’d see rats and ants around the homes, and it was just so common. We focused primarily on helping the locals by providing service and fostering Christlike relationships with those around the island.”
In a study from IWGIA, one-fifth of the population of French Polynesia was living below the poverty line as recently as 2022.
Steps Toward Progress in Tahiti
Among the ways to aid and mitigate poverty in French Polynesia are donations. The SOS Children’s Villages of Canada has collected donations aiding French Polynesia since 1994, when it first appeared there to aid those in need.
Specific regions of aid are directed toward nutrition, quality health care and nurturing homes, to name a few. Since the beginning, SOS Children’s Villages have aided 51 orphaned and abandoned children throughout the capital region of Papeete.
– Chandler Doerr