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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (November 13, 1998 - AFP)---The official opening of a luxury hotel Friday marks victory for New Caledonia's economic leaders and defeat for a long campaign by environmentalists fighting for sustainable development of the French Pacific territory.

The opening of the hotel in Golden Bay, often described as the most beautiful area in the Pacific territory, ends several years of lawsuits and work suspensions.

The five-star hotel was built on an area initially declared an integral nature reserve in 1950 but later declassified in 1980.

New Caledonia Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Michel Quintard, said the opening of the hotel outside the capital, Noumea, is a big step forward for the tourism industry, which ranks as the territory's second major resource after nickel.

Quintard is also the director of the Noumea Hotels Corporation (SHN), which financed construction of the 77 million franc (13.75 million dollar) hotel situated 20 minutes by air south of Noumea.

But for environmental organization Action Biosphere, the hotel was built "in an exceptional but fragile site."

The hotel construction "is a bad management policy" for the territory and constitutes a "precedent which risks being followed by the rest of New Caledonia," the organization said.

The case of the Golden Bay hotel was also complicated by rival claims among a tribal clan in the island.

The tribe, which has 1,671 members, has long shown strong opposition to heavy tourism and in 1979 a Club Med hotel was burned.

After two years of negotiations, an agreement was reached in which seven tribal representatives would retain 66 percent of shares in exchange for approving the use of the land where the hotel was built. SHN holds the remaining 34 shares.

But a group of 29 tribal members supported by Action Biosphere launched several lawsuits to halt the project, causing lengthy delays.

Arguing that the hotel site was "a sacred area," the opposing tribes accused the tribal chief of "mixing politics and tribal custom."

The hotel owners accused Biosphere of "sowing discord" in the clan and defended its investment as necessary for the economic development of the island.

The hotel will be inaugurated Friday by the territory's politicians and French High Commissioner Dominique Bur.

It will be run by the Meridian hotel chain, and boasts 39 bungalows shaded beneath coconut palms bordering an opal blue lagoon, with 10 function rooms, a swimming pool, restaurant and bar.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: WWW:

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