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PAPEÉTE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, June 22) - The sounds of Marquesan drums vibrated throughout the Tahiti-Faa’a International Airport Monday night as Tahiti welcomed the arrival of Air Tahiti Nui’s fifth Airbus A340-300 from Paris.

The aircraft, baptized "Nuku Hiva" after one of the Marquesas Islands, appropriately had aboard a Marquesan-born co-pilot, Sandrine Tupai-Turquem, who was all the more proud to have helped fly this brand new plane to its new home.

[PIR editor’s note: Nuku Hiva is the setting of Herman Melville’s 1846 autobiographical novel "Typee," which some historians credit with attracting western interest in the South Pacific.]

And when this aircraft is next commercially airborne in two weeks time, it will open a new chapter in Tahiti’s aviation and tourism industry history as it launches Air Tahiti Nui’s most dramatic and challenging routes ever - three weekly nonstop New York-Papeéte flights and two weekly nonstop Sydney-Papeéte flights. Both new routes are seen as key elements in helping Tahiti reach its yearly overseas visitor goal of 300,000 tourists in 2007.

A late night crowd of several hundred persons turned out for the arrival of the new Air Tahiti Nui plane, which was delivered to airline officials during the 46th International Paris Air Show.

Among that welcoming crowd were the plane’s godmother -- Yvonne Katupa, mayor of the small village of Hatiheu on Nuku Hiva – and the godfather -- Louis Teikiteetini, a famous Marquesan sculptor. The traditional Marquesan dance group Te Haka Tupuna Nui also welcomed the aircraft. Champagne flowed at the airport during the welcome.

"This plane is the symbol of the willingness of the country to offer even more seats to all those who want to come to (French) Polynesia," said French Polynesia Vice President and Tourism Minister Jacqui Drollet.

When "the Nuku Hiva" was on display during the Paris Air Show last week, a rumor began circulating that a sixth Airbus will soon join the Air Tahiti Nui fleet. "It’s a reality," Drollet said Monday night, adding that the government of French Polynesia President Oscar Temaru plans to develop the national carrier’s activities by buying more aircraft. "But it’s not a question of buying just for buying," he said. "It must be part of an overall strategy."

Temaru could not attend the airport welcome because he was in Paris preparing to meet with French government officials to help plan Tahiti’s future economic development.

The government, which owns 62 percent of the airline that has grown from a fleet of one to five aircraft since 2001, obtained a 29 percent tax exemption from the French government for its newest purchase. That knocked three billion French Pacific francs (US$31.38 million) off the nearly 11 billion French Pacific franc (US$115.1 million) price tag. The government, left with the some eight billion F CFP balance to pay, has decided to take out loans to cover six billion F CFP of what is due.

"That will be a burden for the Air Tahiti Nui budget, but we think that in the long run, over three years, the books will still be balanced," Drollet said Monday night. He left no doubt that Tahiti is counting heavily on the success of its "pioneering" and "promising" New York-Papeéte-Sydney and New York-Papeéte-Auckland routes to fill the airline’s coffers.

June 23, 2005


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