Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This first edition reviews new things I tried in my attempt to be sustainable while travelling in FRENCH POLYNESIA – whether by pre-planning, or from the opportunities I found while there. It covers what I did well, what I would keep doing/using, what I would do differently next time, and what I failed to do. 

Planning Sustainable Travel to French Polynesia

The arrival halls of airports in French Polynesia were fragrant with leis. I can’t be sure, of course, but it seemed to me like the Polynesians wait with flower leis even if they’re picking up people personally. What I mean is, not just tourist guests.

You might guess that this means I came to French Polynesia by flight. You’d be right. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a conscious choice as well.

1. Choosing the most sustainable option to travel to French Polynesia

Dismissing truly offbeat transportation options, the main ways people come to Tahiti are by cruise ship, sailboat, and airplane.

Cruise ship emissions

For my trip, the trip duration demanded by the first two options was so long that flying was my only practical option. But even if I could have spared the time, I still wouldn’t have chosen cruising, primarily because I don’t think I can justify the carbon emissions. The average cruise ship passenger’s emissions is more than 100x the emissions from my flights to and within French Polynesia!

And that’s based on data from the better cruise ship companies; the rest of them don’t even keep proper environmental records! Unfortunately, I doubt that cruise ships would become sustainable enough in my lifetime for it to become an acceptable choice for me.

Cruise ship in Tiputa pass leaving Rangiroa lagoon

Sailing & inclusion

As for sailing, there’s a huge problem: I don’t have a sailboat! Yes, I have heard that there are other options for us plebes without a boat. For example, there’s Workaway or couchsurfing-like platforms for crewing boats. And I did try Workaway, which was when I realised a second problem: sailing culture is very un-diverse, and I’m not Western. Yeah, the irony is not lost on me. A descendent of a sailing people, going into the territory of another sailing people, and neither of us own the nice boats in our own territories. It really is something to think about.

Air travel & resisting FOMO

Anyway, never mind that. Flying it still would have been for me, even if I had the luxury of time. That said, I was tempted to take Air Tahiti’s package deal; you get a special price if you fly to multiple islands in French Polynesia. But in the end, I felt that the extra carbon emissions from multiplying my destinations was not worth it.

After all, even if flying is a far more low-carbon option than cruise ships, it’s still a transport option with a high carbon footprint, with most of the emissions occurring during take off and landing. So I contented myself with visiting only one archipelago after Tahiti itself, Rangiroa in the Tuamotus.


2. Zero Waste Menstrual Swaps for Travelling

By the time I went to French Polynesia, I had made considerable progress at home to be free from single use plastics. I felt confident enough with one swap in particular to debut it in this trip.

How can I reduce plastic waste related to periods?

I took a long time to make this plastic-free swap due to the embarrassment factor if it goes wrong. When I finally did, I went for the menstrual cup. Because I wanted to be prepared for leaks, I also got some menstrual underwear from Modibodi at the same time. (As the menstrual underwear was not the primary product, I went for the light-moderate flow version.) I tried this combination for several months until I felt confident enough to travel with them.

This is a plastic-free swap which I foolishly left for too long. If I were to do my zero waste journey again, this would be among my first swaps. Once you get over your squeamishness and realise that your nether regions are not as delicate as you feared, it’s just so convenient. The amount of money you save is a no-brainer. Sanitary pads are bulky, and you either have to buy every month or reserve considerable shelf space to stock it. I don’t miss it at all.

Note: At the time, washable menstrual pads were already available. I chose against it because I knew that whichever zero waste option I chose, it would have to work for travel as well. While I can imagine putting the menstrual underwear into the laundry and hanging them up at a hostel, I could not see myself hanging up the washable pads!

What were the additional benefits of using a menstrual cup?

Aside from the general benefits of moving away from disposable menstrual pads, a big benefit of the menstrual cup for me is that I can now swim even on my heavy flow days.

It’s also more discreet, which turned out to be handy on a catamaran. With a menstrual cup, you only need to empty the contents every so often, and rinse before re-insertion. (Actually, in a pinch, I’ve found it’s really just fine to re-insert without rinsing.) Sanitary pads would have been very noticeable since garbage had to be taken back to shore for disposal, and we didn’t generate a lot of other waste.

There’s also one side benefit that could be important to some women. The menstrual cup can help women with vaginismus re-train her cervical muscles.

What were the additional benefits of using period underwear?

The primary travel benefit of using menstrual underwear vs washable pads is that it is discreet. You can’t really tell the difference between them and regular underwear in a casual glance; they just look like larger sized underwear. In a pinch, you can also wear it when you’re not on your period. So, this means you can actually pack it as underwear, rather than having to pack underwear and washable pads.

Lone petrel on a rock in the middle of ankle-deep lagoon

Are there any downsides to switching to a menstrual cup?

The upfront investment is considerably higher than a pack of sanitary pads. That said, over time, this is among the most financially sensible zero waste swaps. From a travel standpoint, it may not be a good option if you’re travelling to places without clean water in bathrooms when you’re in transit. Also, I guess you can’t rescue another woman traveller if she has her period unexpectedly.

Women from certain cultural backgrounds may find this option unpalatable, because of the taboo on inserting things into your vagina. The truth is, mine is one such cultural background. But the cup really doesn’t go very far in at all, and if you’re travelling with others, it’s a lot more discreet. So that modesty bonus is enough for me to overrule my limiting beliefs.

Are there any downsides to switching to period underwear?

You want good quality for menstrual underwear, because those would be the ones with low leakage potential. But good quality costs money. I still think it’s a good swap to make, and the earlier the better so that you start saving money sooner (that you would have spent on disposable pads). They also take a little bit longer to dry than normal underwear because of the multi-layer absorbent portion. But it’s about the same amount of drying time as, say, jeans. So it’s not that big a deal.

Would I keep using a menstrual cup for travel?

It’s not only my default, I carry one in my handbag instead of the ’emergency sanitary pad’.

Would I keep using period underwear for travel?

If there’s a chance I might have my period while travelling, I’d pack this on top of the menstrual cup.

3. Supporting Local Businesses and Communities in French Polynesia

Tourism is an important industry for French Polynesia. As a rule of thumb, when a destination is heavily marketed for tourism, I’d put in some extra effort to search for local businesses so that tourism leakage can be reduced.

For more on tourism leakage and why it’s an important sustainable travel issue, I recommend Curiosity Saves Travel’s excellent article. To give an indication, the UN estimates that for most all-inclusive package tours, for every $100 spent only $20 stays in the host country’s economy. In other words, depending on how you spend as a tourist, the tourism either really helps the local economy, or further exploits the host country.

How easy was it to spend locally in French Polynesia?

I generally try to favour local businesses when I travel. This is not difficult to do in French Polynesia. Local businesses are the norm. Accommodation, food, souvenirs – if you don’t come on a package resort stay, chances are you’ll be spending local for these. There’s even locally canned juice, made from Polynesian-grown fruit (the brand is Rotui, if you’re wondering).

However, there was one thing that I came away wishing for. There doesn’t seem to be any dive centres in Rangiroa run by indigenous Polynesians. This used to be the case in Southeast Asia, but it’s normal these days to have dive centres run by Southeast Asians. I bring it up because the vibe is different between dive shops run by natives and those run by non-native westerners. The portion of my Rangiroa trip when I was diving was the only part when my local immersion was disrupted. I hope one day Rangiroa would have Polynesian dive masters taking divers out on the reef.


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Sustainability Information for Travellers to French Polynesia

My trip to French Polynesia was limited to the Leeward Islands: Tahiti itself, and Rangiroa in the Tuamotus. Noteworthy things I learned about water sustainability and waste are described below. And since I can’t figure out where else to put it, I’ll throw in the logistics stuff in here as well.

1. Logistics, fuel & energy in Tahiti & Rangiroa

  • Vini is the only mobile data service provider in French Polynesia. The best data speed you can get is 3G; but I guess it’s reasonable considering you’re in the middle of the ocean. It’s also more expensive than you would be used to, if you’re coming in from continental countries. In addition, it’s not very reliable. For example, when I was in Tahiti it was down on the third day. Make sure you download to your phone things you will need beforehand, such as local maps and translation dictionaries.
  • Tahiti seems to be mostly powered by fossil energy, judging from the fuel storage near Pape’ete port. There are gas stations all over the island. When I was there, diesel was 142 XPF per litre, which is about $1.40 per litre at today’s rates. So, budget accordingly if you plan to rent a car. There’s some rooftop solar in Tahiti, but not much.
  • There is also a local bus service in Tahiti. It is challenging to work out, but if you’re fluent in French it’s doable. This is significantly cheaper, and can take you all around the island.
  • Life in Rangiroa is fairly low energy, and seems mainly solar powered. There were solar panels on the bank and the school.

2. Plastic pollution

Unsurprisingly for a tourism-reliant destination, French Polynesia has a modern plastic habit. The silver lining is that the people are tidy, and keep everything clean from plastic trash. There’s some recycling, but it’s not widespread.

I tried to avoid plastic as much as I could, especially in Rangiroa. Coming from Southeast Asia, I couldn’t bear the thought of these islands becoming inundated by plastic. So much so that I left a RM5 note as a souvenir to my host instead of a RM1 note, because the latter depicted a kite on the back, and I didn’t want to be responsible for plastic kites coming into vogue… (Maybe that was paranoid, but you see, our islands became polluted with plastic within one generation, so I am paranoid.)

3. Water resources

The water situation is different between Tahiti and Rangiroa. Tahiti is a hilly island, enough to generate rain. As a result, water never felt like a scarce resource on Tahiti, albeit there was mention of groundwater preservation efforts in my hotel in Pape’ete.

On the other hand, Rangiroa is extremely flat, and relies on seasonal ocean rain. Water is visibly stored in overhead tanks. My host was curious when she saw me filtering water from the tap for drinking with my portable travel water filter. Rangiroa was the place where I realised I should pack something else when I travel to potentially water-scarce locations: the filter’s backwash syringe. I wouldn’t need to clean the filter until I returned home, which is why I save space in my luggage and leave it behind. But, if I had packed it with me, I could have left the whole set behind as a gift.

Sustainable Travel Discoveries in French Polynesia

While there are things you can prepare from the outset to travel sustainably, don’t forget to keep your eyes open when you have arrived. Sometimes, you come across opportunities to be more sustainable that you didn’t know about, and could not have planned for. And sometimes, you come across things that make you think more deeply about sustainability issues, and give you more nuance.

1. Caged fish in Pape’ete marina

It was Jon who took me to see the caged fish in the marina. I had told him how much I was into marine life, so he took me walking by the marina in Pape’ete where he had seen the fish. The ‘cages’ consisted of nets fastened on rectangular frames, with fish inside them. Some coral had started growing on a couple of them, and it seemed like the intention was to make a kind of coral aquarium that had free-flowing water.

At first, I was intrigued by all the fish. But, as we stood watching the fish swim back and forth, and back and forth, I realised they were obviously stressed. The fish were constantly at the surface, trying all of the edges for an escape opening. Several were swimming lopsided, as if trying to see whether it could escape through the air. I don’t know when they turn off the lights, and I wonder whether the fish had enough sleep.

In the morning, as I passed by the marina on the bus to Vaira’o, I saw people protesting the ‘aquariums’. I hope by now the fish have been set free. It seemed like a really bad idea. Besides, all you need to do is actually cultivate a coral reef in the marina; the fish will come on their own. If you have to cage them there, in a Pacific island, you’re doing something wrong.

2. Polynesian version of Marine Protected Areas

Like any English-speaking person, I am familiar with the word ‘taboo’. I also knew that it originated from the Polynesian word tapu. But it was only when I travelled in Polynesia that I saw how it’s used in the context of conservation. While on Easter Island I saw it on land, on Tahiti I saw it used to demarcate marine protected areas. I also learned the concept of the rahui, which I think means the prohibition of acts that violate the tapu.

My people used to have an equivalent version. However, it was always associated with spirit guardians, so we have gradually left it behind as superstition. Maybe we should have kept the cultural concept of keramat, without necessarily carrying over the animism. Perhaps we could have kept a lot more of our nature by now.

No take zone signboard describing sustainable marine management in Tahiti, Polynesia

3. Wildlife interaction & tourism

One of the cardinal sins of sustainable tourism is wildlife handling. There are almost no good reasons why a tourist should touch wildlife, especially when it is staged. Even in a natural encounter, ideally you should let the animal initiate contact. That said, the line gets blurred when you’re hosted by local people, for whom these animals are kinda like their stray dogs and cats.

For landlubbers, sharks are an exotic animal. But it is not necessarily so for islanders, as I discovered in Rangiroa. My host told me that when they were little, they would pick up juvenile reef sharks and pretend to spar with them. (This story reminded me of my dad and his childhood friends, who used to do cruel things like tie strings on the legs of dragonflies so that they could see them fly around in circles. He has since repented.)

This culture is why island hosts would often offer to capture fish to show guests. Indeed, my host’s husband strung out a net to catch a Picasso triggerfish at the motu when I was joined by a Swiss couple, which upset my host since they were supposed to leave the fish alone at the motu so that they would stay docile for the tourists to see.

Lagoon water so clear you can see through to the coral at the bottom

Fortunately, the Swiss tourists were somewhat aware that what’s ok for locals to do, is not always ok when multiplied by all the tourists. In fact, Bjorne even disapproved that the Tuamotus export fish to Tahiti. He felt that Tahiti should not have depleted its own fish stocks, rather than rely on imports from other archipelagoes. But I guess, at least it’s alternative income for this region.

4. Fish feeding in Polynesia

That brings me to another topic with a similar context. When I say that the fish are like stray cats in Polynesia, I really mean it. It’s common here for people to toss food scraps into the water. Technically it’s fish feeding, but it’s not done on purpose. My host said only the surface feeders come to the shallows to eat the scraps anyway, and those are not grazers on the coral reef. As far as I could tell, it’s true. And as far as I could tell, the coral reef in Rangiroa isn’t overgrown by algae, so it looks to be quite tolerable by the ecosystem.

But again, something that’s sustainable within local practices, may stop being sustainable when done as a tourism activity. Fish feeding is one of them.

Reef shark in ankle-deep water

5. Honourable mention: The iNaturalist app

It was after my trip to French Polynesia that I discovered the iNaturalist app. I saw animals in Tahiti and while snorkelling, that I couldn’t quite identify. Then I saw this app mentioned on social media and tried it out. Although I do have a bit of a biology background, you don’t need much of it to use the app, as long as the photo is good.

Carbon offsetting information to Tahiti

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Fa’a’a via Auckland produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,280 lbs CO2e. It costs about $51 to offset this.


Sustainable travel in French Polynesia

14 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    I love so much about this post I hardly know where to start!! First of all, I’m ordering period underwear right freaking now! I can’t believe I’ve waited this long. And this location looks sooooo dreamy, but I love your approach with the sustainability options. It’s the future of travel (or should be). Thanks for ALL of this information!

    • Teja says:

      OMG that’s awesome! Is it gonna be your primary solution? I haven’t dared to make it more than the secondary.
      Yes, I enjoy making this series. These articles can be a bit random but they’re the things that I notice as a travelling environmental scientist, because these are elements I have to weigh and consider at work every day, and I hope it makes it begin to occur to others as well. :)

  2. French Polynesia looks gorgeous! The blue waters seem incredibly welcoming. Your tips on traveling sustainably are really helpful. We, too, prefer spending at local businesses when traveling. It’s just good to know that the money is helping locals directly.

    • Teja says:

      It is perhaps among the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. (I can’t decide between the Tuamotu atolls and the Atacama high plains.) I think, especially if you’re visiting developing countries, or remote communities, or destinations that otherwise have little leverage economically, it’s really important that our tourism dollars helps reduce that inequality and not make it worse.

  3. Thank you for sharing all these resources! I want to visit this part of the world and your info has helped me narrow down where to put my money. Thank you.

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! It’s one of the places I’ve visited where I was reluctant to leave, and felt so much was left unexplored, even though I spent at least 2 weeks there!

  4. Bree says:

    Such a great post on Sustainably travel. I use a product called Modibody underwear, its for periods, etc. I dont have periods anymore due to a hysterectomy but these undies are the best. Washable, comes in lovely colors and all different styles. For me I wear the granny ones lol they fit lovely on my body.

    • Teja says:

      You too! :D Their smallest size just about fits me. I’d rather they were a little more snug as I’m paranoid about it not working properly if they’re loose, but since they’re just a backup anyway it’s been ok. Who knew merino wool could have a use aside from being winter wear?

  5. Alison says:

    I so admire your caring, research, and knowledge in this area. We all need to know about sustainable travel, and in this article you make it very real, and not just the latest buzzword. Thank you. I’m not sure I’ll be travelling anywhere soon, but you’ve given me lots to think about when I do. I hate cruise ships, and all they stand for with regard to the environment and their impact on local communities, with a passion. And at least we’ve never stayed at a resort, which I think I hate just about as much as cruise ships. May we all get better at sustainable travel and not just talk about it!

    • Teja says:

      You know, for a long time I thought a cruise would be awesome, because I associated it with the romance of sea travel and exploration voyages. I think I kind of knew that they would have a higher carbon footprint than other travel, but I was shocked when I found out just how much more, and that other issues are common as well. I think actually a liveaboard would be what I’d go for in the future, if I can just find one that isn’t jam packed with activities…

  6. French Polynesia is definitely on our travel wish list. We would plan to spend some time and visit many islands. And would absolutely want to spend locally as we travelled. As scuba divers, we will leave our wildlife interactions to when we are in the open seas. Having seen so much trash underwater, this issue of plastic waste is an image that never leaves us.

    • Teja says:

      Miraculously, I didn’t see plastic waste underwater while in the Leeward Islands, and I hope things stay that way.

      FP was a milestone trip for me; I liked the vibe so much that I asked my boss if – hypothetically – he might let me work remotely from a boat!

  7. Clare Colley says:

    A very interesting review of being sustainable, I have to agree that I think the only option here would be to fly. It was also interesting to hear your reviews on the menstrual cup and the period underwear, I have considered the cup but never actually tried it, but it might be a good option while I am on the road. I have met people who have bought the washable pads but I think thats not an option for me. It was sad to hear about the “aquarium” but maybe with education they can come up with a better solution. It looks beautiful and I really hope I can visit one day.

    • Teja says:

      Indeed, sustainability decisions are never 100% one thing or another. It’s more a worldview than a list of things to be and do, which I try to describe in this series of articles.

      Re: the menstrual cup, right sizing makes a big difference in terms of potential for leaks. Personally, I prefer sustainable swaps that are not too much more effort than the conventional – ideally ones that are less effort overall. I think otherwise it’s harder to keep at it because it consumes more willpower than before. The menstrual cup is a fantastic swap because it just eliminates so much hassle and cupboard space, especially if you pair it with ’emergency’ period underwear.

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