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One reason there is so little nightlife in the islands is that Polynesians traditionally go to bed early so they can get up with the sun. This lifestyle comes in handy on Tahiti, where they rise before the crack of dawn to make the 2-hour-plus commute to work in Papeete. That's right: While you're sleeping late on your honeymoon, many thousands of islanders are sitting in Tahiti's choking traffic.

Therein lies one of the paradoxes of French Polynesia today. On the one hand are the outer islands with their small populations, crystal-clear lagoons, and resorts designed with love (or at least sex) in mind. On the other are Papeete and its suburbs, a busy metropolitan area that -- except for the phenomenal scenery surrounding it -- could be on the French Riviera.

On another hand, wealthy French expatriates build luxury homes high into the hills overlooking the city, while many Tahitians live in homes of plywood and tin jammed into crowded neighborhoods. French Polynesia is governed by France, but about half of the local population consistently votes for politicians favoring independence from France.

Although those are the realities, they bear little resemblance to the fantasy world most of us experience while here. Instead, we're whisked away to resorts designed to make us forget our own realities back home, while barely seeing the real world around us here.

However, one thing we all do experience is the warmth and friendliness of the Polynesian people, which no amount of money, vehicles, or political bickering has managed to change.

Government

French Polynesia is a "community" within the French system of overseas territories. France sends a high commissioner from Paris and controls foreign affairs, defense, justice, internal security, and currency. French Polynesians have considerable autonomy over their internal affairs through a 49-member Assembly, which selects a president, the country's highest-ranking local official. The Assembly decides all issues that are not reserved for the metropolitan French government.

Local voters also cast ballots in French presidential elections and choose two elected deputies and two senators to the French parliament in Paris.

The city of Papeete and a few other communities have local police forces, but the French gendarmes control most law enforcement (they are as likely to be from Martinique as from Moorea).

Local politics breaks down generally into two camps: those who favor remaining under French control, but with increased local autonomy (that is, pro-autonomy), and those who seek complete independence from France (pro-independence). The two sides have swapped control of the local government several times in recent years, and the "musical chairs" may continue. Except for an occasional demonstration or labor stoppage, the instability has had little effect on visitors.

The Economy

French Polynesia has only two significant industries: tourism and black pearls. More than 200,000 visitors arrive in the islands each year, making tourism the largest earner. Some US$150 million (£75 million) worth of pearls are exported annually, mostly to Japan. Vanilla, copra, coconut-oil cosmetics (you will see the Monoi brand everywhere), and an elixir made from the noni fruit are minor exports (most of the noni processed here is imported from Fiji). About 80% of all food consumed here is imported.

French Polynesia would be bankrupt were it not for more than 20€ billion (US$31 billion/£15.5 million) poured in by the government in Paris each year. That includes some 150€ million (US$233 million/£116 million) a year from an economic restructuring fund, set up after France closed its nuclear testing facility in 1996, to foster self-sufficiency by developing the local infrastructure. The fund has paid for public-works projects that have transformed the waterfronts in Papeete and on Raiatea, improved the roads, and built new schools, hospitals, and docks.

In addition, the local government set up highly favorable tax and investment laws that have spurred hotel construction. Bora Bora has most of the new properties, but islands such as Tahaa and Fakarava also have major resorts for the first time. The emphasis has been on the high end, however, which has done little to reduce the cost to visitors.

All this money translates into a high standard of living. The minimum wage here is more than US$1,500 (£750) a month plus benefits, compared to about US$850 (£425), not including benefits in the U.S. Consequently, prices are high for everyone. If there is a saving grace for us visitors, it's the lack of both required tipping and a direct sales tax, which together can add 25% or more to your bill in Hawaii and elsewhere.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.