« One small step for local island governments, but one giant leap for our environment »
Imagine 5 million km² of ocean, and spread all across that huge area, 118 tiny islands, all together no bigger than 4000 km². This is French Polynesia.
Ever since our islands have been discovered by the Ancient Polynesian Society in 800 AD, there has been crucial exchange between them – from basic stone adzes and tapa to rice, fridges and iphones. Transport across that huge mass of water has always been a major issue here. But with the arrival of the modern market system and a capitalist life style, old sailing canoes were replaced by more efficient fuel machines with powerful motors, quickly leading to complete dependance on imported fuel.
Those motors have been polluting our waters for many decades. And their noisiness has chased important marine animals out of our lagoons.
Due to a growing economic necessity to promote eco tourism as well as a growing number of international funds supporting sustainable energy projects, our government has been encouraging innovative projects based on sustainable energy and / or tourism for the last couple of years.
One result of this was the creation of a law in 2009, introducing a privileged fiscal system concerning sustainable energies and developments. This is applicable on all terrestrial transports running on solar power for example. So we now have a small number of electrical cars running on the island. Several local companies, such as our electricity supplier, EDT, have exchanged a number of their fleet of vehicles with electrical cars and solar paneled charging stations are being constructed, little by little, all over Tahiti main island.
But how can this law really have an outreach, if it only concerns 4000 of 5 million km²?
Yes, we’re talking about marine transport.
The Okeanos Foundation first came up with the idea of a solar powered vessel when visiting Tahiti’s most prestigious paradise, the island of Bora Bora, Pearl of the South Seas, often promoted as the ultimate South Seas experience. But the happy traveler soon gets disappointed in his luxurious, costly open water bungalow, when the daily boat traffic starts at 5 in the morning. It is like living next to a highway.
So the Okeanos idea solves several problems at once: The vessel will be 100% autonomous and save 142 tons of CO² emission per year, it helps keeping the dollars on our islands instead of sending them to oil exporting countries, and it produces absolutely no sound pollution.
The first to partner up with us on that mission without hesitation was the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa and most particularly its director Julien Bressolles. They share our passion for environmental issues and were immediately ready to take this proto-type risk with us. The Pearl Beach Group is one of the last locally-owned hotel groups which also explains their particular interest in promoting sustainable solutions and a better future for French Polynesia.
So the first challenge was to have the vessel conceived and constructed. Our executive producer, who had inspired the whole idea, was the young and dynamic Dutch company Soel Yachts, specialized in solar powered vessels. As no local boat house in Tahiti has yet the capacity to construct such a vessel, we decided to have it built in Aotearoa, New Zealand.
The amazing Soel Yachts team, Joep Koster, David Czap and Linda Brembs, developed this new design and technology with a lot of ingenuity and adaptive responsiveness, during a long and fastidious process. It took them over a year to bring this project to absolute perfection and finally, in July 2017, take it apart and load its pieces into two 40’ hi cube containers heading for Papeete, the idea of this concept being its transportability to even the remotest island on this planet – in form of a kit that fits 2 hi cube containers.
Now, getting this vessel that we named Okeanos Pearl into ‘France’ was the next big challenge, as the French boating laws are rather particular. Okeanos and Soel Yachts spent numerous meetings and exchanged masses of mails with the French National Marine Service (the SAM) in Tahiti. After a first commission refused to accord the category ‘Navire a Passager’ to the vessel, due to a couple of missed obligations with the Bureau Veritas at the very start of the vessel’s construction, we found an agreement to classify the vessel as a ‘NUC’ (Navire d’Utilisation Commerciale), which unfortunately reduces the maximum number of passengers to 12, but which fortunately allows us to register the vessel in French territory and exploit it there. We like to see the glass half full.
The next unfortunate surprise were specificities in Tahitian import laws. Being a small and economically dependent island, Tahiti has a special import tax to promote local development called the ‘TDL’ (Taxe du Development Locale). The TDL amounts to 20% of the CIF value (cost, insurance, freight) of the imported good. It just so happens, that all vessels equipped with an inboard motor which are under 12m of length fall under that tax category. It was out of the question that we pay that TDL tax, as, for the time being, we had only planned to rent the vessel to the Pearl Beach Resort in Bora Bora for a test period of one year.
A solution needed to be found.
First we presented the problem to our Minister of the Environment, Heremoana Maamaatuaiahutapu. He was very supportive and put us in contact with Warren Dexter from the Vice presidency and a few other active members of the government. Furthermore we went to see local customs. We suggested to enlarge the law concerning sustainable energies to maritime transport but were told that this would have a small chance of success only. Another suggestion was to go for a special temporary admission for the period of 6 months, prolongable to 1 year (paragraph 147 of the customs codification). The special aspect of this temporary admission being the fact that we would be able to operate the vessel commercially, without paying the very high import tax on the monthly income created by the vessel’s activity, thus giving us the opportunity to try it out here in Tahiti.
We started getting all the paperwork for this together, including a detailed justification explaining how our vessel corresponds to a general touristic and environmental interest and a certificate of non-disponilility of such a vessel in the country, issued by the Ministry of Transport. This sounds pretty easy and quick. Well, it wasn’t.
The information about what exactly was needed in this folder came one after the other, sometimes with weeks inbetween. While waiting for a service to certify a document, it would reply that they still needed an additional piece of justification and so on. All in all, no one seemed to be very familiar with this particular case or capable to give us precise and confirmed information. A typical proto-type problem.
This to the point, that we realized, after the case had finally made it to the Counsil of Ministers in early June 2017 (the vessel was nearly on its way to Tahiti by then), that we were absolutely not adapted to this special law as one of the conditions was that the object of import would effectuate public works.
This is of course the point where our story became critical. With the Okeanos Pearl nearly on the way, ready to be loaded into its containers, we had nothing in our hands – neither a signed rental contract with the hotel nor the necessary customs exemption.
But this was also when things went miraculously different. Warren Dexter decided to give it another try via the Sustainable Energies Law. It seemed like a mission impossible, as we needed to modify a decree to reach our goal. And each modification of a decree has to be presented to the Counsil of Ministers with a detailed project folder – just what we’ve been through and what had taken us over 5 months.
But we were lucky and had the Government of French Polynesia on our side. They all made maximum efforts to make this project happen because the ecological transition is a crucial aspect of local politics. So just 2 days after the containers with our vessel had reached the port of Papeete, the Ministers of French Polynesia signed a decree in which they allowed the privileged import treatment to be expanded to all vessels classified under the category 89 03 92 99. To be precise this means: All vessels that run 100% on solar energy, with no outboard motors and no longer than 12 meters. Luckily, and pretty much exactly our Okeanos Pearl.
And while we’re talking of miracles: Exactly one week after the Counsil of Ministers had signed the decree, our containers were cleared out of customs and on their way to Raiatea Carenage, the boat house that is now assembling our Okeanos Pearl and getting it ready to start service in the magnificent Bora Bora Pearl Beach Hotel by the end of September 2017.
For a minimum of one year, this remarkable vessel will now be navigating silently and pollution free on the turquoise lagoons of Bora Bora, hopefully inspiring others to follow in the same footsteps – so that one day loud and polluting fuel motors will be a thing of the past in Tahiti and her islands. We could serve as a positive example to all those who think this is impossible.
One giant step into a future of sustainable sea transport in French Polynesia!
And hoping to enlarge that decree to all sustainable sea transport one day.
Director of Okeanos Transport Maritime Durable
Vini: 87 78 44 79
Office: 40 900 810