Maiao: The forbidden island of French Polynesia

A island in self-imposed isolation from foreigners

Mitiana Arbon

Society and culture | Pacific

21 April 2016

Mitiana Arbon reflects on the reclusive island of Maiao in French Polynesia, and its locals mistrust of foreigners.

The island of Maiao in French Polynesia makes up one of the many beautiful islands in the Society archipelago. Located 80km southeast of Tahiti, the island is only small (approximately 10 square kilometres). Due to its self-imposed reclusion, including the banning of foreigners and tourists, often referred to as l’île interdit or ‘the Forbidden Island’. In Tahitian it is also known as Teanuanuaiterai (Rainbow) as its two brackish lakes located on the island often causes rainbows to form.


In pre-European times the islanders were linked closely to the Kingdom of Huahine. Now its 350 inhabitants are administered as a commune of Moorea. The only visitors allowed have to have official invitations, resident’s invitations, or a validated reason to visit Maiao, such as midwives, doctors, social workers, officials, and scientists. Even so, anyone trying to visit the island on a whim would be hard pressed to find a reason to stay, with neither tourist facilities or even an airport available. Travelling to the island requires a long boat ride, entering to a small wharf through a narrow break in its encircling reef.

Maiao’s ban on all foreigners dates back to the arrival of the Englishman Eric Tower in the 1930s. Establishing a shop, Tower offered a wide variety of foreign imported goods to the islands, which he sold on credit beyond the capacity for repayment. Exploiting his position, he demanded that the natives repay back their debt in full, forcing the locals to use land as payment. Tower, with this method, managed to appropriate up to 80% of the total land area, planning to use it to mine phosphate. In 1935 the island’s minister Pastor Moreau rectified the situation, persuading the people to form a cooperative to buy back the land. The French state in turn bought back the islanders’ debt, which was incrementally paid back by the cooperative.

Ever since, the people of Maiao have harboured mistrust of all foreign visitors to their land. Self-imposed isolation has resulted in strong retention of traditional subsistent lifestyles that have disappeared on many smaller islands in the region. Strong community bonds have resulted in low levels of emigration from the island, resulting in the youngest average age within French Polynesia.

Due to its tourism ban – that provides the economic staple for most islands in French Polynesia – Maiao survives on the production of woven pandanus, used mainly in the construction of roofing in bungalows and hotels made famous by the resorts of Bora Bora. Maiao now contains only one shop, owned by locals dealing with only the basic supplies, and forbids the sale of alcohol throughout the island. In the age of hyper tourism, Maiao still retains the charm of seclusion for those lucky enough to be invited.

Traditional bungalow style villas at the Four Seasons Resort, Bora Bora (Photo: Four Seasons Resort Bora Broa/Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts)

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  1. Richard Arbon says:

    very interesting article. Love the way they bought back their land.

  2. Kenny says:

    I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the very few foreigner’s to have stayed on this island

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