The Obamas are hunkering down on Tetiaroa, a remote atoll just north of Tahiti in French Polynesia. According to the Washington Post, Barack will be writing his memoirs there, because as President Trump would like us to believe, doing work in Washington, DC is hard.
But Tetiaroa isn't any ol' destination. Today, it's the paragon of eco-friendly celebrity tourism—the result of having a lot of money, but also giving a shit about the environment.
Tetiaroa, like all of French Polynesia, has been shaped by centuries of colonialism. Its original inhabitants were Polynesian settlers who discovered the archipelago in 200 BCE. The atoll was allegedly the favored sanctuary of the Pōmare Dynasty, a family that ruled the Kingdom of Tahiti between 1788 and 1880. In 1769, Captain James Cook sailed past the atoll on the ship HMS Endeavour. And in 1880, France claims to have legally annexed Tahiti as one of its d'outre-mers, or overseas territories. However, many indigenous citizens of French Polynesia argue that 19th century land use treaties have not been honored.
Tetiaroa changed hands again in 1967 when Marlon Brando purchased the tiny atoll from a descendant of Johnston Walter Williams, once consul to the United Kingdom. Brando famously fell in love with the islands after filming Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti (where Brando also fell for his third wife, 19-year-old actress Tarita Teri'ipaia). He paid $270,000 for the 1,200 acre crescent stretch of land. After his death in 2004, the atoll became the property of French Polynesia. French citizens still live there alongside hotel guests, including several of Brando's grandchildren from his marriage to Teri'ipaia. One night in a two bedroom villa will cost you around $6,500 plus taxes.
"If I have my way," Brando idealistically said, "Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of who they are and what they were centuries ago."
And so, like many colonists before him, Brando strove to make Tetiaroa his version of paradise. He built a new village, an airstrip, and scientific research centers. Along with hotelier Richard Bailey, Brando created the framework for the world's first carbon-neutral resort. Tetiaroa's bungalows are now LEED certified, run on coconut biofuel, are solar powered, and use wastewater for sustainable irrigation. The pièce de résistance is a $6.5 million air conditioning system that allows guests to be cooled by seawater, and relies on zero electricity.
The atoll has seen its share of distinguished guests, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Quincy Jones, and most recently, the Obamas. According to those who have been there, is modest for a luxury getaway; an eco-resort where celebrities can feel down to earth, but don't have to slum it.
In 2015, the nonprofit Tetiaroa Society, which manages conservation efforts there, received funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Society's $15 million grant. The actor allegedly visited the resort for inspiration in developing his own eco-venture in Belize.
Tetiaroa has friends in high places, but that doesn't make it immune to climate change. French Polynesia will undoubtedly suffer the consequences of unfettered greenhouse gas emissions. The archipelago is especially vulnerable to sea level rise, ocean acidification, and the increasing severity of tropical storms.
Brando's favorite atoll has its own problems, too. Invasive species like rats and ants are endangering resident wildlife, such as frigatebirds and red-footed boobies. Tetiaroa's reefs could be the first to go as a result of climate change—ocean acidification damaging the corals' ability to build healthy skeletons. Mosquito infestations are so troublesome that local and French governments, along with Brando's estate and the Tetiaroa Society, funded $300,000 in research last year to control them.
Eco-tourism is complicated. Tourism's carbon footprint isn't insignificant (and it accounts for nearly 80 percent of French Polynesia's annual income), so if wealthy folks can make hotels greener and cleaner, that's largely a good thing.
But the industry is also undeniably colonialist. For every sustainably-minded jetsetter, there's a person who wants to get primitive in a luxury treehouse. Brando himself "felt Tahitians had something to teach the world about how to lead a happy, balanced life." Why it's their job to teach anyone anything is a mystery to me.