Entrepreneurship. The Wong family in Papeete, Tahiti, has developed a very special business model out of necessity. Their Compagnie Polynésienne de Transport Maritime combines passenger and cargo shipping, heading for two unusual destinations in the South Pacific: the remote Marquesas Islands, where painter Paul Gauguin is buried. And the island of Pitcairn, where the mutineers of the "Bounty" once hid and where their descendants still live today.
Like every time the "Aranui 5" is ready to leave the port of Papeete, Philippe Wong, born in 1972, comes on board himself before the lines are released.
The CEO of Compagnie Polynésienne de Transport Maritime (C.P.T.M.) welcomes the regular guests, while cranes circle on the foredeck. They are loading large freight containers. This time it is 1400 tonnes.
"This is close to our record of 1600 tonnes," explains Wong. This underlines how well his business model works. Because the "Aranui" is no ordinary cruise ship.
If you want to know how this combination of passenger and cargo shipping came about, you have to look far back. In 1924 the teenager Wing Wong in Papeete boarded a schooner. He came from a village in the Chinese province of Canton and wanted to make his fortune in Tahiti - just as his half-brother and cousins had tried.
But it wasn't easy. In the French overseas territories, immigrants from the Middle Kingdom were not welcomed with open arms. Many fundamental rights were denied them. And so it took Wing Wong and his wife Yong Tai quite a long time to open a general store in the centre of Papeete. To revive the business, they planned to trade with the Tuamotu Archipelago, a group of atolls 400 kilometers northeast of Tahiti. The Wongs wanted to supply colonial goods and return with copra and pearls. Alone: a ship was missing.
Only in the year 1954 the two could lease a submarine fighter, which had been used after the Pacific War for the catch of sharks, favorably. Later the Wongs acquired their first "Aranui", which was launched in New Zealand. "Great Way" means "Aranui" in Polynesian. It could load 240 tons and later became Tahiti's largest exporter of copra, including to Italy and Germany. However, Wing Wong was no longer to experience this for himself. He died of cancer in 1962.
The following years brought light and shade for the family. Ships sank, were bought and sold again. The shop in Papeete burned down completely during a big fire. Sales of copra declined, dock workers and crews went on strike. Wing Wong's son Joseph nevertheless bit his way through and always tried to expand a bit more.
When he found a larger ship in Germany and christened "Aranui 1", he thought he was on the right track. But this time he had overstretched himself financially. The Wongs could no longer service the loans, the hoped for bigger turnovers were waiting for. In the spring of 1984 the company was facing bankruptcy.
"My father desperately looked for a way out with his brothers Ah Tin and Jules. After all, it was Jules who came up with the idea," says the entrepreneur. Jules Wong remembered that cargo ships had taken passengers with them from time to time in the past, because on remote islands without airfields this was often the only way to get from A to B. "The only way to get from A to B was to get from A to B to B," he says. How about offering a more comfortable passage to ship guests? And to target not only locals, but also foreign travellers? After all, tourism in French Polynesia was a growth market. This would give guests the chance to visit islands that were otherwise very difficult to reach.
The decision was made quickly and unanimously, but doubts remained: Would the tourists feel disturbed by the loading activities in the ports? Would they bring enough time for the shipping company's several-week routes? Would they really appreciate the sights and natural beauties of the islands they visited?
Especially the last point was a headache for the Wongs. After all, the Tuamotus and their flat atolls, important for the freight business, were at best of interest to divers.
The entrepreneurs made a risky, far-reaching decision. In the future they would instead call at the six inhabited islands of the Marquesas Group with their steeply rising mountains, 1600 kilometres northeast of Tahiti. It is there, on Hiva Oa, that the painter Paul Gauguin lies buried. There an independent Polynesian culture with archaic dances and rituals has been preserved. And there the tourists would see Tikis - stone and wooden figures - whose size is only surpassed by the Moai on Easter Island.
At the same time, the Wongs wanted to invest in more comfortable cabins and more spacious common rooms on the next ship - the "Aranui 1" only had room for 24 guests in rather spartan quarters. "What can I say: The bill worked out," says Philippe Wong today with a laugh. "The 'Aranui 2' already had 36 cabins for up to 90 passengers, while the 'Aranui 3', commissioned in 2003, already had more than twice as many cabins and up to 200 guests.
The Wongs introduced the "Aranui Cruises" label to market their cruise activities. Important markets such as France, Germany, the USA and Australia were specifically promoted. While the "Aranui 1" and "Aranui 2" still generated more than 50 percent of their sales with freight, the "Aranui 3" only generated 30 to 35 percent. The passenger business became more and more the supporting pillar.
Nevertheless, the ship did not attract typical crusaders: too little luxury, no glamorous captain's dinners. The Thuringian Jörg Nietzsche, who has been working as a tour guide on the "Aranui" for twelve years, says: "In the early years, we mainly had individual and backpackers on board who wanted to fulfil their dream of the Marquesas. The cabins were simple - as was to be expected on a freighter. I would estimate that 95 percent of these customers would otherwise never have travelled in a group." In the meantime, however, the audience has changed drastically. "The guests tend to be older, on average around 65." For the marketing department, it is a challenge to manage expectations correctly. "Younger guests have to accept that they will probably be surrounded by much older fellow travellers. And the seniors must know that the dress code is still very casual - shorts and slippers for dinner are no violation of etiquette. But the public can't expect luxury for that either."
It is astonishing that the Wongs, with their Chinese roots, in particular, cannot profit from the booming tourism in China: "Chinese travellers have undoubtedly discovered cruises for themselves. But they want big pots with casinos, great entertainment and lots of shopping opportunities," explains CEO Wong. "We can't and don't want to keep up." The "Aranui 5", which was launched at the end of 2015 - there was no "4" because it is an unlucky number in China - accommodates 254 guests in 103 cabins. She can transport 2500 tons of freight and 700 cubic meters of fuel and is the Wongs' most comfortable ship to date. The family had to invest 38 million euros. The ship was financed with bank loans, but also with subsidies and tax advantages from Tahiti's regional government - and ultimately also from Paris. "Tahiti's independence from France, which some political groups wanted, would be an economic catastrophe for us," Philippe Wong makes clear.
Today, the Chinese shipowners enjoy a high reputation among the population there. For the Marquesas, on whose six inhabited islands not even 10000 people live, the "Aranui" is something like the umbilical cord to the world. The locals also have the opportunity to sell souvenirs and handicrafts to tourists. The travellers eat in their restaurants and book jeep safaris, go diving or snorkeling. The crew, on the other hand, increases their stocks of fresh food in the port towns and thus supports the local fishermen and farmers.
About 20 times a year the islands are called by the "Aranui". The Wongs almost always grant free passages to support sports competitions or cultural events. This service is important because the more than 100 islands of French Polynesia are spread over an area the size of Western Europe, and domestic flights are very expensive.
The "Aranui", which flies the French flag, is also popular because it almost exclusively employs Polynesians. These workers are more expensive than Filipinos, for example. But the guests really appreciate the close contact with the local crew. "We know from surveys that this is even our most important USP," explains the boss. The crew practices local dances with the tourists, there are common dinners and karaoke evenings, occasionally a beer is drunk together at the bar, casually and casually as always.
Entrepreneurial life could therefore be very relaxed for the Wong family - if it weren't for the new competitors who are now competing with the "Aranui". The luxury liners of Paul Gauguin Cruises and Silversea Cruises, for example, also head for the Marquesas - but without freight on board. And of course it is possible to charter sailboats and catamarans privately in order to experience the island world of Polynesia very individually.
To offer their regular guests something new, the Wongs made their first trip to Pitcairn, the world's smallest British overseas territory, on two special trips in 2019.
The island is remote in the South Pacific, far away from the important shipping routes and without an airfield. Nevertheless, the island is world-famous: in January 1790 the "mutiny on the Bounty" came to an end here. The crew of the hijacked merchant ship deliberately grounded it off Pitcairn in order to settle permanently on the hitherto uninhabited island. The ship was set on fire off the coast so that no one at sea could have foreseen the mutineers' hiding place.
Today only 50 people live on Pitcairn - almost all are descendants of the legendary mutineers and their Polynesian crew members. More than 200 years later, the "Aranui" first moored there on 14 January 2019. "We were all a bit excited," recalls Philippe Wong. "Because the landing manoeuvre is only possible when the sea is calm. Plan B would have been used if the swell had been high and the waves big".
One option would have been to bring some of the mutineers' descendants on board for talks. In any case, the passengers should dive deep into the history of the island and gain an insight into today's life at this remote outpost.
It is still exciting and a bit frightening when up to 254 crusaders meet a few dozen islanders. Wong reveals, however, that the new route will be accompanied by another, much more serious change in the business model: he is currently building a new ship, which will be called "Aranui 6" or "Aranui Explorer". "It is to be a pure passenger ship. For the first time there will be no more cargo."
The ship is to be exclusively on the southern route to Pitcairn and will also call at the Gambier archipelago, which belongs to French Polynesia and for which the Wongs would not have a freight licence anyway. The family discussed this step intensively and for a long time, says Wong. Only one member of the family council did not want to say goodbye to the freight and said that loading the containers was an integral part of a journey on the "Aranui", which no passenger would want to do without.
In the end, everyone agreed. The new ship is to be powered for the first time by electric motors in order to take the wind out of the sails of the growing criticism of the cruise industry as an environmental sinner and "booster" of climate change.
And the "Aranui 5" will continue to serve the northern route to the Marquesas. "We will therefore have two ships in operation at the same time in future," confirms the company boss. He dares to take on the new "double burden": "I'm still young," he says with a wink. He will think about a successor later on. He only reveals so much: There are potential candidates. He has one child with his current wife, and two other descendants are from former wives. "There is a lot of entrepreneurial potential.
With the freighter in the South Seas.
// General information
Tahiti Tourism: https://tahititourisme.de
To Paris (CDG), then with Air Tahiti Nui (www.airtahitinui.com) via Los Angeles to Papeete on Tahiti. ESTA registration required for USA. Passports are sufficient for entry into French Polynesia.
www.aranui.com - In April 2020 there will be another special trip to Pitcairn and the Gambier archipelago. Prices for the almost two-week standard trips start at approx. 5600 euros per person in a premium suite with balcony (double occupancy), 15 percent surcharge for the Pitcairn route.
// Follow-up programme "The Brando
From Papeete, it is only 25 minutes by small plane to reach the atoll Tetiaroa, where the eco luxury resort The Brando (www.thebrando.com) is located. Marlon Brando fell in love with the island during the shooting of "Mutiny on the Bounty", lived here later in a simple accommodation and invited good friends like Robert De Niro or Quincy Jones. Brando did not live to see the opening of the resort in 2014. He died in 2004, but if you want, you can go fly fishing with Brando's son Teihotu, or have your granddaughter Tumi show you the island. Prices starting from 3300 euro plus taxes per day for a villa.
Rosemarie Schyma: "South Seas", DuMont travel guide, 2017
Robert Louis Stevenson: "In the South Seas", Belle Époque Publishers, 2017
Wolfgang Pistol: "On the tracks of the mutineers of the Bounty: Travels to the South Seas to Pitcairn Island and Tahiti", 2016
Author: Dr. Günter Kast