What Should I Know About Tahiti?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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Tahiti is the largest and most populous island in French Polynesia, a French overseas collectivity in the southern Pacific Ocean. Its capital, Papeete, is the capital of the entire collectivity. Within French Polynesia, Tahiti belongs to the Society Islands group and the administrative division known as the Windward Islands.

Though Tahiti is the largest of the French Polynesian islands, it is only 404 square miles (1,048 square kilometers). It is of volcanic origin and consists of two round portions connected by an isthmus. The northern portion is known as Tahiti Nui, or "large Tahiti," while the southern portion is Tahiti Iti, or "small Tahiti." The northern section is more populated and developed.

Tahiti is known for its lush tropical vegetation and idyllic climate, made famous by the works of French painter Paul Gauguin, who lived on the island in the 1890s. It is home to a small museum featuring his works.

The island was first settled by Polynesians, probably between the 4th and 9th centuries CE. English sea captain Samuel Wallis became the first European to visit the island in 1767, and a Frenchman, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, visited the following year. European contact and trade with the island became more frequent following James Cook's 1774 visit. The influx of European diseases and vices, such as alcohol and prostitution, took a devastating toll on the native population and way of life.


France annexed Tahiti in 1843 despite British opposition, and a French-Tahitian War followed, raging until 1847. In 1880, the island's status changed from French protectorate to French overseas territory. It was redefined as a French overseas collectivity in 2003.

Inhabitants of French Polynesia are French citizens with full civil and political rights, and the collectivity is semi-autonomous. French Polynesia has a president, an assembly, and a budget and laws separate from those of France. Some political leaders have advocated complete independence from France, but in general, only a minority of French Polynesians support the idea.

Tahiti's economy is largely based on tourism and the export of natural products, notably black pearls. French is the official language, though Tahitian is also widely spoken. The majority religion is Christian, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. The island is home to the Université de la Polynésie Française, a French University, and Faa'a International Airport. Air Tahiti is the national airline.


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