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Can you own land in the Pacific?

The dictionary definition of paradise is, “an ideal or idyllic place or state”.  A more apt meaning would be, “the Pacific islands”.

White sandy beaches, clear seas, rugged mountains, and rivers that come from a picture are all lures to live in paradise.

Many who have visited the Pacific know very well that once you set foot on an island, you don’t want to leave and many have taken the next step and stayed.

While author Robert Louis Stevenson lived the last five years of his life in Samoa, many less famous travellers have settled in the region.

Australian Greg Parker arrived in the Cook Islands 17 years ago to film a documentary and has not left, after “falling in love” with the place.

However while the Pacific life may be attractive to foreigners, there are considerable hurdles across a number of countries to buying property.

In many cases, land in the Pacific is owned by its indigenous people, usually by a landowning unit. This means that non-citizens can often only lease rather than purchase. However some are long-term leases.

For those with a Pacific passion, here is a brief guide to purchasing property across the region. It is by no means an exhaustive guide and some information may have changed or require further clarification.

Anyone interested should consult a lawyer, local authorities and local real estate representatives before proceeding.

Tahiti

French Polynesia, where Tahiti is found, now enjoys “overseas country” status, giving it more autonomy over local affairs, while remaining under French jurisdiction for sectors including real estate.

This means that, just as in metropolitan France, foreigners have the same rights as locals when purchasing land or property.

The waves at Teahupo’o in Tahiti. Picture: World Surf League

New Zealand

There are a few restrictions for foreigners wishing to buy property in New Zealand, but they are not too limiting.

These cover non-New Zealanders wanting to acquire more than 12 acres, land of more than one acre adjoining or containing “sensitive” land (including reserves, specified islands and historic or heritage land and lakes), and land of over half an acre on or adjoining the oceanfront.

In these situations, the buyer must obtain approval from the Overseas Investment Commission, and for applications concerning “sensitive land,” from a Minister. The paperwork process is swift and can usually be completed within one month.

Fiji

The real estate market in this part of the Pacific is unregulated, so theoretically foreigners are permitted to buy land and buildings, but should proceed with caution, as there are a few restrictions.

The government actively encourages foreign investment, and there are several schemes to promote tourist developments, but only 8.2 per cent of the land (roughly 142,000 hectares) can be bought outright freehold, with consent from the Ministry of Lands for land of over one acre.

The remaining land is available for lease, a small part from the Crown, and the rest from the indigenous people of Fiji.

For the purchase of a residential property of less than one acre, buyers will need a residence or work permit. Immigration laws in Fiji allow dual residency.

Islands in Lau in Fiji which will become part of a marine protected area by 2024. Picture: Fiji Tourism

PNG

Foreigners and investors entering Papua New Guinea cannot purchase land. Recent changes in land laws in PNG means ownership is restricted to nationals only.

Although all land titles must be awarded to Papua New Guineans, land could be sub-leased to foreigners or on a joint venture basis.

Almost 97 percent of land in PNG is still owned by traditional landowners with the State owning the remaining three per cent.

Land issues and disputes have become a major issue in the country causing often violent conflict between clans.

Tonga

While real estate prices are more affordable in Tonga, you can’t buy land, only lease it. Leasing is generally perceived to be not as costly as owning, therefore lowers the price of land acquisition.

Tonga is one of the last frontiers and therefore is very new to property development.

Samoa

The matai or chief holds the land on behalf of all the members of his group. Ownership is settled by a mix of titles and ancestral transfers.

Customary land can be leased to foreigners but cannot be bought or sold except to government for public purposes.

The To-Sua ocean trench. Picture: Samoa Tourism Authority

Cook Islands

Similar to laws in other Polynesian countries, land in the Cook Islands cannot be bought by a foreigner however can be leased.

The land in the Cook Islands is limited as well. Foreigners can purchase properties on leased land. The maximum lease obtainable by a Cook Islander is 60 years and can be renewed.

Solomon Islands

About 95 per cent of land in the Solomon Islands is owned by indigenous people, by clan or lineage. These communal lands may be leased with the government acting as agents.

The terms of lease may reach up to 75 years for private commercial use, but this does not guarantee that a right to lease is easily obtained.

Conflicting claims to the same parcel of land arise often, and can lead to disputes, slowing the business process and adding to costs.

Nauru

All land in Nauru is traditionally jointly-owned by the Nauruan people; no non-Nauruan person or company can purchase any part of the 21km square island.

Leases on land are available however the government can reclaim the land at any time for mining or rehabilitation.

Federated States of Micronesia

Foreign nationals, including corporations, cannot own land but in some cases can own buildings or other structures.

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Disclaimer: The above is general information only and prospective purchasers are advised to seek their own legal advice. The Pacific Advocate cannot guarantee that information is current at the time of reading this article. 

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