Cook Islands hope to bounce back quickly when borders re-open
For three months from the end of May, the Cook Islands enjoyed an economic resurgence thanks to a two-way travel bubble that allowed Kiwi tourists to flock there for their winter holidays. Now that bubble has closed, when will it re-open?
When New Zealand went into lockdown, so did the Cook Islands.
“It’s really unfortunate that the Cook Islands has had to close our travel corridor with New Zealand, but the fact is, the Delta variant presents a lot of unknowns to the Cook Islands,” says businessman Rohan Ellis.
“When I first heard the bubble was going to close, it was met with immediate frustration just knowing that I would be making less money,” says tattooist Luther Berg.
“But then reflecting upon the year without the bubble, I remember that I wasn’t under any pressure or stress and was quite content being at home with my son a whole lot more,” he says.
As locals prepared for a slow-down of the economy once again, most of the visiting tourists began to leave, but some did decide to stay behind. It got local Chamber of Commerce boss Fletcher Melvin thinking about the opportunities it presents.
“That showed as well that we can benefit from people staying a bit longer and you know, maybe riding out a lockdown in New Zealand,” he says.
“So it’s a good opportunity for us to demonstrate that longer-term tourism can take place as well.”
Melvin says the Cook Islands really needs to look at diversifying its economy, and long-term stays or business re-locations could be an answer.
“We have to be looking for ways that we can get businesses from New Zealand coming here, staying here and working within the Cook Islands,” he says.
“You know, we are Covid-free still. We have all the technology that’s required. We’ve got high speed internet now, a stable economy, and it’s a perfect place for a company to be set up here and work remotely.
“We do have to look for alternative means of income for our country.”
In the meantime, local businesses have been kept afloat with another round of welcome wage subsidies from the Government.
Ellis, who also manages the Islander Hotel near the airport, says it’s a lifeline.
“We’re very thankful to the Government for activating this very, very quickly,” Ellis says.
“All our staff including our senior leadership team, we’re all on $8 an hour, and we’re just monitoring to see what the uptake is with our domestic economy.
“If our numbers rebound to what they were during our last lockdown, we will look at being able to do a top-up, to be able to bring people’s wages up to their standard contracts.”
The Cook Islands has shut its border with New Zealand, and some 300 Cook Islanders are stranded here waiting to go home. But just when they’ll be able to do this depends on how Auckland deals with the outbreak.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown says he’s keeping an eye on the Auckland situation and will not consider allowing stranded Cook Islanders back at least until Auckland moves out of Alert Level 4.
“Whether it be Level 3 or Level 2, there’ll be different considerations,” Brown says.
“We’ll have to take into account what sort of conditions we impose on the returning people from Auckland in particular. And that may require longer periods of managed isolation if they were coming out of Level 3, than if they were coming out of Level 2.”
The Cook Islands will not re-open a travel bubble to New Zealand until there has been no community transmission of Covid-19 for 14 days and travellers over 12 have been fully vaccinated.
Locals say it’s the price of doing business in a Covid world.
“It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be the new way of doing things. And in actual fact, it’s been proven to be required around the world anyway,” Chamber boss Melvin says.
“If you go to certain countries like in South America, they require full vaccinations, so it’s not something that’s completely new.”
“We need that border opened,” says Ellis.
“So that we’re able to get Kiwis back into Raro again to enjoy holidays and the economy can rebound quickly.”
And that bounce back is what Prime Minister Brown will be hoping for when his county re-opens again.
“Of confidence and comfort to us has been the resilience of the [tourism] sector and the bounce back that occurred when we did open up to visitors,” he says.
“So the three months that the Cook Islands was open for two-way quarantine-free travel, we saw how very quickly the industry bounced back and how very quickly the economy was able to recover.
“So we’re mindful that when we do resume business again, when we do resume travel, business will be very quick to recover.”