Cook Islands ready but anxious for travel bubble
The Cook Islands travel bubble opens on Monday, and hopes are high of a return to pre-Covid visitor numbers for its struggling economy. But while there’s plenty of optimism, it is tempered with some caution.
The Cook Islands has been hoping for a travel bubble since the beginning of the year, with Prime Minister Mark Brown visiting New Zealand earlier this year to press his case with Jacinda Ardern.
Then, early in May, the New Zealand Prime Minister announced a travel bubble would open from Monday May 17th.
Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council head Liana Scott welcomed the news, hinting at the stress they’ve been under.
“At the moment we’re open for business, but we have everything from zero customers to five, six, seven, so nothing that pays the bills,” says Scott.
But while those connected with the Tourism sector are looking forward to the influx of visitors, others who have managed without them are not so sure.
Some stallholders at Rarotonga’s iconic Punanga Nui Markets had this to say when asked if they were looking forward to the travel bubble.
“Not really. I don’t know whether it’s… I say, yes or no. But me, I’m not ready for that,” one woman says.
“That’s hard to say, but I think we are not quite ready,” says another.
“I’m happy about it and not happy about it, because of our health issues. But hey, if it works, it works,” says a stallholder.
Lorna Nicholas, another market stallholder, says she was able to cope with the border closures.
“We were happy with what we had. I mean, I feel sorry for the people who have accommodation and rental properties and rental cars and the shops and that.
“But as a local person, my customers were local people, so I made enough money with the income I got selling to our local people.”
But stallholder Rangi Mitaera-Johnson says she is looking forward to the extra visitors.
“I’m really excited about Cook Islanders coming over, back home. I’m excited about tourists coming back into the Cook Islands,” she says.
“I just hope that everyone follows through with all the precautionary measures that are in place that need to be followed up right through entering and leaving the Cooks.”
In the wider Business community, fishing Charter operator Corey Fisher has relied on the government’s wage subsidy and odd jobs to get extra cash in. The bubble would help him get to sea again.
“Obviously, I can’t wait till the bubble opens and everyone starts coming over, but at the same time you’re always thinking – it’s always in the back of your head you know – we don’t really want the Covid here. But at the same time we need the money.”
And store owner Cherrelle Sherwin says extra visitors will not be the only bonus for struggling businesses.
“It has definitely been a challenge given the lack of flights that have come in, which has also meant that we have had to stop our airfreight that we normally bring in,” she says.
“The cost of freight has sky-rocketed.”
In Aitutaki, long the jewel in the Cooks’ tourism crown, hotel operator Nick Henry’s looking forward to the bubble but is not expecting things to suddenly return to normal.
“We’re not expecting huge plane loads of people to rush off and land in Aitutaki,” he says.
“Obviously, many of us would have preferred to have been vaccinated prior to the bubble opening. However, the reality is, we’ve had quarantine-free travel since the middle of January, so for the past four, five months we’ve managed to keep Covid out of the Cooks.”
But a travel bubble is likely to put stress on the sectors it’s meant to help. Overseas business and tourism workers were re-patriated back to Fiji and the Philippines last year, and many of the locals who remained took up short-term seasonal work in New Zealand. However, there’s no guarantee they’ll return.
“There are still opportunities in NZ, there are still jobs needed in NZ. The fact is NZ is paying a better min wage, a higher wage and we’ve still got to compete with that,” says Chamber of Commerce President Fletcher Melvin.
“However, as tourism increases and capacity is needed, there’ll be more jobs and eventually start attracting people back to the islands.”
In the meantime, preparations are under way for the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in the Cook Islands next week. Contact tracing is in place and testing capability improved. The vaccine will mean peace of mind for the locals.
“From what I understand, we are prepared. Yes, we haven’t been vaccinated, but I’m one hundred percent sure that our government as well as the New Zealand government has taken this into consideration,” says Cherrelle Sherwin.
Lorna Nicholas says, “I think people should get vaccinated; we still might get the virus, but at least you won’t die from the virus, and then safety for all.”
“We are looking forward to it,” says Stephen Doherty from Island Hopper Vacations.
“The people of the Cook Islands are looking forward to welcoming New Zealanders, Australians and our friends and family and visitors from all over the world back to our shores again.
“And we’d love to say to you all when you get here, kia orana; it’s nice to have you home.”
By John Utanga