21 Jan 2019

Call for Cook Islands to diversify its economy

6:18 pm on 21 January 2019

The flourishing Cook Islands tourism industry is a potential Achilles heel for the country's economy if diversification away from the biggest revenue generator for the Pacific nation doesn't happen, according to the outgoing New Zealand High Commissioner.

Muri Lagoon, off Rarotonga, is one of the Cook Islands' tourism hotspots

Muri Lagoon, off Rarotonga, is one of the Cook Islands' tourism hotspots Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

The warning was made by Peter Marshall who said a catastrophic cyclone, serious health issue or other major event, for example at the Rarotonga international airport, would see the Cook Islands economy severely compromised.

Nearly 70 percent of the Cook Islands' GDP comes from tourism, while other industries like agricultural exports have declined steadily, and Mr Marshall said "diversity is the challenge moving forward".

Another big issue facing the Cook Islands today is the daunting issue of potential political reform [that] is often talked about and has been for years, Mr Marshall said.

"The challenge is to strike a balance between each of the Pa Enua (outer islands) having appropriate representation and a 'voice' - at the same time avoiding a disproportionate and ultimately unbalanced influence by very small electorates."

For example, one of the smallest electorates in the Cook Islands is the outer island of Mangaia, with a population of around 500 people.

During last year's general election in June only 55 votes were registered in that islands' electorate of Tamarua.

Mr Marshall said some of the major challenges for the Pa Enua include making sure they are viable in terms of being tourism destinations, attracting business and coming up with initiatives to stop de-population.

"There is a need to encourage the return of their people from overseas and from Rarotonga itself. An increased emphasis upon agriculture and the pending arrival of fibre optic cable for internet purposes will also go some way to alleviate the current situation."

In terms of the nation's health, Marshall said non-communicable diseases (NCDs) were becoming more obvious, particularly in Rarotonga.

The Cook Islands News recently reported the World Health Organisation as saying that over half of Cook Islanders are obese.

"Obesity and related issues such as diabetes are increasingly prevalent," Mr Marshall said.

"The Cook Islands is a bountiful country in terms of land for growing food and the sea for fishing. The current apathy towards healthy eating amongst an ever-increasing portion of the population, particularly the young, has to be addressed for social and financial reasons. There should be no excuse."

Cook Islands flag

Cook Islands flag Photo: RNZ/ Tim Glasgow

Asked what would be the best tip he could give incoming High Commissioner Tessa Temata, Marshall said it was to "be yourself".

"As one elderly 'mama' once told me "remember, you are the High Commission for the Cook Islands and not only Rarotonga. Get out - touch, smell, feel and understand all Cook Island issues. "

And the highlight of his term in the Cook Islands?

"He tangata, He tangata, He tangata, it is the people, the people, the people," he said.

"The people, complemented by their warmth and their generosity of spirit. Add to that the flowers, the colour, the tropical fruits, the drums and the dance. This was epitomised during the recent national Te Maeva Nui (inter-island dance and cultural performance) celebrations.

"These aspects were also reinforced when the opportunity arose for my wife and me to travel to 10 of the Pa Enua.

"It has been a privilege to be New Zealand's High Commissioner to this wonderful country."

Tessa Temata is expected to take up the High Commission position in the Cook Islands later this month or in early February.

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