2 Mar 2020

Cook Islands holds urgent discussions over Italian ship amid Covid-19 fears

9:44 am on 2 March 2020

A luxury liner carrying passengers and crew from Italy - the European nation worst hit by coronavirus - is scheduled to arrive in the Cook Islands tomorrow.

Aitutaki, Cook Islands.

Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Photo: Ewan Smith

The Cook Islands News reports the MSC Magnifica was due in Rarotonga on Sunday local time and then in Aitutaki the following day.

Aitutaki wants a ban on cruise ships scheduled to visit the island this coming month amid growing coronavirus fears.

Prime Minister Henry Puna and top officials held an urgent meeting on Aitutaki this weekend, after island leaders asked to cancel the cruise ships visits.

Community meetings were still underway late last night.

Aitutaki is set to receive three more cruise ships this month.

The Magnifica, which had the capacity to carry 3,223 passengers and 1,038 crew, was a popular cruise ship for Italian tourists and was carrying a significant number of Italians on this trip.

Its sister ship MSC Meraviglia was this week turned away by both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

The Cook Islands had placed a ban on travellers from Italy following more than 400 cases and 21 deaths from the Covid-19 coronavirus there, but there were no plans to turn the Magnifica away from Rarotonga.

The cruise ship, operated by MSC Cruises, left Italy on 4 January and had made 19 stops in France, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and French Polynesia before its scheduled arrival here.

Of those, only Italy was on the 16-country travel ban put out by the Cook Islands government on Thursday night.

MSC Cruises yesterday announced sweeping measures to ensure the ship remained free of the virus, including denying boarding to anyone from high-risk areas including China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Singapore and central northern Italy.

"This restriction does not apply if guests have only transited in sterile areas of relevant Singapore, Japan and South Korea airports as coming from other non-affected areas," the cruise line said.

Yesterday Destination Management Cook Islands, the shore excursion handling agents for the cruise ship, said they had been working with MSC Magnifica on the bookings for the past two years.

If the cruise ship was turned away, they were worried all their hard work in arranging bookings with local resorts and tour companies would go to waste.

There were already indications the latest coronavirus travel ban would hit the local economy hard.

Chamber of Commerce chairman Fletcher Melvin said the country faced potential recession.

"I would say it is going to be one of the biggest challenges the country has faced in many, many years," he said.

"We don't know the extent of damage this will do because we don't know when this will end. This is something new so we cannot just pick up a book from the shelves and solve it.

"Everyone in the country relies on tourism. Every sector in the economy, from building to hotels to government, rely on this industry because without it, none of us can operate. Some of us will feel the effect faster than other, that's the only difference."

Halatoa Fua, chief executive of Cook Islands Tourism said most of the banned countries were in Asia, a market that contributed less than one percent of visitor arrivals.

"Italy is a key source market for us however this is their off peak travel period particularly for honeymooners."

Fua said Europeans coming via Japan and Singapore were affected and their international teams were liaising with key travel partners.

"We are ensuring communication goes out to our partners to make the necessary changes with the affected customers."

CEO of Cook Islands Tourism Corp, Halatoa Fua

CEO of Cook Islands Tourism Corp, Halatoa Fua Photo: RNZI / Sally Round

- The Cook Island News