11 Aug 2020

Analysis: The frustrating pace of a Cooks travel bubble

7:59 pm on 11 August 2020

Analysis: The pace of progress towards opening a travel bubble with coronavirus free Pacific countries has been frustrating for many, but with the pandemic still raging, there is reason for caution and several hurdles to clear.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced a travel bubble could be open with the Cook Islands by the end of the year, with more assessments needed before any final decision could be made.

Jacinda Ardern speaks on the travel bubble with the Cook Islands.

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

In a country where tourism, which has been completely erased, makes up more than 70 percent of the economy, the fact that it could be December before any travel resumes was an agonising one.

"For many, to be honest, it is too late," Liana Scott, the president of the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council, told First Up.

The tourism-dependent countries of the Pacific have found themselves wedged between a rock and a hard place. Their economic lifeblood has been severed, triggering a dramatic rise in poverty.

But for many, closing their borders in March was the only way to keep out a pandemic that was almost certainly to unleash devastation on vulnerable communities.

The pandemic is still here, but as the economic pain deepens, Pacific governments are presented with one of the most difficult decisions they're likely to face. For many, reopening travel with New Zealand - which has eliminated the coronavirus - was seen as the best medicine.

"Every week there's no bubble is putting a huge financial burden to the public and private sector. No one has unlimited funds. Redundancies are likely to happen both in the public and private sector. It is definitely going to mean some sacrifices," Scott said.

Ardern said officials were "moving as quickly as we safely can on these arrangements."

Rarotonga airport

Rarotonga airport Photo: RNZI Walter Zweifel

A Warning Nearby

The Cook Islands doesn't have to look far for a cautionary tale about rushing to reopen. In French Polynesia, Covid-19 has reared its head again, only weeks after the territory became the first in the Pacific to reopen to tourists with no quarantine requirements.

Instead, arriving passengers were given self-testing kits and they were screened at the airport. It only took a few weeks for a case to emerge, and on Tuesday, 43 were announced.

The first case was an American on a cruise ship, and now the biggest cluster is related to a dinner event in the capital, Papeete, where according to one scientist, more than 150 people "were all nearby, they didn't have a mask, they partied, everyone drank from the neighbour's glasses."

Paul Gauguin cruise ship

The first case of a new wave of infections was off the Paul Gauguin Photo: supplied

Now, the domestic rugby competition has been suspended after players were at the dinner, an airline worker has also tested positive, as have two police officers. Authorities were scrambling to suppress community transmission.

In the north Pacific island of Guam, the government has been forced to roll back on easing some restrictions after a surge of new cases there. More than 50 people have been confirmed with the virus in the past week, including the territory's governor, Lou Leon Guerrero.

On Saturday, Guerrero moved to halve the number of people allowed to gather and ordered all bars to close for two weeks, after clusters were confirmed around bars and nightclubs.

However, Guam and French Polynesia are different to the realm countries.

French Polynesia (and New Caledonia, which has maintained its quarantine controls) are French territories, and have had floods of French public servants coming in throughout. Tahiti also opened itself up to flights from places including Los Angeles, Vancouver and Paris.

Guam, in a similar vein, is a territory of the United States and has also opened itself up for renewed tourism. Many of its new cases relates to US military personnel who have been either stationed there or passed through. In one instance, cases were related to personnel who absconded from their hotel and went to a restaurant.

Rarotonga doesn't have this situation. It is only linked to Auckland, and the Cook Islands government has said it is prepared to keep it that way. But still, the problems emerging in a near neighbour will weigh heavily, as Covid-19 has proven it doesn't need much of an opening.

The fact that the coronavirus is also emerging in Tahiti, a close neighbour, would highlight the need for tighter maritime border controls in the Cook Islands, which Ardern has said is a key consideration.

The Cook Islands encompasses a vast area - 15 major islands spread over more than 2 million square kilometres of ocean - and patrolling that would need to be weighed up.

Officially, the maritime borders are closed to international cruise ships and other non-freight craft. But there are boats and yachts floating about - and a recent skirmish between the Tongan navy and sailors at Minerva Reef shows not everyone is paying heed.

"[It] is actually not that far from the Cooks, it has traditionally had ferry connections and as a whole network of movement across the Pacific between islands. I think the borders question would have to be looked at very carefully," said Professor Michael Baker, an Otago University epidemiologist.

Other considerations

Tata Crocombe, the owner of four Rarotonga resorts, told Morning Report the country had spent months preparing its health system to cope with a potential outbreak of the virus. That is true. Since the pandemic started, the main hospital on Rarotonga has created a Covid ward and upped its resourcing.

"The Cook Islands health system is closely linked to New Zealand, even the lab tests are done in New Zealand," Crocombe said.

The Rarotongan managing director Tata Crocombe

The Rarotongan managing director Tata Crocombe Photo: Cook Islands News

But that is an issue in and of itself. The Cook Islands does not have an intensive care unit, and only has two ventilators. Even if capacity has increased, most serious health cases are sent to New Zealand, a four hour flight away. However, the Cook Islands government says plans are in place to overcome this.

These hurdles, though, do not mean the concerns of Cook Islands businesses are not valid and that their criticism of the time taken is not without merit. Their pain will deepen the more this is drawn out.

"The director of health in New Zealand, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said months ago that there was no reason why there couldn't be quarantine free travel with the Cook Islands, so we're getting a lot of mixed messages," said Crocombe.

Professor Baker said getting quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and the Cook Islands right would be an important step to reopening, but there were three "critical conditions" that should be met - elimination, good surveillance with testing, and managing borders by both air and sea.

"In fact, one of the conditions I think of connecting with another country will be that they are also planning for outbreaks - and that means doing testing to detect an outbreak early and having all those contingency plans in place," Prof Baker said.

"New Zealand is a world leader in this area ... because no other country has defined [elimination], so it is a new area and we can work with the Cook Islands and Niue on what those conditions are."

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker Photo: University of Otago, Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

Ardern also made clear on Monday that only the realm countries - the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau - were being considered for a travel bubble this year. That's a devastating blow for countries like Fiji, who have also desperately called to be included in a bubble with New Zealand, even going as far as pre-empting it by announcing its own "Bula Bubble".

But while the Cook Islands has been particularly vocal, other countries are in no particular hurry. The premier of Niue, another realm country, has said he'd wait and see how a Rarotonga travel bubble goes first. Tonga has also said it will take a precautionary approach.

Samoa, which last year was devastated by a measles epidemic that came from New Zealand and killed more than 80 people, is in no hurry to reopen either.

"Once bitten, twice shy," Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi has said.