22 May 2021

Cook Islanders considering how much tourism is too much

4:17 pm on 22 May 2021
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

After a year of zero visitors, the Cook Islands is now pondering just how many visitors it actually wants to return.

Until Covid-19 shut the borders in March, the country was seeing record numbers each year.

For many locals, it had reached a point where they felt the country was struggling to cope.

Muri lagoon's health has been declining. Noxious algal blooms have become increasingly common, largely put down to pollution.

Kelvin Passfield, from the environmental organisation Te Ipukarea Society, said that pressure is even being seen at sacred sites.

"This is Avana harbour, this is the point in Rarotonga where the traditional knowledge says the seven canoes went to Aotearoa back 600-700 years ago or whenever they left, Takitimu and all the other ones," he said

Until last year, the Cook Islands was seeing record tourism numbers, which had brought great wealth.

In 2019, 170,000 thousand people visited the Cook Islands which has a permanent population of just 17,000.

The record figure was just the latest in a series of growing annual visitors.

Mr Passfield said the pressure - on locals, on infrastructure, and the environment - has become too much.

Kelvin Passfield of Te Ipukarea Society

Kelvin Passfield of Te Ipukarea Society. Photo: RNZ/ Sally Round

And while it's a great income earner for the country, not enough work has been done on the infrasture and that to be able to handle that number of tourists.

But since Covid-19, those numbers have plummeted to zero.

While the pain for many who've lost business and income has been very real, speak to some in the community, and they'll say: it's been quite nice.

Among them is the country's opposition leader, Tina Browne, who said a serious rethink is needed.

"I think we should be selective about our tourists, and yes, I have heard a lot of our people, they really are a happy with the period that we have found ourselves in the last 12 months," she said.

Cook Islands Democratic Party leader, Tina Browne

Cook Islands Democratic Party leader, Tina Browne Photo: Cook Islands Democratic Party

With the opening of quarantine-free travel with New Zealand this week, the government and tourism businesses are excited, as are many who are now back at work.

But even people in the tourism sector, including the Minister of Tourism minister Patrick Arioka, said perhaps things shouldn't be as they were.

But one thing is clear, I think we are at a time where our numbers have to be looked at very carefully, we need to be at an optimal level, considering the capacity we have.

Mr Arioka said infrastructure has improved - such as a large sewerage project at Muri, which will help.

He said tourism will always be the Cook Islands' mainstay, but it does need a reinvention - something he was underway.

"We had an opportunity to relook at where we were pre-covid to make sure that we have to change in the way tourism needs to be, to look at much more enviromental conscious type of tourism that could help with, for example, keeping our lagoons tidy and clean.

Mr Arioka said it will be a long time before the Cook Islands sees the numbers it was a couple of years ago, giving places like Muri Beach more time to recover.