18 May 2021

Cook Islands-NZ travel: Hugs, tears, cheers at Rarotonga Airport

From Checkpoint, 5:27 pm on 18 May 2021

There were plenty of hugs, tears and cheers at Rarotonga international airport today as the Cook Islands bubble finally opened.

The first flight from Auckland left with almost 300 people on board to the destination, which has been starved of tourists since the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Checkpoint reporter Nick Truebridge and cameraman Nate McKinnon checked in with them and hopped on board.

"Four years ago I came back, then not long after that Covid-19, but now I've got a chance to go," Tai Tini told Checkpoint.

For her, the first quarantine-free flight between New Zealand and the Cook Islands marks the end of a four-year wait to return to her birthplace. She cannot wait to see her mother, now 92.

"Everybody's excited… The Cook Islanders and other tourists. It's a good thing, gives some money to the people back home."

Nat grows taro on one of the Cook Islands outer islands. He made the trip to New Zealand before the bubble opened - marketing and selling his Cook Island taro in Auckland and for the first time.

"I arrived last Wednesday to bring 100 bags of 20kg of fresh Taro from Cook Islands. First time ever." 

The flight home is a little different for Nat - there were a smattering of passengers on his flight to Auckland. Today he'll be joined by nearly 300 others.

Nooroa Rayner returned to New Zealand for his son's 21st birthday.

"He's in the army at the moment, so we're lucky to celebrate his 21st here."

He says Covid-19 has crushed the Cook Islands' economy, but doesn't believe it has been all bad.

"Our people back home are starting to grow, for those who haven't, with the downtime. Which is good - getting them back into plantation, doing what they used to do."

Tai, Nat and Nooroa, along with hundreds of other tourists and Cook Island natives are welcomed to the departure gate with Rarotonga donuts and traditional song and dance.

There are kisses, laughs and tears before a traditional Cook Island goodbye.

Onboard the plane, there are the usual things on offer for breakfast, followed by champagne for those ready to celebrate.

"Second wedding anniversary," one passenger said. "We got married up in Raro two years ago, so heading back for the first time, and a privilege to be on the first flight."

On the ground in Rarotonga, the queues snarled through security for the first time in over a year.

There are hugs, tears and smiles of joy as families and friends reunite.

Prime Minister Mark Brown says he is confident the Cook Islands us ready for this bubble.

He says there are more hard yards to get through, but he is happy the first step has been taken.

"There was a significant cost to closing the borders, but the cost of lives was far greater for us." 

Covid-19 vaccinations in the Cook Islands are now starting, with the Health Minister due to get his in the evening.