3 Dec 2020

Cook Island travel bubble delay 'extremely frustrating' for operators

6:37 pm on 3 December 2020

Some Cook Islands business operators are feeling deflated after months of promised updates and ongoing delays to a travel bubble with New Zealand.

A beach in One Foot Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Photo: 123RF

The last vet is due to leave the islands soon, while restaurants and hotels there have spent weeks setting up social distancing and contact tracing arrangements.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has popped any plans of a bubble before Christmas, saying there was still work to do to get it in place - although the islands' chamber of commerce president believes Hipkins merely misspoke.

New Zealand officials travelled to the Cook Islands last month to look at how a possible travel bubble would work.

Hipkins said they were relatively confident with the "robustness" of border arrangements on both sides.

"Probably there are still some issues to be worked through around scenario planning, so what would happen in the event that someone in the Cook Islands ended up with Covid-19 ... around testing and contact tracing," he said.

The minister said he hoped to have an updated timeline on the bubble this side of Christmas, indicating New Zealanders may be able to put it on their early-2021 travel list.

"I'm feeling optimistic, certainly in the early part of next year, that we'll see some significant movements in that space."

Those words were not such welcome news to an owner and manager of Sea Change Villas on Rarotonga, Craig Bennett, who said he was quickly losing patience over what he saw as a lack of action.

After struggling to survive on government subsidies, Bennett and his wife had to temporarily move back to their home country of Australia.

"The patience among operators to be able to keep going and their ability to keep going in the current situation is extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. For the attitude of ministers in the Cook Islands and New Zealand to be unable to sit down and figure something out over the last eight or nine months, is beyond me," he said.

Bennett's frustration is echoed by Liana Scott, the manager of the Muri Beach Club Hotel on Rarotonga, and president of the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council.

She has already spent weeks helping run workshops on the island so businesses are prepared for visitors.

"Restaurants are prepared for different practices that they have to get used to, and hotels - so everyone's preparing for the border opening, but also in the event that there is a probable case on the island," she said.

Scott said it was not just her industry which was suffering while New Zealand's border was shut, but also those which needed specialists or qualified people.

Breast screening equipment on the island is going unused because there is no technicians to operate it.

She said the Cook Islands was down to its last qualified veterinarian to care for its animals - a volunteer from Australia.

"She's going back in January so there's quite a bit of concern about what happens to the welfare of the animals," she said.

Auckland travel agency Our World & Our Pacific's managing director Rick Felderhof said the New Zealand and Cook Islands governments needed to provide more information.

"My disappointment is simply that the government is simply saying 'not gonna happen' before Christmas, but there's actually no plan in place," he said.

"I would have thought a better way would be to lock in a travel date in the future that's realistic, then work backwards with an announcement date so that everyone is clear on what the plan is and what needs to happen between the announcement and the travel date."

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins was asked about progress on a travel bubble with Australia.

He expected he could provide an update on that "soon".

Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce president Fletcher Melvin told Checkpoint they were still holding hope for a travel bubble by Christmas.

"We are still waiting for that official announcement from the New Zealand government, and that was supposed to be next week," he said.

He said news that Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins had poured water on the travel bubble plans caught him by surprise, and he thought Hipkins misspoke.

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