Sunday, December 5

‘We were very blessed’: In the Cook Islands, the pandemic was a welcome respite for tourists | Cook islands

For nearly a year and a half after the pandemic started, the Cook Islands did not see a single tourist.

In early 2020, the South Pacific country was forced to close its borders to keep Covid-19 out. In doing so, it closed the doors to an industry that contributes two-thirds of the remote island country’s GDP.

Lives were disrupted, hotels were closed, and the government was forced to borrow tens of millions of dollars to keep the economy afloat. Local people flocked to find work in New Zealand’s South Island.

Many people went to their gardens and looked to the sea for a livelihood, cushioning a cash subsidy from the government that was aimed at keeping food on people’s tables. The crabs began to claim beaches devoid of bathers.

Tourists enjoy the unspoiled beaches of Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
Tourists enjoy the unspoiled beaches of Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Photograph: Melanie Cooper / The Guardian

All that changed in May when a “travel bubble” was established, suspended this week due to the Covid outbreak in Auckland, with New Zealand. Within weeks, thousands of sun-hungry New Zealanders had booked tickets to escape the southern hemisphere winter and indulge in a luxury few can experience these days: a tropical vacation on a lush island that has never recorded a single case of Covid. -19.

Once again, Rarotonga, the most populated island in the Cook Archipelago, was buzzing. Markets were alive and bustling, restaurants were full of reservations, rental cars and scooters became a hot item, and guided snorkeling excursions were quickly sold out.

While the outside world is beginning to grapple with the fourth wave and delta variant, in the Cook Islands the pandemic is often mentioned in the past tense. Money has started to flow into people’s pockets and into the treasury.

But not everyone feels the euphoria.

“During Covid I thought we were very blessed,” says Alex King, a Rarotonga photographer with ancestral roots in the Cook Islands.

Tourists mingle with locals at a market in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
Tourists mingle with locals at a market in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Photograph: Melanie Cooper / The Guardian

“People within our community started growing food again, working on the plantations, spending more quality time with their families, and we experienced the utmost goodness within our own people, trying to help each other during an economically difficult time to Many. . “

It was a profound change for the Cook Islands, which had recently reaped the benefits of an unprecedented multi-year economic boom that culminated in a record number of arrivals in 2019.

The country’s population is 17,500, but that year it received almost 172,000 visitors, an increase of 37% from the half of the previous decade. Over the course of a decade, GDP per capita doubled to just over NZ $ 30,000.

“As someone who has worked in the tourism industry for years, it is not difficult to understand why it has played such a dominant role in our lives,” says King.

“But in recent years I have seen exactly the impact this industry is potentially having on our environment, our culture and our community.”

The effects of unbridled tourism are perhaps most evident at Rarotonga’s Muri Lagoon, often described as the jewel in the island’s crown.

‘I really fear for our island’

Hotels and luxurious vacation homes dot this stretch of golden sand, but sewage systems have been unable to cope with the pressure of increasing numbers of visitors. Once pristine, the turquoise waters of the Muri Lagoon are frequently fogged with excessive algae growth.

Florence Syme-Buchanan, a citizen action group leader and journalist from the Muri Lagoon, says Rarotonga’s environment has been neglected for the sake of economic growth. “We understand that tourism brings much needed dollars. But at what cost? she asks.

Tourists play in a resort pool in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
Tourists play in a resort pool in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Photograph: Melanie Cooper / The Guardian

Demand among New Zealand travelers since the opening of non-quarantine round trips in May exceeded expectations.

Too many visitors and too fast, says Syme-Buchanan.

“At one point, we locals were in awe of how wonderful it was to have our island back, even though many of us lost income from tourism-related activities, like the weddings I did as a celebrant,” he says.

“We talked among ourselves about how tourism has returned to what it was, out of control and that constant push for more and more. I really fear for our island because it is suffering critical environmental damage from which it may never recover. “

Calls for the government to slow down the industry date back to at least the early 1990s, when the Cook Islands received just 35,000 tourists a year.

In 2017, opposition MP Selina Napa called on the government to limit the number of arrivals while improvements were made to Rarotonga’s roads, garbage collection and sewer systems.

Despite receiving strong pushback from government and industry circles at the time, he says his stance on the matter has not changed. “We are a small island nation and the only real resource we have is our beautiful islands that tourists are here to enjoy.”

‘A double-edged sword’

Another casualty caused by the growth of tourism may be the demographics of the country. Critics of the industry often point to the lack of career options for indigenous Cook Islands, many of whom head abroad in search of higher paying jobs.

Born and raised in Rarotonga, Nana Short set up a small spa on the shores of the Muri Lagoon in 2018 as tourism flourished. When the borders were closed, he saw almost his entire customer base evaporate.

To make up for the loss of income, he took a job delivering hydroponically grown vegetables. “I wasn’t really worried,” she says.

Nana Short, whose spa in Muri, Rarotonga, lost nearly all of her clients when borders were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nana Short, whose spa in Muri, Rarotonga, lost nearly all of her clients when borders were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph: Melanie Cooper / The Guardian

“When the pandemic hit, my mind went back to the old days, when everyone was free and there wasn’t such a rush to go here or there or get things done.”

Although the tourists have returned, he says he will take his time to restart his business. Meanwhile, he has started studying.

Looking ahead, Short says he wants government policies to work to provide opportunities for young people outside of tourism while raising the minimum wage, which is less than half that of New Zealand.

“During the pandemic, people began to realize how important it is to use our resources, our people, and create some kind of diversification,” he says.

“Many of these people work in the tourism sector and I know what it is like. It is hard work. There are many hours “.

Reflecting on the steep rise in tourism since his childhood in Rarotonga, Alex King says the country is lucky to have a thriving industry, but a lack of oversight from successive governments has the potential to cause critical damage to the environment.

“This industry is a double-edged sword,” he says.

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