Green ambition in the deep blue

Environmental footprint ... blue-sky dreaming on Aitutaki.
Environmental footprint ... blue-sky dreaming on Aitutaki. Photo: Getty Images

Louise Southerden reports on plans for the first eco destination in the Pacific.

The tropical Cook Islands - a nation of 15 volcanic and coral islands spread across 2 million square kilometres in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - is a place to which people escape when they need a break from the rush of life, to forget about the world's problems. But life goes on for those who live here and the islanders are becoming increasingly aware of at least one problem: their environmental footprint.

In July, the Prime Minister, Henry Puna, announced the islands would be the first "green" destination in the Pacific, with 50 per cent of its energy needs met by renewable sources by 2015 (just in time for the islands' 50th anniversary of independence). The nation hopes to be 100 per cent reliant on solar energy and wind power by 2020.

There are plans for a wind farm on the main island, Rarotonga, and sustainable energy projects on other islands: solar power plants on Aitutaki and Rakahanga; wind-monitoring units on Atiu and Mauke; and plans for renewable-energy assistance on Pukapuka, Nassau, Suwarrow and Manihiki in the northern group of islands. Funding sources will include Japan, China and the Pacific Islands Greenhouse Gas Abatement through Renewable Energy Project, financed by the United Nations Development Program.

"The truth is, we really have no option," Puna says. "Economically, it's costing our country too much in fuel bills to provide electricity [from diesel generators] for our people in Rarotonga and throughout the islands. [And] it's important that we practise what we preach, including addressing the harmful effects on our environment."

Issues include waste management (some non-organic waste is shipped to New Zealand but most goes to landfill, which isn't sustainable on small islands), sanitation (there's no island-wide sewerage system, even on Rarotonga, only on-site septic systems), water security (particularly on coral atolls with no permanent water supply and little rainfall) and climate change.

"Because we know we'll be among the first in the world to feel the effects [of climate change] - more frequent and more intense cyclones, ocean acidification that will affect our coral reefs, rising sea levels - we're making changes to be an example to other Pacific nations," the Cook Islands tourism board's first director of destination development, Metua Vaiimene, says. Appointed last year, Vaiimene is in charge of overseeing sustainability issues. "Are we the Pacific leaders?" Vaiimene asks. "Maybe not but we certainly want to be."

Most island councils in the Cooks have disaster risk-management and climate-change adaptation plans. Many of the northern group of islands are low-lying coral atolls already feeling the effects of neap tides and high seas, which has prompted locals to build new structures on poles and install water tanks so they're not reliant on water tables, which could become inundated with seawater. Mauke, in the Cooks' southern group of islands, recently passed a decree banning all development on the ocean side of their coast-hugging island road.

Tourism is a vital part of this push; 75 per cent of the islands' gross domestic product comes from tourism, the islands received 102,000 tourists last year and the government hopes for 150,000 tourists annually in the next three to five years.

"Tourism is such a big part of our economy, it's important to get it right for the benefit of the country," Vaiimene says.

They're on the right track. Much of Rarotonga, particularly its wild interior, remains untouched by tourism development; almost all of the island's resorts and hotels are on the coast, built either side of the one main road around the island. There are designated conservation areas and six ra'ui - parts of the lagoon and reef that are protected with support from local chiefs, resorts, communities and the wildlife preservation group WWF. The earliest of these marine reserves were declared in 1998 but ra'ui have been used by generations of Cook Islanders to ensure the marine life they depend on is sustainably fished.

Most Cook Island tour operators are eco-friendly, with good environmental practices in place, even if they're not yet eco-accredited. Te Manava Luxury Villas and Spa and the Pacific Resort (on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, respectively) are two of a growing number of resorts promoting the Responsible Tourism Code for the Pacific to their guests. Pacific Resort is also Green Globe-benchmarked, as is tour operator Island Hopper Vacations.

Most of the islands' tourist activities are low-impact, such as snorkelling, diving, kayaking, kiteboarding, hiking, birdwatching, caving and whale-watching; the islands have been a whale sanctuary since 2001. Black pearls are now being farmed sustainably, too, since the Cook Islands Pearl Authority created the Avaiki brand last year, designed to maintain quality and sustainability. And there are moves to create "voluntourism" and conservation experiences for visitors and perhaps a Trees for Travellers carbon-offset program like the one in Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Beyond Rarotonga, Atiu, a young island in tourism terms, is shaping up to be the first dedicated eco-island and a test case for the rest of the Cook Islands. As well as its nature-based offerings, such as caving, birdwatching and hiking tours, there are plans for eco-lodges, bird sanctuaries (also on Aitutaki), renewable energy (solar and wind farms) and composting public toilets (to solve waste and water problems).

The island's moves to sustainability will be promoted to educate locals and visitors. Other southern-group islands are also developing ecotourism projects: Mauke, Mitiaro and Mangaia, for instance, are planning caving and other eco-tours, as well as reserves and ra'ui to protect forests, wetlands, waterways and endemic species.

"It's our nature as Polynesians to be in sync with the environment," Vaiimene says. "That's how we have survived for thousands of years on these tiny little islands."

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Rarotonga from Sydney (6hr) once a week, on Saturdays, for about $730. This is a low-season return fare, including tax. There are also flights from Sydney and Melbourne via Auckland (3hr to Auckland, 4hr to Rarotonga). No visa is required for stays of fewer than 31 days but there is a $NZ65 ($51) departure tax payable at the airport in cash, or by credit card at Westpac in the town of Avarua.

Staying there

Muri Beach Resort has 20 self-contained villas and apartments in lush gardens on Rarotonga's lagoon. Rooms cost from $NZ215 a night (garden villa for two people) to $NZ395 a night (two-bedroom apartment for four people, which includes a spa bath). There are free introductory scuba lessons in the 12-metre pool and the new Aqua Cafe & Bar is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. See muribeachresort.com

Eco-voyaging

In April, seven Polynesian canoes, crewed by people from Pacific island nations, including the Cooks, set off from Auckland across the Pacific to California. Their mission: to raise awareness of ocean threats such as overfishing, fossil-fuel spills and noise pollution. Each canoe, called a vaka monana, is traditional in design but incorporates modern materials such as fibreglass rather than timber hulls and solar-powered engines to reduce its impact on the environment. At the end of last month they took a winter break and will resume their journey down the west coast of the Americas in January, sailing to the Galapagos and back across the Pacific, finishing in the Solomon Islands in July. See pacificvoyagers.com.

More information

See cookislands.travel. For more details on the Responsible Tourism Code for the Pacific, see responsibletourism.org.nz.

A resort that treads lightly

MURI BEACH RESORT in south-east Rarotonga is leading the way by making accommodation options in the Cook Islands more sustainable, particularly since Australian owners Jane and Paul Pearson finished a major upgrade and refurbishment late last year.

A water-treatment plant was installed to supply filtered and UV-treated drinking water, so guests don't need to buy bottled water. The resort has a new septic system that goes beyond government building and environmental codes to treat wastewater on site and produce clean greywater for use on the resort's gardens. Phosphate-free detergents are used in the laundry.

Food scraps from the resort's restaurant are "processed" by the Pearsons' pig, Blossom. All light fittings have eco bulbs and solar panels will be installed by the end of the year, making the resort virtually self-sufficient and allowing it to put excess solar-generated electricity into the island's grid in exchange for energy credits, a new initiative on Rarotonga.

The Pearsons don't publicise these initiatives but they do try to spread the message. "We try to quietly educate our guests about how delicately balanced our ecosystem is here and the challenges we face as a nation living on a small island with limited resources," Jane says.

"We feel that we're taking some positive steps towards greatly reducing the impact of our business on this very fragile piece of God's earth."

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