Cook Islands travel bubble: South Pacific paradise prepares for tourists to return

Like most of the Pacific, the Cook Islands has been isolated for more than a year, forcing locals to return to a simpler way of life. But tourists are set to return with the opening of a travel bubble with New Zealand on Monday and hopes Australia won't be too far behind.

"Rarotonga was like that island (Motunui) in the Disney movie, Moana," Cook Islands tourism operator Charlotte Piho says.

"The rest of the world was in utter chaos but we were on this tiny island eating coconuts safe from it all. But so many of us have struggled too, some people lost everything."

Isolated from the outside world since March 2020, a nation reliant on international tourism for 75 per cent of its GDP (30,000 Australians and 115,000 New Zealanders visited annually, pre-COVID-19) was forced to return to traditional Polynesian ways of living.

Old-time locals say the island hasn't been this quiet since the mid 1970s, when the first jetliners arrived after the international airport was built in Rarotonga.

With few planes arriving from New Zealand, the cost of imported goods has sky-rocketed; and with most jobs in tourism (at least temporarily) lost, many locals returned to their family plantations to grow staple crops, while fishing became a way to feed family, more than the pastime it was previously (though there has been government support for the newly unemployed).

"Our people have reconnected with their land and brought plantation plots back to life," Pacific Resort Hotel Group chief executive Marcus Niszow says.

"This was a positive to come from these challenging times."

Even the unused grounds of the Cook Islands' most awarded luxury resort, Pacific Resort Aitutaki, were used as plantation fields to feed staff during the hotel's hibernation period.

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Tourism businesses all over the Cook Islands used their resources to provide for locals in need.

"It's been a year of caring and sharing, the organic fruit we grow for our guests to eat has instead been given away to friends and neighbours," Ikurangi Eco Retreat co-owner Vicki Candish says.

"Our community lives and breathes the communal way of living," The Mooring Fish Café owner Jill Stanton says (her café went from being Rarotonga's most popular eatery, to having barely 10 customers a day).

"But more so than ever during COVID we have each others' backs, delivering meals when we have leftovers, selling fish for no more than the cost of catching it, and supporting each other emotionally."

Drive 100 metres inland from the busier coast road that encircles Rarotonga and you see hundreds of locals now tending to family plantations beside the Pacific's oldest road, the 1000-year-old Are Metua.

On Aitutaki, working groups of locals in government programs have helped regenerate motus (tiny islands) in the island's world-famous lagoon, ready for returning international travellers. Resorts and hotels have used the time to refresh their properties, while some, like Ocean Escape Resort, have used the hiatus to build new luxury villas.

The Cook Islands will open to New Zealanders in a two-way, quarantine-free travel bubble from May 17. Australians who spend 14 days in New Zealand first would also be able to visit (provided they then spend a further 14 days in New Zealand before returning to Australia).

It is the first travel bubble to open in our part of the the Pacific where, according to the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, islands are reporting close to zero occupancy in resorts and hotels (the exception has been French Polynesia, which has largely remained open to visitors with some restrictions in place). Islands have also been hit by the closure of the cruise industry, thanks largely to Australia's ban on cruising.

While some locals have savoured the change of pace brought on by the pandemic, most local business owners are excited at the return of international travellers.

"We've been waiting a very long time for this travel bubble," Niszow says. "Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined such a long period of time without any international visitors at all to the Cook Islands."

The Cook Islands Government is launching a new contract tracing App, called CookSafe+. The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation has produced the Cook Islands Promise, a joint commitment between New Zealand and the Cook Islands to protect all Cook Islands residents and international visitors from COVID-19.

Cook Islands Tourism Corporation general manager Graeme West says he's confident Australians will soon be part of the travel bubble.

"The Cook Islands are hopeful that they can get open to Australia ASAP, in a full quarantine-free arrangement, where Australians could either fly non-stop from Sydney or through Auckland," he says.

See cookislands.travel

See also: Take your passport: 20 surprising things about this remote Aussie island

See also: Going overseas now feels like a privilege, not a right

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