The couple glanced at the crowd full of friends and family, at their two children Max and little baby Frankie, and there could barely have been a more perfect moment. Right there on the beach.
And as the ceremony began, the whole lagoon seemed to go silent.
For many tourists, a wedding on the beach in the Cook Islands is their dream come true.
The demand for paradise weddings is growing and is now an important tourism foreign exchange earner in the Cooks. There are more wedding suppliers than ever, and many people are making their living from weddings.
The latest statistics available show that the numbers of visitors getting married in the Cook Islands has remained fairly steady over the last three financial years. The country hosted 643 weddings in the 2018/19 financial year.
There’s a challenge: a report from Cook Islands Tourism reveals that wedding visitors are the hardest to please. But the good news is that if they come in with high expectations, we’re meeting them. The report shows they leave very satisfied.
Joe and Jaime De Almeida had visited Rarotonga before and decided, 10 years later, that this would be where they would get married.
“It’s a lovely tropical place,” Jaime tell Cook Islands News. “An easy experience, they do everything for you, stress free.”
They had a beach wedding at The Rarotongan Beach Resort, accompanied by more than 30 friends and family. It was an emotional ceremony for Joe, who started to tear up as Jaime walked down the beach towards him.
The soft music and her beautiful dress added to the special moment. Their guests supported the couple as they said their vows, before moving to sign the registry.
Wedding celebrant Mata Nooroa spoke to the couple about commitment, trust and respect.
He has been a wedding celebrant for 12 years and said his favourite part was meeting people and listening to stories about their life, so he knows exactly what to say.
His words on true love and family brought more people to tears.
It was an amazing wedding, Jaime says. Easy, stress-free and a holiday at the same time.
The Rarotongan sales director Liz Raizis said a wedding on Rarotonga is a true destination wedding and represents freedom in a way that other weddings can’t.
The couple are free to be themselves, to wear what they feel comfortable in, to relax and enjoy themselves on the beach and in the lagoon with their friends and family.
Their family and friends, too, can kick back and reconnect with one another over several days in a way that’s simply not possible in a more buttoned-down, traditional half-day wedding and reception says Raizis.
Rarotonga holds a great deal of appeal to wedding couples for its winning combination of stunning natural beauty and its over-abundance of professional-standard wedding services.
Then there is the significant flow-on income from weddings which includes, the party buses, the buggy tours, the fishing trips, the lagoon cruises, the safaris, the spa days and the island nights.
The Cooks are well-positioned as a leading wedding destination, but Raizis reckons we can expect growing competition from our Pacific neighbours as they look to grow their tourism economies.
Couples came from all around the globe to marry on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Raizis remembers one couple who were huge TV soap stars in South America who slipped away to The Rarotongan to tie the knot incognito; the bride wore a black string bikini top with a bright-green rauti skirt.
The Rarotongan later developed a range of Lagoon of Love Wedding Packages and the trend moved away from elopement weddings and towards larger weddings with groups of around 60 to 80 people – mostly from New Zealand and Australia.
Weddings are now package tours. For instance, The Rarotongan’s Seventh Heaven All-Inclusive Wedding Package costs NZ$7999. For that, the couple get not only wedding but also their wedding reception venue, buffet dinner for 30 people, a $1000 bar tab plus five nights for the bridal couple in Beachfront Suite accommodation.
Packages like that make it easy, Raizis says. And it compares favourably with the average price of a wedding in New Zealand or Australia, of about $35,000.
Cook Islands Tourism has commissioned a new study, due out later this year, on the visitors who come for weddings. It’s the first such research in three years, says the agency’s director of destination management, Metua Vaiimene.
“This is a small but important sector in the tourism industry as both large and small businesses cater to this sector,” he explains.
“Over the years exciting new types of careers have emerged, and different types of businesses have started up across both the formal and informal economy. For example, photographers and videographers, civil celebrants, cakes and catering, equipment hire etc.”
The wedding market also has another special characteristic that makes it valuable to the Cook Islands: wedding couples and their guests generally book significantly further in advance than the average holidaymaker.
“Generally we know that medium to large weddings are often planned in advance but booking windows vary,” Vaiimene explains.
Raizis adds: These early bookings help the industry to build a base of business and give confidence to the market on forward projections.
Local photographer Brie Zeman operates Turama Photography. She says photographing weddings is extremely rewarding and she gets to capture couples and their closest family and friends on one of the most important day of their lives.
“The photos we take are not your typical selfie or food shot but a shot that exhibits a range of emotions and memories that can only be captured once but looked back on forever,” she says. “With the privilege of being chosen to photograph such an important day comes great responsibility to ensure we deliver what we advertise to our clients.”
There’s a lot more to it than just showing up with a camera on the day. There are the countless emails, the advertising, website updates, social media, backing up images as well as ensuring they are keeping up with current trends.
Zeman says: “It's a commitment to an art, a science, and a desire to provide our clients with the best possible images to last generations.”
Other photographers too, like Melanie Cooper who photographer Jaime and Joe’s wedding, tell a similar story.
Joe De Almeida told Cook Islands News he loved the experience of the food and the people. “100 per cent recommend!”