Following two deaths there was great concern amongst the tourism establishment as to the safety of our waters, and these concerns remain, with periodic deaths occurring on our lagoon.
To those that know the area, Avaavaroa presents a greater threat than any other waterway in the Cook Islands, it is quite possibly the Cook Islands’ most-deadly stretch of water.
Part of the threat is that Avaavaroa is deceptive. On occasion it can appear calm and safe. And indeed, to those locals that know the water and respect it, Avaavaroa has provided a place to surf, spearfish and view marine life.
Over the past year this stretch of water has become commercialised. Use of it has moved from locals with local knowledge to large groups of tourists, sometimes over 30 per low tide, out on the water.
We have not had a serious accident recently, and I hope we don’t, but something tells me it is just a matter of time. And it may not be during one of the commercial tours. By having so many people out on paddleboards, snorkelling and using sea scooters it sends a message to the passers-by that the area is safe to use, despite the warning signs.
I have patiently waited for Tourism to raise this issue, either the Corporation or the Tourism Industry Council, but nothing has been said. The commercial operators still operate without any specific standards or guidelines under the accreditation scheme, which seems to be woefully lacking in this regard.
I have the upmost respect for the tour that started there and the efforts they make to ensure safety. But as more and more tours (now up to three operators), are going there, this dangerous waterway is starting to look more and more like an aquatic playground.
We should not wait for an accident to occur before something is done to reduce the risk. A lack of action surely leaves the authorities responsible should another death happen.
Cook Islands Tourism Corporation chief executive Halatoa Fua responds:
The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation (CI Tourism) have made every effort to support the water safety message to keep away from the dangerous passages in our reefs. But we can’t physically stop people from going there.
Since the efforts kick started by Carter (as referred to by Lyon), CI Tourism have worked with the CI Water Safety and Surf Lifesaving Association, the CI Police and in particular Mr Brent Fisher to maintain and replace those same warning signs at those and other passages and harbours on the island. The collaboration with CI Water Safety resulted in the printing of safety flyers and posters to spread the message on water safety, include a specific warning about the passages and to stay away from the passages and ports on Rarotonga, on the visitor arrival card.
As part of the Kia Orana Values programme CI Tourism have developed our own set of water safety flyers that are distributed to as many tourism business and staff as possible - these state quite clearly our stance on water safety;
1. Always ask a local first before venturing out into our lagoons and reefs
2. Stay away from the passages and harbours as they are dangerous
3. Always wear a life jacket when kayaking or enjoying our water-based activities.
Recently we have received complaints regarding the tours in and around the dangerous passages on Rarotonga.
This is with regard to safety and security of both residents and visitors, and the impact on the colony of turtles in Titikaveka which have become an attraction in and around one or more of the passages. We are investigating all of them, and are in ongoing discussion with the tours concerned, and the Ridge to Reef project at NES to find a way forward. We are working with one operator in particular to establish minimum safety and biodiversity standards to govern interaction with the turtles and their ecosystem, and safety and well-being in the water.
The corporation is not legislated to police these activities, however there must be a concerted effort by all stakeholders to manage this. Through our partnership with the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council and our accreditation programme “Cook Islands Quality Assured”, the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation actively encourages the industry to follow the minimum standards set.
The accreditation programme relies on legislation and regulations governing business operations, and works with government agencies and the industry members themselves to set minimum standards for the tourism industry.
An example of how the water safety message is reinforced through the maintenance of minimum standards is the inclusion of a water safety orientation for all guests when checking into their accommodation.
CI Tourism provides this free of charge in the form of the water safety flyers, to all accommodation operators.