In 1996, following an economic crisis where Cook Islands was in huge deficit and on the brink of bankruptcy, thousands of Cook Islanders packed up and moved to New Zealand in search of employment.
Private Sector Taskforce chair Fletcher Melvin warns there is a real risk of history repeating, if the New Zealand Government doesn’t prioritise a travel bubble between the two countries, lift border restrictions from June 19 and ease unnecessary quarantine requirements.
He has sent a message to the New Zealand government, through that country’s newspapers, media websites and TV news.
“The hard truth is that if this drags on much longer, we’ll be coming to you for help one way or the other,” he told them. “Our community wants a hand, not a hand-out – we’d much rather have New Zealand tourism dollars than its aid money.”
“There’s a big concern that we’ll see a repeat of our 1996 economic collapse. That creates a whole set of new problems for both countries to deal with.”
Melvin said Cook Islands’ economy depended on New Zealand tourism, and without it the realm country’s economic outlook was severely challenged – echoing comments made by Prime Minister Henry Puna last week.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her deputy Winston Peters have confirmed their priority is a trans-Tasman travel bubble, which Ardern says is more economically beneficial to New Zealand.
A timeline is yet to be established as there are still a number of active Covid-19 cases in Australia.
Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown said during a conversation with Peters, his New Zealand counterpart had reiterated that the New Zealand priority is to facilitate a trans-Tasman bubble.
But Brown was confident the New Zealand Government was taking their request for inclusion into serious consideration.
“I can also understand New Zealand’s caution at protecting our country from any risk of Covid-19 infection,” Brown said.
It was absolutely vital the tourism industry was kick-started as soon as practicable, he said.
“We have started the ball rolling with our own people being able to return from New Zealand from June 19 without having to quarantine,” he said.
“We are confident in the New Zealand systems and our own measures to begin travels between our two countries. We are hoping New Zealand will reciprocate and also allow travellers from Rarotonga to New Zealand without having to quarantine.”
Ideally, the deputy prime minister said, July would be a great target to look at lifting restrictions.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has also thrown her support behind a travel bubble, saying there needed to be consideration of how Pacific inclusion in a travel bubble would work.
“Tourism accounts for a significant proportion of GDP in a number of Pacific nations,” Clark said.
The Cook Islands had not had a single Covid-19 case and with New Zealand successfully stamping out the virus, she said, so it should now be possible to open up safe travel between the two countries.
A recent survey revealed Cook Islands businesses were projecting a 90 per cent drop in revenue from the economic impact of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
And every day the country’s borders remain shut deepens the economic crisis and the social fall out as businesses close and people lose their livelihoods, Melvin said.
“New Zealand and Cook Islands aren’t just neighbours, we’re family – that’s why Kiwis love coming here. Cook Islands is a Realm country, our people are citizens of New Zealand, we travel on New Zealand passports, our currency is New Zealand dollars,” he said.
“Family support each other in times of need.”
The Rarotongan resort owner Tata Crocombe said effectively $199 million of the $200 million tourism revenue went straight back to New Zealand, in spending by the tourism, hospitality sector and their workers – so tourism was a win-win.
He said it was madness to continue the travel shutdown. “If New Zealand keep this up, they’re going to have to bail out the Cook Islands – and have thousands of people going back to New Zealand to go on the benefit again, like in 1996.”
He said the job losses would be massive.
“Jacinda Ardern is rightly worried about the 1000 people who are about to lose their jobs at The Warehouse. Well, over here, about 5000 people in the tourism industry, most of them New Zealand citizens, are about to lose their jobs.
“We need New Zealand to remember that we’re part of the New Zealand economy, we’re another Taupo, another Bay of Islands, another Rotorua. We’re part of New Zealand, we’re New Zealand citizens, and we’re hurting.”