Cook Islands and NZ leaders to talk travel

Monday June 22, 2020 Written by Published in Economy
Five times Elio Benek’s family have booked tickets back to Rarotonga; five times they’ve been disappointed. 20062107 Five times Elio Benek’s family have booked tickets back to Rarotonga; five times they’ve been disappointed. 20062107

It’s crunch time for decisions on opening the border.

Deputy prime ministers Mark Brown and Winston Peters are to meet online this week, as Cook Islands tries to win New Zealand’s assent to open the border.

“Hopefully things will have progressed by then, and we may get confirmation or firming up of plans on lifting restrictions,” Brown told Cook Islands News.

There has been growing frustration from Cook Islands political and business leaders about New Zealand blowing hot and cold; at the weekend, Peters said a Pacific travel bubble could be just weeks away.

“I think we're very close to cracking a deal with them,” Peters said, “but we've got to ensure they've got the medical provisioning, the hospital security and the maritime security to ensure we don't harm them and they don't harm us.” 

Brown said he was “optimistic” about messages coming out of New Zealand.

“I think the Australia trans-Tasman bubble is starting to look too hard,” he said.

“We’ve got some easy first steps that we can take to Cook Islands in particular. The discussions we’ve had at Government level – small steps, and an easy one is Auckland and Rarotonga, while they work on a trans-Tasman bubble.

“People are wanting to be able to go away on holidays. And the airlines are very keen to get their planes back in the air, get people on them, flying to their destinations.”

A new report from South Pacific Tourism Organisation, chaired by Cook Islands Tourism’s Halatoa Fua, contemplates a best-case scenario in which a bubble opens as early as August.

In the Budget last week, finance officials forecast the return of more than 4200 tourists from July to September, and another 14,200 from October to December.

“I think they’re conservative figures,” Brown said. “Those figures are based on tourists starting to arrive by the end of September. If they start arriving before that, of course our figures will start to improve.”

CAN’T LEAVE

‘I miss my family’

Virginia Cabral loves Rarotonga – but she’s ready to fly back to New Zealand.  Virginia Cabral loves Rarotonga. IMG_8267.jpg

The Brazilian grandmother normally lives in New Zealand, where she has a visa to look after her 20-month-old granddaughter. But she’s been stranded alone in Cook Islands since arriving on March 19 for just a few days’ holiday.

“Unfortunately, the borders were closed on the same day I arrived Rarotonga and I have not been able to return ever since. 

 For three months she has been applying to Immigration for leave to return, but just getting automated refusals. “I wonder why I am not able to return? Here we have zero cases of this terrible virus.

“Why am I being denied from my rights as a grandmother?

“Although here is a beautiful country with friendly and kind people, I miss my family in NZ. I don't know what else to do. My daughter needs me and I need to be there to help her.”

CAN’T COME HOME

‘We get green lights, then red lights’

22-month-old Elio Benek was born in Rarotonga; it’s the only home he knows.

But for three months he and his parents have been stuck in New Zealand, trying unsuccessfully to get back to Cook Islands – and this month, his father Milo’s work permit expired.

Milo and Katarina, former Olympic stars for the Slovak Republic, have lived in Raro for two years, where Milo was in charge of food and beverages for Nautilus Resort.

On Saturday, NZ-time, the family turned up to Auckland International Airport to board a repatriation flight back to Cook Islands; Immigration had emailed approval the night before, Milo said.

But at the airport, they got through the Covid health checks and to the check-in counter – only to discover a new email from Immigration, revoking their travel authorisation.

“We kept getting a green light to come back, and then it would change to a red light.”

He said they were lucky enough to have rented a one-room house in west Auckland, but they wanted to return to their home and possessions in Cook Islands.

“We are not on the street, we are not going hungry, but we are bleeding through our savings.”

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