An outline of proposed new regulations produced for a recent series of Immigration consultation meetings says that providing the ability for international visitors to stay indefinitely is not the intent of the ERD Act and in fact undermines visitor policies.
Under the proposed new regulations, international visitors will be granted a permit to stay for up to 31 days, after which they must apply for an extension to their stay.
They may be allowed to stay on another 31-day permit or may apply for a proposed new Long Term Visitor permit for stay up to six months, says Principal Immigration Kairangi Samuela.
The issue of long-term “visitors” was highlighted last month when several US citizens who had been living on Aitutaki for a number of years were told that immigration rule changes meant they could now stay in the country for just three months at a time before having to return to their country of origin and reapply for a visitor permit.
However, Samuela said Immigration did not know who provided that advice to the US citizens, adding that current visitor policy is that visitors in the country already, can request an extension of their visit for up to six months.
“Contrary to the “coconut wireless”, there has been no change to this visitor policy as a result of work to review the immigration legislation and regulations for visitors.”
A document explaining proposed changes to immigration legislation says the Cook Islands should not be the primary place of residence for a visitor, and the proposals for residence, work and study visa and permit types and the special spouse visa should help address the situation, “where the spouses and children of investors or international workers see no clear mechanism for being lawfully in the Cook Islands with their family”.
The proposed regulations also specify that a bona fide visitor cannot work or study while in the Cook Islands.
“This condition of stay will be enforced as the new visa and permit types proposed will provide pathways for workers, for students and interns. There will also be pathways for volunteers working for government or on government-endorsed programmes who receive some gain or reward such as accommodation and/or meals,” the document says.
However, the special status of New Zealand visitors to the Cook Islands will continue to be recognised.
The document says New Zealand visitors will be able to spend a maximum of 12 months in the Cook Islands without departing to another country.
“The proposals for the New Zealand visitor permit effectively carry over a special status for New Zealanders.
“New Zealand has a special relationship with the Cook Islands and New Zealand visitors make up the bulk of visitors. The proposal to enable New Zealanders to travel to the Cook Islands and stay for up to 90 days recognises this. New Zealanders will be able to extend that 90-day stay once, and then also apply for the proposed new Long Term Visitor permit for six months, to reach the 12 month length of a single visit.”
Samuela says the ERD Act does not presently require anyone to hold a visa for travel to the Cook Islands and the proposals for the new visitor visas and permits will not change this.
“This will maintain the status quo that (visitors) effectively apply for a permit using the arrival card at the border,” the document says.
The proposed new regulations could also see the introduction of a new visa and permit type to support non-Cook Islanders who wish to visit the Cook Islands for extended periods of up to six or 12 months.
“During the consultation process, Cook Islands Tourism advised that it was aware of a number of regular visitors who travel to the Cook Islands and then seek to extend their stay to enjoy the outer islands during the peak (non-hurricane) season,” the document says.
“This visa and permit type will enable them to apply for a six month visitor visa, or to extend a New Zealand Visitor or International Visitor permit.”
A new requirement means visitors will have to provide evidence of their good character and health, and have health insurance to cover any health issues that may arise.
Samuela says these requirements are not currently asked of people who stay long term as “visitors”.
The proposed regulation changes follow a lengthy period of consultation and are the result of an extensive review of current immigration rules.
“However, they are not yet in force as there are further steps to be taken in the Immigration Act review. Until that time, the current visitor policy will be applied and people should contact Immigration directly for any advice they need.”