De we change for tourism?

Thursday July 27, 2017 Published in Letters to the Editor

FOLLOWING on from my recent tourism letter, I would like to bring some thoughts in on the preservation of our culture.


Tourism has embraced and is serious about creating sustainable tourism which means not only the preservation of our environment but also our culture. They take it seriously as we all should because over the past 40 years of my involvement in tourism I have seen many changes happen to different cultures due to the need to satisfy the tourism market due to the money it generates for the country.

In NZ Tourism is the third largest money maker for the country whereas in the Cook Islands it is number one.  Tourism holds a strong bargaining position due to its financial importance to the country. The question we need to keep asking ourselves as ourism grows is “Does the dog wag the tail? or Does the tail wag the dog?” Yes we need tourism but at what cost? Do we dictate the terms to tourism or the other way round? A recent scenario comes to mind of the Aitutaki Sunday flight referendum. The argument for is tourist dollars, to grow the local economy and if they can’t fly Sunday then tourism will decline. The island voted they didn’t want Sunday flights for cultural, religious reasons, andwhoever wins the debate we have to weigh up the costs? Do we trade out ‘The Palace’ for MacDonalds to satisfy tourists? Do we allow speed boats and jet skis in the lagoon for tourist entertainment? It will be the small decisions we make now that will determine how our future looks according to how we want to live and what Tourists want or demand.

Sometimes it can be a good move for us. The desire for more communication from local business and tourists has focused urgency on improving the internet over the years.

At the moment we do not allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays, but if tourists complain enough will we change this law, this way of life? Is the cultural or religious reasoning enough to keep it as it is?  The fact you can buy alcohol if you ask on Sunday’s means, there is support for change. One could argue it is best for the local economy, again at what costs long term?

The reason tourists come to the Cook Islands is because it is not over crowded, does not have built up cities, it is relaxing and clean. In my job I talk to about 600 tourists per week, from all over the world and they don’t want us to change.  They like the slow pace, and relaxed nature of the islands, they like the greenery and the lack of traffic lights. They want to keep us a secret so we don’t fall into the mistakes of progress and end up another Maldives, or Hawaii with big city high rise and all that type of society brings.

With more tourists how do we keep our charm that attracts them here and benefit from increased progress at the same time? I believe the answer is in keeping numbers to small family groups, couples, weddings and family reunions.

As a tour guide in NZ I saw lots of changes with the influx of tourists from Asia. The numbers were staggering and NZ small operators were unable to cope, so a whole new infrastructure emerged almost overnight. The tourists had Asian guides, they visited Asian owned, operated souvenir shops and restaurants serving them Asian food.  Now if you go to Downtown Auckland there are more shops with Asian sign writing than English. This is the only way NZ could cope, and knowing we have a tourism office in mainland China I have to ask what fraction of a percentage of 2 billion people can we hope to cater to here in the Cooks? The Asian market can be a profitable one for us, it is the sheer volume of numbers they present that can tip the balance of what we can sustain, year after year as well as tourists from other countries. I was in Europe when they used to have siestas in the afternoon, this had existed for centuries, but the large influx of American tourists changed that. They were used to everything being open 24/7 and it put pressure on everyone in Europe to change to grab the dollars.

In NZ back in the 80s Americans were demanding ice water, NZ only had tap; bottled water was laughable because NZ had such good tap water, and now….

Islands in the Pacific are feeling the effect of large numbers of tourists on their infrastructure and culture,m they are trying to reduce the numbers, like Palau, by putting up the level of pricing to reduce their number of visitors.  Samoa had a cruise ship visit with 2000 Chinese in one day, and were overwhelmed, Tonga is struggling to cope with its tourism increase, with present infrastructure.

 We are in a position now to determine how much progress we want to trade for our precious cultural wellbeing. We need to be vocal about it before any choice is taken from us.

CI Tourism is presently encouraging us to use the native language in all areas, at all times. If, we identify with Kia Orana and Meitaki on a daily basis we will sow the seeds of keeping our culture alive. NZ Maori and tourism have stamped a strong pride into all kiwis with the saying of ‘Kia Ora’ they carry it as a badge wherever they go.

Everyone working in tourism especially those who are from other countries, must ensure they promote Kia Orana and Meitaki, everyone needs to be involved to keep the Cook Islandsculture alive.

The increase in ei katu’s being worn by locals and tourists is a cultural identity win win, the increase in local tattoo spreads our identity, would it be the same if our tattoo artists offered pictures of fairies sitting on a mushroom? There is room for more cultural practices to be offered and enjoyed by tourists and for local people to benefit financially from.

It is easier to preplan and prepare for our growth in Tourism, which is inevitable as more people become aware of who and where we are.  We are described as Hawaii 70 years ago, but no one wants us to be another Hawaii.

Who we are now is who and what people want to see and experience, all we have to ask ourselves is who are we, who were we, and are our culture and traditions worth preserving or at what price are we prepared to sell them out for the sake of progress or short term individual gains?

            Ruth Horton

1 comment

  • Comment Link Mangavai Taraare Guy Friday, 28 July 2017 12:13 posted by Mangavai Taraare Guy

    Great article Ruth,
    It's simple, our traditional and cultural ways should not change to accommodate tourists, they should fit in to what we have to offer as not very many countries are alike our islands.

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