Imagine someone who has dreamed of white sand beaches and waving palms, has saved for months, even years, to take a break from gray wintry skies and frigid temperatures. After many hours on a cramped airplane, they arrive tired yet full of hope to the place known as the paradise of the South Pacific.
A tourism forum was held recently to reflect on what Cook Islanders can do to make those dreams a reality. One of the questions asked was “What is unique about the Cook Islands?” Simply put, I would describe it as “the Kia Orana spirit”, someone wishing you a long life with a heartfelt welcome. You are part of the family now. One tour driver says with great sincerity “Welcome home!”
Visitors’ first experience at the Rarotonga airport is the long line for customs and immigration. A colorful display of information brochures keeps them occupied. Then they stand before an immigration official, their first greeter. A flower behind the ear, a warm smile to go with the passport stamp tells them they are welcome here. Such a small thing, but one notices if it is present or not. They then enter the luggage area, and hear the vibrant voice and ukulele of Jake Numanga. His colorful ei hat is a joyful symbol for returning visitors that they are indeed in the right place.
Several virtues stand out in the minds of visitors: Beauty, Cleanliness, Friendliness, Service and Trust. I asked some visitors who had a sad dreamy look waiting to depart from Aitutaki, “What did you enjoy most?” “It’s beautiful, safe, clean and friendly,” they said, “and we’ll be back for sure.” First and foremost is the stunning beauty of aqua lagoons, crystal clear waters, the green mountains of Rarotonga, the white beaches fringed with waving palms, the crimson sunsets. The flowers and pereus people wear and the fresh, fragrant welcoming eis at the airport are part of the first impression of the luxuriant beauty to be found here. Our islands are also known for the lilting, sometimes thunderous voices lifted in song at Sunday services.
The overall impression is of cleanliness yet there is much still to be done to sustain it. Most people have a high standard of cleanliness, mowing lawns and raking rubbish continually. We are also blessed by a recycling programme. We need to use it and teach our children to do so as well. At a rugby game, dozens of plastic candy and icy containers were being thrown on the ground. One youth threw a styrofoam takeaway box on the field. When I stared and pointed, he came down from the bleachers and put it in the rubbish bin. I thanked him then for his helpfulness.
Cook Islanders are known for friendly and loving attention. Something all locals can offer is a wave, a smile and “Kia Orana”. Visitors love it and like to say it back. “Kia Orana is a unique first gesture of friendship,” says Teva R. Simiona, owner of a café at the Aitutaki airport. Visitors enjoy learning a bit of the language and, in my opinion, much prefer this to “Hi” or “Good morning.” They come for the exotic, not the ordinary. Cheerful service varies and it would be wonderful if we could raise the bar in every eatery, shop and accommodation. A simple, “How can I help?” adds to the spirit of welcome. People often remark on the sweetness and simplicity here, and many hope it will not become overly commercialised with too much development. I’ve heard, “It’s like Hawaii seventy years ago.” And that’s a good thing! As for safety, we cannot afford for that to become a thing of the past. Visitors need to trust that they and their belongings are safe. We have so many blessings in this paradise we call home. We need to do our part to share it with love and grace. That gift will be returned a thousand fold.