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Pioneering and developing tourism in the Cook Islands

Friday 25 February 2022 | Written by Sian Solomon | Published in Features, Go Local

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Pioneering and developing tourism in the Cook Islands
Des Eggelton accepts the Air New Zealand Lifetime Achievement in Tourism Award back in 2018. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/22022532

After contributing to the tourism industry and wider community for more than 50 years, Christchurch-born Des Eggelton has earned his retirement along with a few beers.

However, the airport designer turned tourism entrepreneur and businessman says he’s not quite ready to give up working just yet.

An engineer turned businessman, hotelier, and benevolent adviser, Eggelton has assisted with “more than a few” projects in the Cook Islands during his lifetime.

His first project was back in 1970, when at the age of 26 he left New Zealand for the Cook Islands, to work on the construction of the Rarotonga International Airport.

As Eggelton explains, he didn’t know much about the Cook Islands at that time, but he was employed by the New Zealand Department of Works to work as part of the design team to help ready the airport for the future of tourism in the islands.

At that time the airport had a 3000-foot strip of coral, a bit like what some of the outer islands have now, and his job was to develop it into an international standard with side and end clearances.

“I didn’t know much about the Cooks (back) then, but I figured if they were spending all that money there must be something there,” said Eggelton.

“So I applied for the job and got that, and was appointed the manager of the design office.”

Des Eggelton’s first project was back in 1970, when at the age of 26 he left New Zealand for the Cook Islands, to work on the construction of the Rarotonga International Airport. Photo by David Wall/Alamy Stock Photo/ 22022533

Eggelton explains that it was during this time that he met his wife Cassey, who he says also shares his interest and knowledge of tourism.

However, it wasn’t until 1980 after the couple had already left Rarotonga, and were living in Christchurch running a motel that they decided to come back to the Cook Islands, to pursue tourism and other business ideas.

Once back on the island, he purchased a four-unit property called Lagoon Lodges, which he eventually developed into a resort and sold after running it for 26 years.

By that point, Eggelton says he was already indistinguishably involved with the country’s tourism industry, forming the first-ever tourism marketing/reservations group in the Cook Islands.

Shortly after, he fostered the start-up of package holidays to the Cook Islands ex-North America, and with others, created the Accommodation Council, becoming its first chairman.

“There have been some good times especially when we did the roadshow,” reflects Eggelton.

“We did a lot of travelling as a Cook Islands team, and so a lot of that travelling, particularly the dance teams was particularly enjoyable.

“(And) it was rewarding in the sense that we were promoting the country and receiving a good response, in terms of business coming and growing the tourism market.

“So that was always good.”

Des Eggelton with wife Cassey, middle and daughter Liana. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/22022531

Eggelton explains that getting involved in tourism was probably a blessing for the couple.

He adds that during the 90's one of his many achievements would have to be as president of the Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce for four years.

Serving on the steering committee of the Accreditation of Tourism Businesses for eight years, and being appointed by the Prime Minister To the ‘Tourism Steering Group’ which focuses on providing long term direction for the future of tourism in the country is also at the top of his list.

However, he adds that winning the 2018 prestigious Air New Zealand ‘Lifetime Achievement in Tourism Award’ is the ultimate highlight topping all others.

“The highlight for me has to be winning the Air New Zealand lifetime award of 2018,” Eggelton says.

“I was really honoured to receive it and would say that was a particularly special moment and highlight.

“And with that award, you don’t just receive it as an individual as it’s not just about one person, because you’ve received assistance from others.

“Cassey has also helped and worked particularly hard.”

Des Eggelton with his daughter Karla, who is the acting chief executive officer of Cook Islands Tourism. Cook Islands Sun Publications/22022534

Eggelton shares that it has not just been tourism that has kept him occupied here. He says that apart from tourism his engineering side “has blossomed a little bit”.

He explains that over the past 20 years he has been using his design and project management skills to assist in the construction of accommodation properties and homes in both Rarotonga and Aitutaki, including the Little Polynesian Resort and Are Tamanu accommodation.

He adds that now he also enjoys helping people around the property scene, with evaluations, rental reviews, and land court lawyers which he has been doing for more than 10 years.

Eggelton reveals he has always liked supporting communities, businesses and organisations wherever he can, to help strengthen tourism in the Cook Islands.

Nevertheless, he says he would prefer not to be doing too much, saying it would be nice to sit down and enjoy a beer every once in a while.

However, Eggelton shares that when it comes to working, he doesn’t advertise himself, but that most of his work comes through referrals, and has been that way for around the past 10 years.

“I don’t want to do nothing, but I don’t want to be doing too much,” he says.

“Slowing down, well, yeah. I would like to. But I’m not going to do certain things that I’ve decided I’m not going to do. So I will pull out of some things.

“There’s a whole lot of things day to day that you do now that you didn’t use to do before because of Covid-19, and I don’t mind some of that.

“But, well, sometimes I would really like to sit down and enjoy a beer a bit more often.”