Another intake of Cook Islanders bound for the freezing works. Photo: Sel Napa/21021957
Close to 1000 people, mostly Cook Islanders, have left the country since the one-way travel bubble opened, sparking fears of another exodus of labour overseas.
Brittany Miles is flying to New Zealand next
Saturday and doesn’t know when she’ll come back, she’s one of many Cook Islands
resident leaving in search of better opportunities.
Close to 1000 people have left the Cook
Islands since the first flight departed Rarotonga on January 20, as part of New
Zealand and the Cook Islands one-way travel bubble.
In return, only 290 people have taken up the
offer to fly to the Cook Islands.
An average flight to New Zealand has carried
103 passengers compared with an average of only 48 people flying into
Rarotonga. This is taking into account the three flights that arrived here
without passengers, in light of Covid-19 community cases in New Zealand.
If these people do not return, the Cook
Islands will be roughly four per cent smaller than before the bubble opened.
The trend is the opposite of what the
Government expected. Prime Minister Mark Brown thought Cook Islanders returning
home would outweigh the number leaving.
Prime Minister Mark Brown.
On January 18, Brown said, “I don’t expect a
great exodus of Cook Islanders once one-way quarantine is open. In fact, I
expect the opposite to happen with more people coming here with the knowledge
that if they do choose to go back to New Zealand, they don’t have to go into
According to Kairangi Samuela, the principal
immigration officer, some departing passengers are returning university
students accompanied by families. Others are returning for medical check-ups or
are New Zealand pension holders.
But some, like Miles, are leaving and do not
know when they will return.
Until last week, she was working in the
tourism industry for Pacific Resort Hotel Group in operations. She thinks
tourism could bounce back slowly, so she’s going to New Zealand to look for new
“It’s just a personal feeling,” she says.
“Everyone is doing it rough at the moment so will people want to travel?”
Instead, Miles and her child will try to make
better use of their time. She will use the opportunity to upskill by studying
journalism and editing at the New Zealand Institute of Business Studies.
However, she says her main reason for going to
New Zealand is not for study, but just to see what opportunities are available
in the country.
Miles has family in Rarotonga so doesn’t
expect to be gone forever, but she doesn’t know when she will come back.
The Pacific island fruit pickers, including Cook Islanders, are heading to New Zealand to cater for labour shortage there. Photo / Warren Buckland (NZ Herald)/21021956
According to Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce
president, Fletcher Melvin, people leaving the country for better opportunities
is an ongoing issue. “It’s always been the case. People leaving the country and
not coming back.”
From 1996 to 2016 the Cook Islands saw over
19,000 residents leaving the country, a number more than the current population
But government statistician Taggy Tangimetua
says taking the accumulated excess of -19,946 from 1996 to 2016 to mean that
19,000 left the country “is misleading”.
“You have to take the population into
consideration. So, say if you take the 2016 year net of -1171 and given the
resident population (mid-year) is 15000, the rate of migration would be 78,
meaning for every 1000 people in this country at the beginning of the 2016, 78
will have moved out by the end of the year. Don’t forget you are counting the
movement of people crossing the border (a person could have travelled multiple
times during the period).”
In the past decade, Cook Islands population
had to be bolstered by people from overseas taking up jobs here, mostly in the
tourism sector. It’s only been in the past five years that more Cook Islands
residents have chosen to settle at home than leave.
Taskforce chairman Fletcher Melvin.
Fletcher Melvin, like many others, does not
want to slip back into losing the population overseas.
And he is fearing the worst if a two-way
travel bubble cannot be established.
“Without the money injected from tourism, people
will be forced to look for work outside of the Cook Islands.
“It’s all about just how long businesses will
Despite Cook Islanders leaving to work in
fruit picking or freezing works temporarily, Melvin says many permanent Cook
Islanders living in New Zealand would have left with that same thought in mind.
He says temporary jobs often turn into
permanent jobs and people decide to stay put.
Melvin is concerned if more people leave, the
country will suffer from a labour shortage.
Liana Scott, the president of Cook Islands
Tourism Industry Council, says the exodus is a major concern.
Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council president Liana Scott. 20082834
Scott, who is also the general manager of Muri
Beach Club Hotel, says those leaving are young able-bodied people, who play
important roles as labourers, or as fill-in staff for the tourism industry.
“If there is no definite open date, and
families are struggling to pay off debt or survive, then they have no choice
but to seek other opportunities.”
She says there are plenty of work
opportunities with attractive incentives.
Scott says orchards and freezing works are
screaming for help, with accommodation and meals often provided as part of the
“Our worry is that these young people do not
return after their placement.”
She says businesses downsizing from
depopulation or staff being stretched in working roles is also a very real
Scott is also concerned that once the travel
bubble opens, accommodation providers will not be able to keep up with demand
because they won’t be able to find staff to fill needed positions.
Restrictions placed on non-New Zealand
passport holders also make it difficult to fill positions, she adds.
Adding to the labour shortages associated with
depopulation, Fletcher Melvin says Cook Islanders “don’t have a big remittance
This means it’s unlikely the country will be
injected with cash from those working in orchard or freezing works.
Melvin says remittance culture is much bigger
in other Pacific nations but for Cook Islanders, “it’s just as easy for family
members to live in New Zealand as for money to be sent back home”.
Leader of the Opposition, Tina Pupuke Browne
says while she understands why young people are going to New Zealand to work,
she hopes they will return to the Cook Islands after completing their contract.
Democratic Party Leader Tina Browne.
“The worry of course is that our young people
will leave in droves, already a good number have left with more intending to
leave and we repeat the sad experience of 1996. We lost 6,000 of our people and
our population has never recovered.”
Browne says there’s a lot of talk about being
creative, utilising technology and diversifying away from tourism and she
believes government agencies like the Business Trade and Investment Board
should be doing more to push for better technology.
“What happened to the ‘…superhighway for Cook
Islands to world’s largest internet hub.’
“I know of young people who are trying to
forge ahead in their respective businesses and are heavy users of the internet,
but prices are still amongst the highest in the Pacific region.”