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Navigating new opportunities for Cook Islands tourism

Saturday 3 December 2022 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Business, Economy, National, Travel

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Navigating new opportunities for Cook Islands tourism
Robert Skews has collected close to 300 model aircraft over the course of his 50-year career including a number of Air Rarotonga models. PHOTO: AL WILLIAMS/22051340

The announcement of direct flights between the Cook Islands and Honolulu and Cook Islands and Sydney has been welcome news for tourism operators wondering what their future held.

Connections are being made with key destinations again. That’s the feeling that many in the Cook Islands tourism industry are having after two major announcements in the space of a day this week.

The first announcement was that the Cook Islands government, in partnership with Hawaiian Airlines, had secured a direct flight between Honolulu and Rarotonga from May 20, 2023. The second was that it had also secured, through Jetstar, direct flights twice a week between Sydney and Rarotonga, starting on June 29, 2023.

Given the recent concerns expressed by many within the industry about the relative lack of flights and people, the news was met with some hope, if not necessarily jubilation.

Castaway Resort owner-operator Paul Ash says the announcements were the first bit of positive news the tourism industry had had in months.

“It’s come at the right time. There are some people in the industry with smiles on their faces for the first time in ages,” Ash says.

“It’s good news for the middle of next year, but there are still some issues over what we face in summer. There are two things that need to happen to ensure the summer period isn’t so dire.

“The first is that Air New Zealand drops the price of their airfares, the second is that the Government comes to the party with some form of assistance to get us through that fallow period.”

As pleased as he was with the return of the direct flights, Ash says “a lot of water needs to go under the bridge before we break out the champagne”.

“With Jetstar offering these flights between Sydney and Rarotonga, you would hope that it might shake Air New Zealand out of their slumber,” says Ash.

The Rarotongan Resort and Lagoonarium managing director Tata Crocombe says in pre-Covid peaks, there were three competing airlines – Virgin, Jetstar and Air New Zealand.

“This week’s announcements have been great, and worth celebrating, but we’re nowhere near what we were at pre-Covid,” Crocombe says.

“Our bread and butter are still New Zealand, but right now, Air New Zealand is in strangulation mode. Also, Jetstar has a challenging relationship with customers.”

Crocombe says the announcement of the Honolulu connection was good news, but even coupled with Air Rarotonga’s recent partnership of Air Tahiti Nui, there still wasn’t the numbers that the direct flight from Los Angeles delivered.

“Let’s celebrate progress, but we’re still way off the pace in terms of airlift,” he says.

Crocombe says recent estimates from the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation were that there was the equivalent of 3500 available rooms that needed filling at any given time in Rarotonga.

“And if we’re honest, the Honolulu flights can only service up to 3 per cent of those at any given time,” he says.

“So, let’s be pleased with the announcement, but also acknowledge that it doesn’t solve the big picture issues with New Zealand.”

Crocombe says in order to be sustainable, most accommodation places needed an occupancy rate of 60 per cent.

“During the low season it’s as low as 20 per cent for some, that’s why you see them go into hibernation,” he says.

“It’s great the new flights are coming, but these ones aren’t arriving until peak season, so it doesn’t really address the challenges of the low season.”

Robert Skews, of Island Hopper, was pleased the Cook Islands “now have some go forward from the loss of the Air New Zealand Sydney and Los Angeles flights”.

“Hawaiian Airlines does not fully replace seats lost on Air New Zealand. However, along with Tahiti flight(s) with Air Rarotonga we now have access from North America and it is up to the industry to fill those flights,” Skews says.   

“I am happy to see the announcement and this will bring the Northern Hemisphere markets back with options.  

“The Cooks can and I believe will attract a good number of tourists on this flight, and I would hope that within 12 months a second service could be considered with numbers growing on this flight. Having three classes of service is also very good.”

Skews says from Sydney, it will have “more seats than we had and two services which will open up the Australian traffic more, and our tourism out of Australia will rise as a consequence as things get going”.

“The aircraft will be all economy, and it would have been nice to get some premiums seats as well but – we will see more Australians here than we have had in the past with frequency of services,” he says.

“Also positive in that we expect a high number of Europeans bookings will occur after the Christmas break and now we have options for them beyond a side trip from New Zealand.”

According to the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, the Hawaiian Airlines plane to Rarotonga contains about 169 seats, compared to the pre-Covid Los Angeles to Rarotonga connection, which had about 312 seats.

Jetstar’s Sydney to Rarotonga flight contains about 232 seats, compared to Air New Zealand’s pre-Covid connection to Sydney of 302 seats.

Cook Islands Tourism Corporation chief executive Karla Eggelton says the announcements were important.

“When it comes to visitor arrivals Australia is second to New Zealand as a key source market. With five times the population of New Zealand, and only six hours away it has the potential to provide significant visitors,” Eggelton says.  

“Of course, economic climate, competing destinations with competitive pricing and closer to home amongst other factors will continue to play in the consideration set of Australian travellers.”

Eggelton says it is still too soon to consider a possible post-Covid Australian customer profile.

“With no real access and connectivity, we would need more time and numbers to make proper assessments,” she says.

“We do know Australians stay longer, spend more and disperse further. Having a mixed portfolio of source markets assists with managing shocks in the market, seasonal imbalances which in turn provides more security to the business sector and the economy.”

Tourism Industry Council president Liana Scott, of Muri Beach Club Hotel feels positive about the coming year, even allowing for the fact that the flights won’t be starting until after the low season.

“I am confident that the introduction of these two markets will have a positive effect by the end of next year and potentially we should see similar numbers to 2019 figures,” Scott says.

“The demand for travel is high, and the Cook Islands is still considered one of the safest tropical destinations in the world with everything within easy reach.”

Scott advises businesses to have photos up to date, keep social media current, ensure inventory live and up to date, sharing links to the airline page for ease of booking. 

“Participating in Roadshows and upcoming campaigns is also hugely beneficial,” Scott says.

“Although this announcement will not affect this low season, it will certainly help with occupancy for the next.”