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Beyond the numbers: How tourism benefits everyday life in the Cook Islands

Saturday 2 March 2024 | Written by Candice Luke | Published in Business, Economy, Features, Go Local, National, Travel, Weekend


Beyond the numbers: How tourism benefits everyday life  in the Cook Islands
The Paul Gauguin cruise ship in Aitutaki earlier this week (Tuesday, February 27, 2024). MIKE HENRY/ 24030148

January saw a record breaking 10,368 visitors arrive on our shores. They’re staying longer, and spending more on average. But what do these facts and figures look like in the daily lives of Cook Islanders? Cook Islands News journalist Candice Luke spoke to locals about how the tourist dollar is affecting them, their families, and their businesses right now.

Sars Touch of Poreho - Punanga Nui Market 

Saro Taia Rasmussen, 32, sells unique adornments made of shell and rito from his ipukarea, Tongareva (Penrhyn). He draws inspiration from across Te Moana Nui a Kiva; Tahiti, Hawaii, Samoa, Rapanui, and the Māori of Aotearoa. 

Sars Touch of Poreho owner Saro Taia Rasmussen is saving up to open his own American style diner. CANDICE LUKE/ 24030150

“People like it. You don’t see this style anywhere else,” says Rasmussen. 

Using skills handed down by his grandmother, Mama Puna, Rasmussen spent much time as a child “making ei for mama’s hats”. He would tag along to trade days at Punanga Nui Market back then, and now he runs his own small business. 

“I wasn’t interested. She just taught me. But now I create my own designs and styles.”

He has loyal local customers, and majority of his customers visiting Rarotonga are Māori from Aotearoa, and other Pacific Islanders. 

New Zealanders make up the majority of visitors with 72 per cent of the market share in 2023.

Rasmussen says he never predicted that his creations would sell as well as they have. “The shells are just sitting in the sea and no one in Raro makes these besides the Penrhyns,” and even they don’t make designs exactly like his. 

Rasmussen smiles as he greets a returning customer, enjoying the banter and providing a positive customer experience, but Sars Touch of Poreho is a stepping stone to something bigger. 

“I’m a qualified chef. This is going to help me save to open my own restaurant.” He dreams of returning to the food and beverage industry with a fresh offering for Rarotonga. 

“Something like Denny’s, where you can sit and have a cup of tea or coffee” in American diner style.

Rasmussen has fond memories of Denny’s eatery in Manukau, Auckland, a popular spot for south Aucklanders. 

Market māmās fresh local produce - Punanga Nui Market 

Teremoana Napa is a staunch supporter of local business, selling produce on behalf of friends and family at Punanga Nui Market. Like a few of the māmās at the market, you’ll find her posted there throughout the week. 

Teremoana Napa is fiercely passionate about Cook Islands produce. CANDICE LUKE/ 24030149

“I’m here for the long run because people depend on me,” says Napa. 

She isn’t the Cook Islands tourism poster māmā who beams from ear to ear in the “Cook Islanders are so friendly” fashion. She’s unapologetic, straight-talking and never shy to share her opinion; but she knows her stuff.

A visit to her produce stand will give you more gems than just your five-a-day of fruits and vegetables, if you don’t muck her around by bartering; a big no-no in the Cook Islands. 

In the year ending June 2023, 54 per cent of our nation’s 143,506 visitors had been here before, an increase from pre-Covid figures. 

Napa says returning customers are gold: “I had a customer who bought $139 worth of product. He came back three times in the 10 days he was here and that’s great.” 

Growing up in agriculture, Napa’s knowledge of local produce was handed down by her parents. The varieties of tropical fruits found here, their look and taste, is worlds away from what some visitors are used to seeing in the big chain grocery stores of New Zealand and Australia. Napa is proud of the fruits of Rarotonga, the fruits of her friends and family. 

A few stalls to the left is Kura, a māmā who has been selling produce for 21 years.

The “staunch Rarotongan” wants young people staying home, or returning from overseas. For this to happen, she says the economy needs to be up, and tourism is a huge piece of that pie. 

“We have everything here, It’s beautiful. Our oceans, lagoons, the swimming, lush forest. Look at our hills! They’re just beautiful,” she gushed. 

“We have a lot to offer, but a lot of the world hasn’t heard of us.” 

Chantal and Athena Napa 

Business acumen runs in many of the Cook Islands families, including the Napa anau. 

Chantal Napa, the founder of Raropass, says tourism is everything for her business; a website that provides a local business directory and discount deals. 

“I don’t want to have to leave. I want to stay here. Tourism helps me to do that,” she says. 

“That isn’t just for me, but every business that is listed.” 

Her teenage daughter Athena sells original paintings and prints at Punanga Nui Market on Saturdays. Chantal has been training her since 2022. 

Tourists gravitate to her because she is so young, running a business, and providing stunning pieces that remind customers of their tropical island getaway.

Visitors make up a whopping 85 per cent of Athena’s art sales.  

Athena has learned the value of every dollar, working at the stall and contributing to the household with her earnings. 

“She sees the numbers going up. She’s learning about the cost of living,” Chantal says of her daughter, who opts to pitch in with household expenses.

Seafood Man - Muri Night Market 

Cook Islands culinary arts is a passion for young chef William Pokino. He holds the fort at his dad’s Muri Night Market stall – Seafood Man.

William Pokino is one of Cook Islands young culinary talents. CANDICE LUKE/ 24030151

Pokino says the tourist dollar is vital for the family business. 

“After doing this I got into cooking and culinary at CITTI (Cook Islands Tertiary and Training Institute). From there I got offered to go to Australia in 2019.” 

Pokino and Ngatupa (Vou) Williams competed in the Global Young Chef competition in Melbourne accompanied by president of the Cook Islands Chefs Association, coach and mentor Karlene Taokia. 

The experience he gained through Seafood Man helped him to stay cool, calm and collected during the competition.

“It was open and people could come up and watch you cook, but I’m used to that. It wasn’t overwhelming.” 

When asked what his cheffing dreams are, Pokino was quick to say with a smile: “We’ve got a permanent spot in Matavera opening this year.” 

Tamanu Beach - Aitutaki 

“When Aitutaki does well, Tamanu Beach does well,” says Michael Henry, director of Tamanu Beach luxury accommodation.

Henry boys out on Aitutaki Lagoon. Tama, Jean-Marie and their dad Tiavare. MIKE HENRY/ 24030146

The high visitor numbers of January meant his 53 staff could work “as many hours as they liked”, a welcome opportunity for the 40 families they support.

“The kitchen staff, the housemaids, everyone that does extra hours gets an immediate benefit.”

Henry says January and February has been a great tuna season, so disposable income on the island has been higher. 

Like Cook Islands Tourism Corporation has said at their Global Business Update in February, Herny, who built most of the resort himself, says it’s time to focus on quality and the value of each visitor. 

“At some point our country needs to say numbers are high enough, now we need to work on our yield, providing good activities, places to eat and accommodations.”

Teking Lagoon Tours and Cruises - Aitutaki 

Teariki George, known as Teking, says: “It helps me to employ our own people and hold them here; not to leave the beauty of Aitutaki.”

White sandy beaches of Aitutaki feature in most Cook Islands Tourism promotions. CIT/ 24030140

When the border closed to keep Covid-19 out of the Cook Islands, Teking and his staff made the most of the break, helping nature to regenerate by cleaning up the islands in the lagoon. 

Now, years on from the pandemic, high tourist numbers mean more people get to experience the magic of Araura, and “better living” for Teking and his staff. 

“It’s expensive here. Fuel, and dry goods in the shop. The cost of living is going up.

“It makes me sad when I see families leaving for overseas.”

He’d like to see Aitutaki reap the benefits of Cook Islands Tourism Corporation’s marketing to the northern hemisphere. 

Teking says the beautiful imagery of white sandy beaches and a crystal-clear lagoon that has long been used to promote the Cook Islands, and namely, Rarotonga, belongs to Aitutaki. 

He says the Cook Islands need to be differentiated for their own unique offerings.

“In Penrhyn island there’s good fishing. Mangaia is a historical site with caves.”

Pa Enua marketing and development and visitor dispersal is part of Cook Islands Tourism strategies outlined in their request for additional financial support of $3.5 million in the next budget. 

Teking reckons television breakfast shows should be invited to film from Aitutaki because “everyone watches the news, the weather, and the breakfast shows”.

Atiu Villas - Atiu 

The aftermath of the Covid-19 shut down is still being felt on Enuamanu (Atiu). Jackey Tanga, general manager of Atiu Villas, hopes a direct route to Aitutaki can be re-established. 

Atiu Villas, formerly known as Atiu Motel. Jackey Tanga, general manager of Atiu Villas, hopes a direct route to Aitutaki can be re-established. CIT/ 24030142

“My main income comes from tourism, and this statement can be said, to be true for most people in the Cook Islands, whether it comes directly to me through wages from Atiu Villas, or indirectly by way of tourists paying tax into our economy or bringing money into our country,” says Tanga. 

Atiu Villas business was steadily climbing before the pandemic.

“The staff was able to work longer hours so they could earn more money. Tour guides received more clients, which increased the money return. Restaurants and shops earned more sales. Also, vegetable farmers also made sales through purchases of their produce from restaurant owners. The exposure of our Atiuan people’s simple but happier lifestyle to our visitors became a part of Atiu’s tourism magic. Our Atiu Villas dividend also increased slowly but surely during these prosperous time in our economy. Our people on the island first received $20 per person in 2012, but then received $36 per person in 2019.”

Everything came to a standstill in March 2020.

Tanga says the government did a great job keeping everyone afloat across the country, but now the lack of accessible flights into Atiu is a dilemma for the island’s tourism economy. 

“Before Covid, we had six flights into Atiu. Three flights from Rarotonga, two flights from Aitutaki and one flight from Atiu to Aitutaki. Thus, allowing more tourists to go straight from Rarotonga to Aitutaki and then to Atiu. Or the reverse, Rarotonga, Atiu then Aitutaki. Tourists enjoyed this route because it allowed them to get straight into the islands without wasting time and sunshine.

“We now currently have three flights in and out of Atiu. Every Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, until there is a need for an extra plane then at the last minute, a flight is added. This does not seem to suit our tourists as they require more certainty before they travel. 

“We have had inquiries from tourists who have travelled and who have yet to travel to Atiu into having a direct flight between Atiu and Aitutaki. Until Air Rarotonga could possibly see into adding direct flights between Aitutaki and Atiu, we see tourist expansion into the outer islands being limited.”

The Edgewater Resort and Spa

General manager Melissa Gosselin says Cook Islanders based overseas and locally have been welcomed to kick off 2024. The extension of the resorts’ domestic staycation programme “continued to be a hit”.

“We are grateful for the support from our iti tangata and due to its popularity, we have extended our Staycation special until Easter weekend,” says Gosselin.

“Our New Zealand market still features prominently with production but at this time of the year, it was a pleasure to host Cook Islanders from overseas returning to spend time with their loved ones and attend major events and celebrations.”

Compared to 2023, January achieved growth in occupancy (+12 per cent), spend and overall length of stay, adds Gosselin.

“We are seeing the traditional softer results for February, so have reflected this in our business operations to respond accordingly. 

“We are looking forward to the flights resuming and being able to transition into high season with a refreshed product and team.

“At this time of the year (low season), it’s a wonderful opportunity to attend to resort renovations and projects, deliver team training programmes and schedule leave. We are seeing some great business on the books and are excited for the year ahead.”