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Forum brings economic boom to Aitutaki

Saturday 11 November 2023 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in 52nd Pacific Islands Forum 2023, Features, National, Outer Islands, Weekend


Forum brings economic boom to Aitutaki
Members of the Aitutaki vainetini sewed tivaivai that were gifted to Pacific Islands Forum Leaders. Jane Tuaiti – Tautu (back); Front left: Teremoana Messine – Tautu, Tapita Teiotu - Vainetini, Koimataariki Bishop. MELINA ETCHES/23111073

The stunning island of Aitutaki co-hosted the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting for the second time, their first being in 2012, welcoming regional leaders this week for their retreat in the island’s picturesque lagoon.

People on the island got into the swing of things helping out with the preparations, the women sewing, culture teams rehearsing and families preparing their food for the welcoming ceremony at Orongo Park on Wednesday.

Cook Islands News spoke to local businesses and the tivaivai vainetini about their Forum experience.

Women in Aitutaki put their hearts and souls into sewing tivaivai, an expression of their creativity, heritage and community spirit.

At the welcoming ceremony, the custom of presenting tivaivai took centre stage at Orongo Park.

Aitutaki vainetini proudly gift tivaivai to the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders at Orongo Park, Aitutaki. MELINA ETCHES/23111060

Women from the eight villages across Aitutaki crafted 19 tivaivai, reflecting the cultural heritage of the Cook Islands, as gifts for the Forum Leaders on behalf of the Cook Islands government.

These were presented to each Leader or representative of the 18 Forum members countries, as well as to the Forum secretary general, Henry Puna, the former Cook Islands prime minister.

Tapita Teiotu, an expert seamstress and tivaivai tutor, was responsible for cutting the pattern designs for the tivaivai.

“Women from all our villages in their halls worked together to sew, everyone pitched in to help and together we got them all done in two weeks as a team… yes, in just two weeks,” shares Teiotu.

“The beauty of this is that the women involved really did well, which is why it got completed in time, since Rarotonga had asked us to do it pretty late.”

Initially the women wanted to design their own pattern – a map of Aitutaki and their 15 motu representing all the islands of the Cook Islands.
However, their grand design was rejected by Rarotonga as they felt the pattern did not represent all of the Cook Islands, Teiotu explains.

“So, Rarotonga sent us the designs they wanted and we cut it and sewed it, they provided the material and the cotton, and we all did a great job.”

There are three constituencies on Aitutaki: Au, Arenikau and Vaitau. Designs of plants and trees representing these districts were selected for the tivaivai designs.

Teiotu suggests that Rarotonga organisers may have overlooked the inclusion of Cook Islands Prime Minister in the planning process.

“And because they didn’t include him in the list, ‘put that in writing’, we made an extra tivaivai for him.

“We decided, we’re going to gift one for our son, our own Prime Minister of the Cook Islands.

“We designed and sewed him a special one with 15 stars.

“So, we were happy that day.”

Representatives of the vainetini from each village were also invited to join the spouses of Leaders for a day out on the lagoon and lead the string band for entertainment.

“I think it is good that part of the Forum is here, for our people to see these Leaders and for us to benefit too from their visit.”

Tearoa Ngatokoa from the Vaipae Vainetini participated in the hosting of the PIFLM52 for the first time, joining the vainetini string band on the lagoon.  

“Mataora tikae au, I’m happy I went along, it was good for me to experience it and to see who these high people are from overseas.

“Mako ta matou string band, manga imene Viti e te PNG, mataora te au tangata i runga i to matou poti, our mama’s singing away on the boat.”

Leah George, an employee at Aquila’s Rentals and Store in Amuri, explains that the business had already been experiencing a surge in tourism, including wedding and special events, prior to the Forum. The store was well-stocked, eliminating the need for additional freight specifically for the Forum.

“We have a bakery which is the first to open at 6am, so we are always busy for bread,” says George.

Aquila’s experienced a significant increase in demand from individuals arriving to work for the Forum, including police officers. The store also catered to locals by providing additional catering supplies, such as foil trays, to facilitate meal preparation for special events.

Katrina Armstrong (back left), owner of the popular Koru Café in Aitutaki and staff after a busy day during the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting. MELINA ETCHES/23111055

“We keep the fridge stocked with bottles of water and sold a whole lot more and cold drinks, and the takeaway is busy,” says George.

“Although I don’t know anything about the Forum, coming here is good for our island so people can also benefit and earn more.

“The highlight for me was the Samoans next door, Samantha (Taala Ramea) and Isabella (Ramea) decorate the Sunny Beach Bungalows roadside with the Samoa flags and their banner.”

Katrina Armstrong, the owner and manager of the popular Koru Café at Ootu, has been running her establishment for 16 years.

The Koru Café served participants attending the 2023 Forum, including members of the media who practically camped out at her café, drawn to the delicious food, refreshing breeze, and reliable internet connection

“We did well during the Forum in 2012 as well, we had all the New Zealand media and radio stations here, but the internet connection was terrible back then, but those guys were amazing.

“Things have advanced a lot for all of us now in technology.”

Armstrong says that her stock levels were already sufficient, and she did not need to bring in any additional supplies.

“We’ve had such a good season this year, all of our stock levels are right up.

“We are quite sustainable here as well in that we have our own organic egg farm and organic plantation so it’s quite good.

“There’s not much other than the dry stock like flour for our bakery that we are having to import.”

Armstrong is pleased to see that the Forum was partly held in Aitutaki, particularly as it has allowed the benefits to be spread more widely among the people.

“It’s amazing, we are really lucky here in Aitutaki in that the majority of our businesses here all locally owned, and because we are such a small community, we all get touched, we all enjoy being a part of it.

“Meitaki atupuka to everybody for including Aitutaki as part of the Forum and being able to host them here is an amazing opportunity for everybody, not just for the businesses but for all of our families.”


Arthur Neale on 12/11/2023

1985 Forum leaders retreat was held in Aitutaki for the first time and it has become a feature every time the Cook Islands has hosted the Forum.