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OPINION: Removing barriers to tourism

Saturday 9 July 2022 | Written by Dr. John Dunn | Published in Opinion

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OPINION: Removing barriers to tourism
Inflation bites as the cost of living rises. PHOTO: CITC SUPERMARKET

Cook Islands is not a cheap destination and nor should it be. I believe in low-volume/high-value tourism which is easier on infrastructure and environment.

However that does not just mean high prices. The value must be there, and a big part of that is service. This is often sadly lacking.

It’s dangerous to generalise but Cook Islanders are generally polite, smiling, engaging and helpful. Until they’re not. It’s always disappointing to encounter someone surly, dismissive, lazy or unreliable. Unfortunately that happens here.

It’s not sufficient to laugh and say “oh that’s just island time!” That’s patronising and not listening to your client who may not want to be on island time when they are hungry, need the room serviced or have to be somewhere (like the airport). Their holiday time is hard earned and precious and we should be grateful they have chosen to spend it here. It’s more our privilege than theirs.

I sometimes feel the country rests on its laurels. The place is so beautiful it sells itself and you don’t have to work too hard to clip the ticket. There may be a rude awakening when the world finally reopens for business and a travel-starved customer base will stretch its legs and look over the horizon.

For the people we want to attract, the big spenders, we have to compete in the world of warm holidays with the sophistication of Hawaii, the exotic locale of much of Asia, the great service of Queensland, the historical lure of the Mediterranean, the exciting difference of the Caribbean. Locally Tahiti offers Frenchness, Fiji good prices and Vanuatu something unique.

We offer points of difference which, for Kiwis, are actually points of similarity. Short flight, NZ currency, little time difference, English language, good coffee. A lot of Kiwi service is pretty ordinary so we can truly lift that game though. A major problem is trained and willing workers. The huge contribution made by our fabulous immigrant workforce needs to be recognised and encouraged.

Too often we hear stories of what amounts to discrimination against them. One friend, a key professional contributing hugely to Cook Islands society, had a non-injury drink-drive conviction five years ago for which he was punished. Story over you would think. However every time he re-enters the country, he is threatened at immigration with deportation with a less than subtle racist overtone. That has to stop.

Things can and have changed for the better. So it’s possible. It used to be you had to have on hand enough cash to pay the departure tax at the airport. Finally they accepted cards and finally added it to your ticket. That only took about 10 years. Your lasting memory of Rarotonga was a particularly unpleasant woman who was evidently hired for her scowl as she stamped your passport. Most customs and immigration staff are now pleasant but the odd “barker” remains. And customs still don’t accept cards for duty payments! Nor do they carry change. Unbelievable.

The absurd Cook Islands drivers licence requirement finally got scrapped. This was a thinly veiled tourist tax designed to interrupt your holiday and annoy, which it did. There was never anything cute or quaint about it.

Looking beyond small businesses, some of the bigger players can provide poor service. The airlines essentially have a stranglehold on all island economies. And they know it. It suits them to only fly highly profitable full planes, so limited schedules and random cancellations are employed ruthlessly. The premium lounge in Rarotonga was originally a cupboard like space. However the new lounge was like the Auckland Harbour Bridge: predictably far too small as soon as it was opened. Poor service.

Travel wholesalers are far from blameless. Most operators (except me, perhaps foolishly) are too scared to criticise them. However most demand a commission of 25 per cent which in my view is outrageous and not widely appreciated by tourists. I don’t want to work every fourth night for a wholesaler. They may mutate themselves out of existence as more friendly strains like online agents and direct marketing take hold in the new world order. Poor service ultimately does not get rewarded.

Monopolies harm the economy and tourism. The exorbitant cost of a predeparture PCR test in NZ was a barrier, now thankfully despatched. The indefensible cost and poor quality of local internet is holding back the economy. It’s a frustration for tourists, many of whom do some work on holiday, and prevents many businesses establishing here. We could be a tech hub if we had the tech. Increase speeds and decrease prices. Now.

There is wonderful service on Rarotonga and Aitutaki but sometimes you need to look for it. Those providers doing it well should be recognised and rewarded and encouraged to share their knowledge and skills with formalised training schemes, perhaps internships. We are in this together and there exists a generous and helpful spirit in the industry which could be exploited.

Better service would then remove a further barrier to tourism.

  • Dr John Dunn FRACS is a Cook Islander, visiting surgeon to Rarotonga Hospital and business owner in the Cook Islands