Tourism industry furious over bubble delay

Friday 26 March 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Economy, National

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Tourism industry furious over bubble delay
PHOTO: Prime Minister Mark Brown is welcomed to New Zealand ahead of a meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. PHOTO: RYAN ANDERSON/STUFF

Local tourism stakeholders were left frustrated with yesterday’s May bubble announcement by Prime Minister Mark Brown and NZ counterpart Jacinda Ardern.

Cook Islands will not be welcoming Kiwi travelers until May at the earliest.

That was the main takeaway during a joint press conference between Prime Minister Mark Brown and NZ counterpart Jacinda Ardern yesterday afternoon.

In what is yet another delay in establishing two-way quarantine-free travel between the two countries, officials are now looking at a travel bubble and a potential vaccination programme rollout at a minimum of five weeks from today.

“All I can say is we are ready for business, and looking forward to the commencement in May,” said Brown during the press conference.

But despite the upbeat tone, yesterday’s announcement left members of the business community disillusioned, as all eyes were on the PM to secure a firm date for a travel bubble that many hope will halt the erosion of the nation’s tourism-based economy.

“We are very disappointed,” said Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Eve Hayden.

“We are at a loss to understand why a firm date couldn’t be secured and we would very much like to know at which point we have failed in terms of readiness.”

In December last year, leaders had committed to establishing a bubble by the end of this month.

Since then, a number of issues with regards to Cook Islands’ health preparedness have been identified, including the development of a Covid-19 contact tracing system and establishing mass testing capabilities.

After a string of delays, a new polymerase chain reaction (PCR) lab is expected to be in operation by mid-April with the arrival of equipment this month. And development of an app-based contact tracing system using Bluetooth technology modelled after one used in New Zealand is completed, and will soon be available for download, according to the Chamber.

Those developments did little to secure a new target date for the bubble, however it was announced $20 million in development assistance from New Zealand will now be re-prioritised to help plug a widening budget gap.

An official from the Cook Islands government said the money, which was previously tied to other projects, will now be re-allocated towards general budget support.

Hayden said the $20 million will do little to alleviate the financial hardship felt by the tourism industry. “$20 million is worth 20 days of lost revenue. It’s welcome but it’s not going to mean that businesses will start earning money. And workers still won’t be working.”

Echoing Hayden, Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council president Liana Scott said she found little comfort in Thursday’s announcement. “That is the same rhetoric we heard months ago,” Scott said.

“We are losing our work force, I am surprised businesses whom have held on have made it this far, and now have yet another wait for a possible date in May.

“There are some very tough few months ahead, and some businesses are not likely to make it through, in the meantime the exodus of our able bodied Cook Islanders will continue.”

During the press conference, both leaders also discussed Covid-19 vaccination efforts.

Ardern said NZ remains committed to providing support to all realm countries including the Cook Islands.

According to the Cook Islands government official, vaccinations could begin as early as the beginning of May, however Ardern said vaccination isn’t a pre-condition for the establishment of the bubble.

“The Director-General (Health) says it does provide that extra layer of protection but we don’t see it contingent on two-way travel kicking off and getting underway,” she said during the press conference.

PM Brown recently said the Cooks have asked the New Zealand government to supply Pfizer vaccines for its 17,000 plus citizens.

Despite the funding and vaccination announcements, Private Sector Taskforce chair Fletcher Melvin said the focus remains on opening the country to Kiwi tourists.

“This is not a date only a rough target,” Melvin said. “We have heard NZ say before Christmas, then first quarter of this year, and now May.”

“We have lost 85 per cent of our economy and tourism only accounts for less than 8 per cent of New Zealand’s.

“If NZ lost its primary industry such as farming, then they would understand what we are worried about.”

Comments

Tangiatua Whaireka on 26/03/2021

It’s our nature; mild and complacent. Nonetheless we always accept our fate and make best of situation. Bizarre times.