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Outer islands a tourism focus

Wednesday 13 April 2011 | Published in National

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Cook Islands cuisine needs to be improved and promoted to the world in order to expand annual visitor numbers to the country and provide local jobs, particularly in outer islands, those at yesterday’s national economic development summit were told.

More than 200 people attended the tourism session of the summit, which will conclude today at the National Auditorium.

A panel for the tourism session comprised Tourism Cook Islands (TCI) chief executive Carmel Beattie, TCI director of destination development Metua Vaiimene, tourism board chairman Tata Crocombe, and Air New Zealand Cook Islands manager David Bridge.

Finance minister Mark Brown presided over the session.

A video presentation by TCI highlighted the organisation’s plans to develop the country’s tourism industry in order to grow the local economy.

It included ideas developed in the last 14 weeks during discussion with various stakeholders, to be included within the TCI’s destination development strategy, which targets growth in areas such as cuisine and natural resource attractions and encourages visitors to islands during low or shoulder seasons throughout the year.

TCI is hoping between 150,000 and 200,000 foreigners will visit the Cook Islands each year, extend their average stay, and travel to outer islands more frequently.

Currently the country has about 100,000 visitors annually, most of which stay on Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

One initiative aimed at increasing travel to outer islands is the development of a Cook Islands cuisine brand, which would see traditional crops grown on all islands, harvested locally, prepared according to traditional recipes, and sold to the local market as well as to tourists.

Outer islands economies would benefit from jobs being created in agriculture and food production industries, as would the country as a whole from less reliance on imported food and an additional attraction for visitors able to be marketed globally.

“It’s vital that we are creating education and employment opportunities for Cook Islanders in what is our largest industry,” Beattie said.

Agriculture should be developed in a bio-organic way to increase its sustainability and appeal to international markets, and to benefit the health and wellbeing of local consumers, TCI’s presentation stated.

It would require better storage and refrigeration facilities on outer islands, as well as increased cargo shipping throughout the Cook Islands.

Brown said the government was looking at how much it would cost to provide a weekly shipping service between Rarotonga and outer islands.

“Those considerations will shape the way in how we manage our resources,” he said.

A programme of special events and attractions could also be developed to encourage visitors year-round, which will level the burden on infrastructure and provide a stable income to those in associated industries.

“We are still not completely full during our busy season and in growing numbers our biggest concern is to focus on shoulder and low seasons to make sure those extra numbers we want are spread across the year so there’s low environmental impact overall. Those visitors will be spread across the whole country, not just in Rarotonga and Aitutaki, to ensure all Cook Islands communities benefit from tourism,” Beattie said.

Another plan within the TCI’s destination development strategy is to have the Punanga Nui market in Avarua open six days and nights of the week, and for the Avarua waterfront to be a 24-hour hub of activity.

Further raui could be put in place to enhance the country’s appeal as natural resource destination which has sustainable and healthy maintenance programmes, and in keeping with this walking tracks on all islands could be better developed and mapped for eco-tourists and adventurists.

Aitutaki’s and Manuae’s new bonefishing scheme is a good example of a sustainable tourist attraction making the most of natural resources, those at the summit heard.

An alternative jetty site for large cruise ships will provide a “huge boon” to the tourism industry, as more passengers will be able to come ashore and spend money, the presentation further stated.

In order to implement the TCI’s wish list of development, focus groups need to be established on each island to ensure participation in the wider Cook Islands brand and for island-specific concerns to be addressed.

The Aitutaki airport should be upgraded to be an alternative facility if Rarotonga’s airport is damaged by a cyclone, and accordingly tourism infrastructure on all outer islands such as information centres and public conveniences should be developed, TCI believes.

Atiu could become the third most popular destination in the Cook Islands, behind Rarotonga and Aitutaki, if its cave systems, historic sites, and forests are made accessible to tourists and marketed accordingly.

It is proposed a bird sanctuary and information centre be developed on the island.

The summit heard how Mitiaro residents are planning to develop traditional home-stay style accommodation, and the continued growth in variety of accommodation available to tourists on all islands will help grow annual visitor numbers.

Beattie says tourism growth sustains growth in many other main industries within the country, and TCI will work closely with ministries responsible for agriculture, infrastructure, and the environment “so everything we do they’re part of the solution”.

“It’s about working together to ensure that whatever we do is sustainable and for the good of the Cook Islands. We want to ensure that the environment in which we live is still as beautiful in ten years as it is now and hope it will be even better.”