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Tourism industry says what it wants

Wednesday 1 April 2009 | Published in National

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Monday 30: Aitutaki operators call for more government backing

Tourism minister Wilkie Rasmussen took the time to meet with tourism industry members while in Aitutaki on Friday.

In what was the most unemotional meeting of four held by the minister last week to discuss Sunday flights, about 30 members of the tourism industry including members of its council attended the meeting held at the fishing club.

Rasmussen told them that he is hoping to lobby government, with their support, to provide an extra $1 million to promote the island as a destination over the next two years.

“In some cases the tourism corporation tends not to look at Aitutaki in the much more focused way it looks at Rarotonga.”

Rasmussen says he wants that to change and for the outer islands to be promoted more.

“Tourism is of course the mainstay of the economy. It is very clear that the islands of Aitutaki and Rarotonga need to be fostered. Aitutaki is a private sector driven economy. It is not just government – government does not rely on itself to generate revenue, but it relies on the private sector.”

Rasmussen told them that things are looking up despite the recession.

“Any responsible government has to take some responsible action to buffer its key areas where it gets its revenue from. Aitutaki is one of the key areas,” he said.

“I’m here to ask that the tourism industry supports my efforts in trying to push for more funding for Aitutaki.”

Rasmussen explained that it is not easy to get funding requests approved, especially at times when cabinet has numerous requests on the table.

“You have to fight hard to get certain things. Aitutaki needs that injection of funds and needs that sort of propping up.”

The minister quipped that during parliament a week ago finance minister Sir Terepai Maoate had made some quiet comments in his ear about the $3 million stimulus package for small businesses going to tourism at the same time they were ‘trying to find a way to fend off Norman George’.

Rasmussen said no one had approached the Bank of the Cook Islands about assistance under the package. He was quickly corrected by those who said they had already asked about it. Although Sir Terepai announced the package in February, it has not been open to applications as officials were still reportedly finalising the criteria for it.

“It is the terms and conditions of how and who qualifies for it – that’s where the debate is. There is now a view that it is not a feasible way of using the funds,” explained the minister.

Rasmussen has encouraged the Aitutaki tourism industry to put a proposal in writing to government for extra funding and how it can be used to promote the industry.

“You have to speak up sometimes for us in government to hear your voice. You need to make a case to me and you need to make a case to government.”

Rasmussen said he will then make a bid for the funding saying at least $1 million ought to go to Aitutaki from the $3 million fund government has not used. The minister says his suggestion is for a recession measure.

Industry council chair Mike Henry said the industry will aim to submit a proposal by this week.

The minister said although he is reaching out in an unorthodox way by asking the industry to lobby for what it needs, it has to be done.

INDUSTRY IDEAS

AND CONCERNS

The industry members told Rasmussen they have plenty of ideas how an extra $1 million can be used to benefit tourism for the island.

Accommodation owner Paula Maoate told the minister that Aitutaki hopes to grow the sport of outrigger canoeing on the island and host similar events to Rarotonga’s Vaka Eiva there.

She said with many of the nation’s tourism-drawing events taking place in Rarotonga, there needs to be some focus on creating new events for Aitutaki.

Maoate said that if there are more events then everyone will be able to benefit from accommodating tourists at their properties.

Smaller accommodation operators like Des Clarke and his wife Manarangi Tutai Ariki who run Gina’s Garden Lodges have raised concern that they are missing out on the tourist dollar.

They say that the small operators are unfairly losing potential visitors to the bigger hotels and resorts. Part of this is because of marketing issues.

Some of these operators feel that there are now too many accommodation properties and too many beds available in the face of shrinking visitor numbers.

They hope government can find a way for them to compete better with the larger operators.

Manarangi Ariki said she hasn’t gone broke yet and refuses to let anyone tell her she is not managing her property well.

“Tourism on this island was founded by the small operators you can see here,” she said.

Clarke also raised the contentious issue of net fishing in the lagoon and its negative impact on potential tourism boosting initiatives like fly fishing.

Aitutaki MP and industry member Teina Bishop says there is a 1990 by-law against the kind of net fishing that is causing problems on the island. All that needs to be done is for government to approve an updated one that will be properly enforced.

Nga Tom, a guesthouse owner, said he hopes that competition for Air Rarotonga will improve the industry.

“We need competition for Air Rarotonga. We know of one company – Kia Orana Air. That’s the way we’ll get some tourists to our destination,” he said.

Tom asked why Kia Orana Air has not started operating yet. Rasmussen assured him that government has assisted as much as it can in accommodating the introduction of the new airline which could launch in May.

Rasmussen said he believed the new airline would probably charge $700 one way to the northern group islands – a huge difference when compared to Air Rarotonga’s fare of $2000 for the same. The minister said Kia Orana Air’s aim was to make up its income from air freight services while providing low cost airfares.

Rasmussen told those at the meeting he hopes they will come up with more proposals for new initiatives to help boost tourism in Aitutaki. - HG