Around 120,000 weary, sun-seeking tourists flocked to these shores last year seeking the perfect island holiday. The vast majority of them found it. A recent international visitor survey found 93 per cent of people want to return to the Cook Islands and 98 per cent would recommend the Cook Islands to friends or family.
“Perfect match with the postcards – beautiful beach, great accommodation,” said one visitor in the survey. “The lagoon at Aitutaki with its azure waters and uninhabited islands was surreal. Such untouched beauty,” said another.
Metua Vaiimene, director of destination development for the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, opened this week’s Tourism Stakeholders Forum by presenting the survey findings. Participants spent the next two days chewing over the findings during a series of panel discussions and workshops. “We hope to stir up the issues a bit that need to be fleshed out,” Vaaimene said on Wednesday morning.
One hot topic was the environment. Nearly half of the 1178 people involved in the July to September survey said the most appealing element of the Cook Islands experience is its unspoilt environment. Most comments focused on the beauty and cleanliness of beaches and lagoons, the beautiful views and scenery, good climate, and the warm and clean water. Several respondents also noted the good health of the friendly free-roaming dogs and chickens.
“I had visited in the late 1970s and was quite appalled at the state of many of the animals in Rarotonga - so was thrilled to see such a mostly happy, healthy and de-sexed bunch of animals,” one person said.
Nevertheless, many at this week’s forum expressed fears that the environment – in Rarotonga at least – is under threat. Noel Bartley, Tourism Industry Council representative, complained that some tourist hot-spots are being left strewn with rubbish. “The condition of some of these sites is abysmal. The problem needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed now.” Others made strong comments about the “shocking” state of Wigmore’s Waterfall, pollution in parts of the lagoon and the destruction of native trees.
These issues are being raised by tourists as well. About eight per cent of those surveyed mentioned rubbish and a lack of care of the natural environment as unappealing factors. Glass on the beach, burning of rubbish and rubbish lying around were often commented upon. The poor condition of the lagoons and beaches, degrading coral reefs and threatened marine life also concerned a small group of visitors.
“Where are all of the fish? Looks like hardly any of them there and lagoon in recovery mode, was disappointed with the fish life. Also I found it a bit irritating when out walking to be enveloped in a cloud of smoke - there seemed to always be someone burning rubbish at some point during the day,” one person said.
This week’s forum aimed to find ways of building on the positives and fixing the negatives. In terms of positives, there are many. Aside from the environment, visitors consistently praise the Cook Islands for its friendly people, fascinating lifestyle and culture, laid-back atmosphere, and remoteness.
However, much of the focus at the tourism forum ended up veering towards the negatives. The best-attended panel discussion was on Wednesday morning, when about 80 people filled the Assembly of God Church in Takuvaine to talk about the country’s least appealing features. Although tourism spending makes up 60 per cent of the economy, many present were clearly worried about creeping threats.
Not surprisingly, Rarotonga’s perceived dog problem was high on the agenda. An Austrian tourist was attacked by three dogs near Edgewater Resort just days before the forum. He sustained severe bites to his leg and was taken to hospital.
Police Commissioner Maara Tetava, Esther Honey practice manager Amy Compton and SPCA president Sharon Reichardt shared their opinions on the matter. Compton and Reichardt both urged dog owners to get their animals de-sexed. “Shooting the dogs is not the solution. The solution is we need to increase the number of dogs being de-sexed. We can’t be gun-happy,” Reichardt said.
Tetava was candid about the police’s role. “We’re not quite sure how we got to be handling dogs but the law says it rests with police.” He said police have been trying to manage the issue but none of his staff are specifically trained to handle dogs. “I don’t think the police have been successful. Perhaps what we need to do is look at the whole dog issue and come up with a new solution.” He said he plans to revive the dog control committee – which ceased to exist several years ago – comprising representatives of police, Ministry of Agriculture, SPCA, Chamber of Commerce and Koutu Nui.
Others attending Wednesday’s Tourism Stakeholders Forum suggested people should have to pay for a licence to become dog owners, rather than paying to register dogs themselves.
With emotion in her voice, SPCA member Elma McBirney stood and told the crowd that the bigger problem is the people who own dogs. “I really want police to put a law down that owners have to pay (fines) for the dogs that are not de-sexed. Let the owners be responsible for these animals,” she said.
Another perceived threat to tourism is the level of crime in Rarotonga. Kristina Tatam, general manager of Island Car and Bike Hire, said she feels embarrassed every time a tourist comes to tell her someone has broken into their rental vehicle. She said the problem goes back to families and to changes in the community structure. “Elders used to sort this stuff out, They didn’t expect police to do it. It became a shame thing. Everyone knew about it because it was addressed as a community.”
Tetava also spoke on the matter. “I do accept there are a lot of burglaries and thefts going on in Rarotonga at the moment.” He complained that police are arresting offenders and putting them in front of a judge, only for the person to be released on bail to commit another crime the next day. Stronger penalties would help address the problem, he said. Another answer would be running more youth leadership programmes on the island.
There was also strong debate about the standard of customer service, which is a major gripe for tourists. One survey respondent said: “A significant number of staff in the resort seemed bored with their work and tired of dealing with the guests – and repeated use of the term “island time” to excuse sloppy service.”
Gerard Kaczmarek, owner of Cafe Salsa, warned about the need for retail and hospitality workers to deliver excellent service. “If someone goes away with a bad experience they remember it. If something is good you tell your friends; if something is bad you tell everyone.” He suggested more training and awareness is needed in the sector.
Driver’s licences were also a hot topic. One visitor said in the survey that having to get a driver’s licence each time they visit is a significant annoyance. “It is clearly just a revenue gathering exercise, and very few countries require this. Tourists to NZ do not have to pay for a licence each time.”
Tetava announced that Cabinet has approved for driver’s licence holders from some overseas countries to be authorised to drive in the Cook Islands. He also said police will be buying new equipment to speed up the licensing process. These announcements were greeted by a huge round of applause from the audience.
Growing tourism in the outer islands, improving national infrastructure, preserving the culture and improving the standard of accommodation and transport were other key subjects during the two-day forum.
For all the passionate discussion and debate, it remains to be seen whether any actual progress will come from the event. One member of the industry described the forum as a “talk-fest”. Another wondered why so little attention was given to the things that are going well. People seemed intent to wallow in the negatives, he said.
The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation certainly indicated it wanted tangible solutions to emerge from the event. It wants to keep growing the industry and wants as many Cook Islanders on board to achieve that vision. Numerous workshops were held to develop plans to tackle the key issues. Only time will tell whether this was a “talk-fest” or whether it leads to real growth in the Cook Islands tourism industry.