Buying freedom: How tourism dollars help those with special needs

Saturday June 20, 2020 Written by Published in Weekend
Margaret Makakea shows off one the bracelets she made at the Creative Centre. 20061903 Margaret Makakea shows off one the bracelets she made at the Creative Centre. 20061903

It’s not just the resorts and restaurants that are hard-hit by the border closures; adults with special needs are struggling to support themselves.

Margaret Makakea gets this glow on her face when she talks about her future plans.

Makakea is a member of the Creative Centre, which provides special needs support service for adults with disability on Rarotonga.

The 34-year-old makes pareu and jewelleries which the Centre sells at its Punanga Nui Market hut.

Creative Centre staff Mele Mataiti, left, Caroline Tixier and Danny Tixier at the Creative Centre Hut at Punanga Nui Market. 20061905

“I want to open my big shop one day so I can make a more money,” Makakea says.

“What I want to do with my money … well, all I want is to buy a new bicycle so I can go wherever I want. I don’t have to rely on people to pick me or drop me off,” she says with a confident smile.

But Makakea’s dream is now on hold.

The impact of Covid-19 crisis on the local tourism industry is well documented. But there is little to no talks on how this pandemic is affecting people like Makakea and the Creative Centre.

Centre manager Danny Tixier says with the borders closed, they have to shut down their hut because they have no sales. Tourists are their main customers, he says.

Tixier says for almost all of the 32 members of the Centre, the money they receive from selling pareu and handicrafts is their sole income apart from the social benefits they receive from government.

On a good Saturday, the hut would make about $700 and about $150-$200 from Wednesdays to Fridays.

They haven’t made any sales for the past couple of months.

“With the borders being shut, there is no planes coming which means no tourists. That doesn’t only affect those directly involved in the tourism industry but also local marketers like us,” says Tixier.

“Our guys create pareu and other art work, we sell them. We take the cost money and the rest goes back to them. For a lot of them that’s the only money they get. Yes, we want them to get jobs but the reality is it’s very hard for them.”

Margaret Makakea joined the Creative Centre in 2010. She says her mum put her at the Centre otherwise she would get bored at home.

At the Centre, she picked up the craft of making pareu and jewelleries, in particular bracelets.

Makakea makes about 20 pieces per month. That earns her about $100-$150.

With that money, she goes shopping for clothes, visit the hairdresser, dine out at a restaurant or go to the movies.

“I sometimes buy bread for my family. Sometimes I feel bad because I use most of my money on junk food. My mum tells me not to spend on junk food but I never listen,” she says with a little giggle.

“I feel proud to earn money from what I love to do. It makes me happy.”

Danny Tixier says it’s hard for them to explain some of their members why they are not receiving their monthly income.

“When we give them their earnings on monthly basis some of them who have been receiving this money for years still get emotional. They cry, they thank us but we tell them all the time that ‘this is your money, your hard work, not ours’.

“We give them a rundown report on how the hut is doing and from their experience over the years, they know how much they have sold.

“But over the last few months, it’s been hard to tell them we haven’t been able to sell anything. For a few of them it’s very difficult, they get emotional.”

But Makakea says she understands the situation.

“I know there are no tourists coming over at the moment and I don’t mind if my pareu don’t get bought but I will still continue making them because I love what I do.”

In April this year, local handicraft manufacturer and retailer Island Craft Limited launched a revamped website fitted with online e-gate payment system to boost their online business.

They opened their website to other businesses who may wish to use their platform to sell products.

Island Craft has now partnered with the Creative Centre to help them promote and sell their pareu and jewelleries to their online customers.

Danny Tixier says the initiative from Island Craft will help them get their sales back on track.

Already some of their products which were placed on the website this week have been sold.

“We would not have been able to come up with something like this because we don’t have the resources and expertise to do this,” says Tixier.

“We may know how to make pareu, but selling them on such platform is beyond us and we are so thankful to Island Craft for helping us in this area.”
Website developer Byron Brown, who works for Island Craft, says Creative Centre offers diverse products which they do not have on their platform.

“Island Craft has gained quite a number of online customers and together with the followers on Creative Centre Facebook page, we can get some traffic to sell their products,” says Brown.

“We are in the process of taking pictures of their products and uploading them online so we can get that traffic. We have other plans in the pipeline like setting up a system where people can donate money to them directly but that’s something we will work on later.”

For now, Danny Tixier and the team at Creative Centre are feeling relieved with the opportunity to start selling their products again.

“What making money do for them … it gives them a sense of pride, it makes them feel that they are contributing to the household. They are not as useless as people think they are,” adds Tixier.



Established in 2001, the Creative Centre began as a life skills programmes that catered for adults with disability. Volunteers would help out one evening a week until funding for a permanent service was developed.

The Centre is located in Tupapa on the beach, behind the Outpatient Clinic. The Rarotonga Disability Committee developed the service and obtained NZ Aid and Te Marae Ora funding for permanent staff.

They have four full-time, three part-time and at least two volunteer support staff. The Cook Islands Creative Centre Trust and the new Board was set up in 2003 and registered the Centre as a private school.

The Centre provides income opportunities for its 32 members who produce arts, crafts (pandana fans, necklaces, pottery, cards) and printed clothing (t-shirts, scarves and pareus) for sale.

1 comment

  • Comment Link Gigi McDougall Sunday, 21 June 2020 10:49 posted by Gigi McDougall

    We would like to buy a bike for Margaret. We married on Rarotonga 25 years ago. Have been back many times. Planned on celebrating our 25th, but then, well you know, pesky pandemic. So, what better way to spend a bit of our anniversary fund for our trip to Rarotonga than getting Margaret the bike she longs for and the freedom it brings. Would you please help us make this happen?

    Much love
    Gigi and Paul McDougall
    Seattle WA

Leave a comment