Operators are working to build visitor numbers to the Pa Enua, in a bold move to balance the tourism feast and famine that has been troubling the industry.
New figures reveals growth in tourism has slowed to 1.7 per cent year-on-year – but that’s still enough to take numbers to an all-time high of 171,550 visitors in 2019.
The problem is, traditionally many of them have arrived all at once, and gone to all the same destinations. The rest of the year, and the rest of the country, operators struggle to fill their hotel rooms, their dining tables and the seats on their tours.
Cook Islands Tourism chief executive Halatoa Fua said the growth rate had slowed. “Tourism in the Cook Islands is seasonal in nature and has low and shoulder months outside of the June to October peak period.”
He said government was investing in infrastructure to protect the environment and support the community and visitors, including water, sanitation, renewable energy, shipping and transport, communication and human resources projects.
He warned against a narrow focus on visitor numbers. “The focus for tourism growth should be on yield and sustainability,” he explained. “For example, dispersal of visitors to the Pa Enua meets the objective of both yield and sustainability.”
“Cook Islands Tourism looks forward to working with government, the community and the tourism industry to help build a more sustainable tourism industry for the future.”
The new focus on dispersing visitors to the outer islands comes after engineers inspected the Cooks’ most remote runways ahead of upgrading them.
Air Rarotonga was adding a second Saab 340BPlus 34 passenger turbo-prop to its fleet, and has been in talks with government about regular scheduled flights to Manihiki, Penrhyn and potentially Pukapuka.
Fua’s emphasis on the Pa Enua was welcomed by Tourism Industry Council president Sue Fletcher-Vea. She suggested growing tourism to the Pa Enua, and in low and shoulder months, should be the focus this coming year, to ensure year-round financial viability.
The Council considers the gentler growth to be a blessing in disguise. Fletcher-Vea said it had given the industry an opportunity to look into ways to improve capacity.
After the large increases in visitor numbers over the past 10 years, it was good to have a consolidation period where the country could “catch up” on infrastructure, and plan environmental initiatives for the future.
It was important, she said, to “ensure that we are not growing at a rate that the country cannot handle”.
The Australian market recorded the biggest increase in visitor numbers – an extra 1789 people. New Zealand numbers increased by 1636, and North Europe rose by 129 last year.
In percentage terms, China dominated with 8 per cent growth in visitor numbers, followed by Australia on 7 per cent and North Europe on 2 per cent increase.