The sad coincidence of Maritime NZ’s findings on the safety shortcomings of the Taio interisland vessels, and the same week, the disappearance overboard of 7-year-old Lapana Tupou, has forced government to reach one unavoidable conclusion.
Transporting the people of the Pa Enua thousands of kilometres across the Pacific Ocean onboard small cargo ships is no longer a viable option.
And government is right to act now, before Cook Islands faces a tragedy of the scale of the Princess Ashika ferry accident that killed 74 Tongans in 2009, or the MV Butiraoi disaster that claimed 95 Kiribati lives in 2018.
The Ministry of Financial and Economic Management is tendering for a commercial operator to provide a passenger ferry service – but already, financial secretary Garth Henderson says the markets is failing us.
It seems certain the Government will have to step in – perhaps with a hefty subsidy to a ship operator, perhaps by purchasing a purpose-built ship and contracting someone to operate it. And the $2.5m budgeted for a landing craft won’t be enough.
Running ferries is a vexed business. Nobody wants Cook Islands government to become a shipping company or a ship-owner.
But there may be no other option.