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The sweet and bitter taste of tourism

Monday April 15, 2019 Written by Published in Opinion

It’s like cutting into a thick creamy tower of a cake with our name Cook Islands on it. And as that sharp knife passes through its many layers, we at last get a glimpse of what we expected, and maybe didn’t expect, as each layer reveals itself.

 

We then taste what we also  suspected; layers of sweet and bitter, mingled together, layers of the good stuff, and the not so good, but at least now we know that the cake, as good as it looks, gives us reason to celebrate and reason for concern.

This is what it was like reading through the surveys conducted by Cook Islands Tourism and put together by Dr Simon Milne from the Auckland University of Technology. Statistics often bore people, but there were numbers highlighted in this survey that should catch the attention of all of us.

This sweet-yet-bitter cake we have all contributed to in one way or another has become the secret to our success, as well as making us the victims of our success, though victim is probably the wrong word, because we have been complicit in its growth and complicit either by what we have done or what we have not done and why we are here today. So I was hoping to just highlight a few figures that may be of interest to us all. 

Ninety three per cent. That’s the figure when asked the question do you think tourism is good for the Cook Islands with those surveyed convinced by a huge margin that this industry is good for us as a country. And it is, the revenue the tax return and the jobs it has created have greatly benefited our country, but again what it is the bitter layer to the sweet tucked inside this tourism cake and what does that mean for non-Cook Islanders and Cook Islanders.

Tourist behaviour, our environment, the impact on our culture and infrastructure were all concerns raised by respondents and in that order, with regard to the negative effects of tourism and areas that have been impacted negatively by the tourism growth. It should come as no surprise to us all that the environment and infrastructure are highlighted concerns for all, though culture and values concerns more for us as Cook Islanders.

As business coffers fill here and off shore, and their bookings the idea of an environment tax was met with a high percentage of respondents as an answer to this and it may be one part of the remedy to the negative effects on our environment and infrastructure we have not yet implemented.

Some of the positive comments from respondents were tourism is doing a good job and donated more in our country’s development and that we are absolutely blessed to live here and a blessing to the world, however negative comments showed a growing resentment of tourism and a lack of respect to our local way of life. One respondent said, tourism is about making money and not about locals, and that hotels and motels, papa’a businesses are here solely to make money. One comment which I thought captured it well was that tourism is good only if it is controlled and not allowed to destroy our values and our customs.

Should Cook Islands Maori be concerned that of those businesses surveyed, 15 per cent indicated they had no Cook Islands Maori staff working for them and my guess is that each year this is growing. That only a third of our accommodation market is local, but that still leaves two thirds owned and run by non-Cook Islanders, and of those businesses surveyed 26 per cent - or over a quarter - generated more than a million dollars in revenue each year. It’s funny, for when I read this I thought about where I live in Akaoa and on the border of Rutaki, and how I don’t drive past many millionaires. They must be hiding in the mountains or maybe they are hiding in plain sight on our beautiful beachfronts and facing away from our modest homes and taro patches and instead looking out over our fragile lagoon.

Whatever position you have with regard to tourism, what’s clear is that it’s here to stay, and something we all have a vested interest in preserving and of negating its negative effects on our culture, environment and infrastructure and bolstering its positives of revenue and capital return for us all.

For us as Cook Islands Maori, who see this place not just as revenue or a business, but also a place we call home, we must ensure we get our share piece of that cake also, and not just for the few. That as we look back at that cake and its multi layers of sweet and bitter, to ensure that the name on that cake remains the Cook Islands and never a cake made by us and for us, but consumed by someone else.  Or are we too late?

-Thomas Tarurongo Wynne - Columnist