Visiting leader promises his people he will go all-out to secure a confirmed date for the return of Kiwi tourists to the cash-strapped island nation
Cook Islanders are emigrating to New Zealand to support their families, as their tourism-based economy goes slowly broke.
The country’s new Prime Minister Mark Brown flies into Auckland this week, and will meet with his counterpart Jacinda Ardern on Friday. Ahead of that meeting, he says he will work hard to secure a confirmed new date for two-way quarantine-free travel between the two countries.
It is tourism, or bust. Brown says the tiny island nation – about 12,000 people scattered across Rarotonga and 14 other atolls – is spending $7 million a month on wage subsidies and propping up businesses.
The country has spent its reserves and is dipping ever deeper into debt.
“Some have already left, recruited by New Zealand companies in need of labour. They have gone to work in New Zealand to help support their families here.”
– Mark Brown, Cook Islands Prime Minister
But, as in the country’s last economic crisis in 1996 when mass public sector redundancies forced more than 2000 people to emigrate to New Zealand, Brown says people are again leaving.
“We recognise that not all of our workers can continue to afford the luxury of remaining here at home in our tropical Cook Islands paradise,” Brown says, in a column in today’s Cook Islands News. “If the tourists are not able to bring money into our country then our workers will go and look for that money overseas.
“Some have already left, recruited by New Zealand companies in need of labour. They have gone to work in New Zealand to help support their families here.
“Similarly, some of our business owners have been forced to take jobs in New Zealand while their businesses are either in hibernation or closed for good. This is a real concern.”
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Referencing the 1996 economic crisis, Brown said the country had seen in the past how hard it was to get its people back, once they had moved to New Zealand or Australia.
“We need workers here because they help support those of us who are too young or too old to work.
“Our working-age people produce the outputs that our economy needs. And we need our entrepreneurs here to reopen our tourism-related businesses and help with the country’s economic recovery.”
“The one major area of concern that we are now seeing is the exodus of Cook Islanders going to work in New Zealand … There are a lot of very worried people here and everyone is waiting for a final date that we can pin our plans on.”
– Fletcher Melvin, Cook Islands Private Sector Taskforce
Brown’s concerns were backed by Private Sector Taskforce chair Fletcher Melvin,
“The one major area of concern that we are now seeing is the exodus of Cook Islanders going to work in New Zealand,” Melvin said. “This is also coupled with our migrant workforce having to leave which will put enormous pressure on an already stressed economy.
“As you can imagine there are a lot of very worried people here and everyone is waiting for a final date that we can pin our plans on.”
Mark Brown is the first overseas leader to visit New Zealand in a year, since the borders were closed in March 2020. His visit comes just days after he and his predecessor, former Prime Minister Henry Puna, were acquitted of charges of fraud and improper payment of public money. They had authorised the use of public money to charter flights to the remote northern islands of Penrhyn and Pukapuka for the country’s hard-fought 2018 election.
On Saturday (NZ time), Chief Justice Sir Hugh Williams QC dismissed the private prosecution, mounted by a former political opponent. That acquittal frees up Puna to take up his new role at Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum, and allows Brown to board his flight to Auckland.
“I will be working very hard to secure a confirmed new date for two-way quarantine-free travel to resume with New Zealand, recognising that our health readiness is the most important component of the negotiations.”
– Mark Brown
When he meets with Ardern and her New Zealand officials this week, Brown would be “working very hard to secure a confirmed new date” to reopen the borders both ways to New Zealand tourists, he said.
He has a challenge ahead of him: Ardern has already refused to confirm a date for an Australian travel bubble, and the chances of securing a Cook Islands bubble look equally slim.
Earlier this week, Newsroom reported that Ardern’s Government has concerns about Cook Islands public health readiness – concerns that are proving an impediment to progress on a travel bubble. In particular, Brown’s government has failed to drive contact-tracing, and border workers who were meant to be tested every two weeks had not been tested for four or five months.
Brown acknowledged those concerns, in a plea for additional health support from New Zealand to ensure Cook Islands can maintain its Covid-19 free status as variants of the virus emerge and vaccination programmes get underway around the world. “By having Cook Islanders and New Zealanders receiving vaccinations, together with our testing laboratories and contact tracing at high international standards, we can be confident that our people remain safe and healthy when two-way quarantine travel resumes between our countries.”
“Contact tracing is very much alive and well in the Cook Islands. As you know, the Chamber of Commerce have led the contact tracing initiative here.”
– Eve Hayden, Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce
Te Marae Ora, the Cook Islands health ministry, has always been heavily reliant on a partnership with New Zealand health authorities. For years, sick and injured Cook Islands have been medivaced to hospitals in Auckland because the hospitals on Rarotonga and the outer islands didn’t have tertiary facilities or intensive care beds.
The border closures of the past year have given Cook Islands time to reinforce its poorly-equipped medical facilities, including building a negative pressure ward on the smell of an oily rag, and importing equipment last week to set up a specialist PCR lab to provide quick, reliable and cost-effective Covid testing. A specialist trainer arrives in Rarotonga in April to spend two weeks showing locals how to test nasal and throat swabs.
But New Zealand officials are concerned Te Marae Ora is still struggling to conduct the tests on the ground, and to roll out contact-tracing. Cook Islanders can get CookSafe cards, with QR codes that they swipe on readers on mobile devices at the businesses they visit.
The system had to be designed and rolled out by the local Chamber of Commerce, after government officials were for months unable to agree what system to use, or how to implement it.
Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce chief executive Eve Hayden said contact tracing was very much alive and well in the island group.
She supplied their most recent CookSafe deployment report, showing 9,248 tag-ins in the first week of March – a 77 percent increase on the previous week. More than 8,300 people had registered CookSafe cards, and 743 businesses had registered scanners.
“As you know, the Chamber of Commerce have led the contact tracing initiative here,” she said. “I think the number of tag-ins each week is pretty good given our population size.”
She said Cook Islands was also testing a new Bluetooth contact-tracing app, which could be used by Cook Islanders when they visited New Zealand. “The Government’s support of contact tracing has been pivotal in enabling the Chamber of Commerce to rollout, promote, and support CookSafe in the Cook Islands.”
When Mark Brown meets with Jacinda Ardern this week, she said, there were good grounds to push for Cook Islands to be given a priority for vaccination. “Given the close association the Cook Islands has with New Zealand, the family and community ties particularly with South Auckland, and the number of Cook Islanders working in both Auckland International Airport and in companies associated with the Airport, and MIQ facilities, there could be a good argument to propose that the Cook Islands population could be classified as vulnerable, and therefore be given a priority for vaccinations.”
Tourism Industry Council president Liana Scott said reopening borders to visitors was crucial for the whole economy – not just the tourist Industry.