The south Pacific nation is promising it can protect the health of locals and visitors when it reopens its borders on May 17.

Cook Islands tourism operators – and that’s nearly everyone in the island archipelago – are welcoming the resumption of inbound quarantine-free travel.

Prime ministers Mark Brown and Jacinda Ardern announced this afternoon that the borders will open both ways from Monday, May 17, New Zealand time. That is the Sunday in Rarotonga.

Air NZ is advertising economy flights for $270, the following day, and will be ramping up the frequency of flights to three or four a week from June 7. Travellers must have spent the previous 14 days in New Zealand.

Greg Foran, the airline’s chief executive, said it was a major milestone for the two countries. In 2019, of the 446,000 Kiwis who took a trip to the Pacific Islands, almost 110,000 had headed to Rarotonga. “We’re certain our Cook Island neighbours will welcome Kiwis with open arms for a much-needed boost for the local economy.”

Newsroom has learned there is a final checklist for the two countries’ health directors to tick off in the next fortnight, before New Zealanders are finally able to check in their snorkels and togs for their flights to Rarotonga.

New Zealand is also supplying the three realm nations (Cooks, Niue, Tokelau) with Covid vaccine – but the limited availability of the Pfizer vaccine and the time taken to train vaccinators means the country’s 13,000 residents are not expected to be vaccinated until after borders reopen.

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Graeme West, who is in charge of New Zealand marketing for Cook Islands Tourism, said visitor numbers had “hit zero” when borders were closed in March 2020. “Because tourism is the mainstay of our economy, this has caused significant financial hardship for many people,” he said. “We are looking forward with much anticipation to welcoming Kiwis back to our beautiful islands.”

The Cook Islands has had no reported cases of Covid-19, and West said the country had made the health and wellbeing of its citizens its top priority. That care would now be extended to its visitors.

Contact tracing would play an important part in ensuring that quarantine-free travel continued, and visitors would be encouraged to use the local Cooksafe and Cooksafe+ apps.

The reopening has been a long time coming. One date after another has been considered then abandoned. First, the bubble was delayed by Covid outbreaks in New Zealand, most notably the South Auckland outbreak last August that hit New Zealand’s Cook Islands community and took the life of former Cook Islands Prime Minister Dr Joe Williams.

Then it was further delayed when New Zealand health officials visited and discovered the Pacific nation’s health readiness – contact tracing, regular and in-country Covid PCR testing and more – were far from ready for an influx of tourists.

Ardern said the travel bubble would mean families could reconnect, commercial arrangements could resume and Kiwis could take a much-welcomed winter break and support the Cook Islands’ tourism sector and its recovery. 

A huge amount of work had gone into ensuring the two-way bubble was safe and that Cook Islands was set up and ready for it, she added. “The health and safety of the people of the Cook Islands has at all times been paramount.

“Vaccination, while not an answer on its own, will provide an added layer of protection once rolled out, and we continue to advance these plans alongside the Cook Islands.”

Mark Brown said the two governments were continuing to work through final details for the deployment of vaccines to the Cook Islands and expected to provide further details within the next week few weeks. “Today we start our journey of recovery,” he said. “Today we get back to business.”

This morning Liana Scott, the president of the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council, welcomed the pending announcement. Scott manages a big family-owned resort, Muri Beach Club Hotel, and has had no international guests since March last year. “We are trading but revenue does not come close to covering expenses,” she told Newsroom this morning.

Her family has a small side business selling eggs laid by their chickens, from a fridge behind the hotel’s reception. But now that’s their main income. “The egg farm with the sale of pig food makes more than the hotel,” she said.

Scott said some of the most significant changes would be that the tourism business would again be able to employ staff full time, paying staff normal rates, pay their ever-mounting bills and expenses, and pay their mortgages. In Cook Islands, locals pay up to 12 percent interest rates, but with the closure last year of the borders, nearly 80 percent of the country’s GDP disappeared overnight.

“If we had a magic wand, our priorities are to have the border opening 15th May 2020, and have our small population vaccinated,” Scott said.

It was a shame, she said, that the vaccine could not be rolled out beforehand, as the small and compact populations of the main ports, Rarotonga and Aitutaki, would allow the vaccine to be administered to everyone within a few days.

Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce chief executive Eve Hayden acknowledged the vaccine would be further off. “Given the slow rollout in New Zealand, I wouldn’t be expecting rollout here to be imminent,” she said. “However, given the vulnerability of the population, NZ may decide to blanket the urgency for rollout to mirror the vulnerable in New Zealand.”

The NZ Government had considered using the NZ Defence Force to distribute and administer the vaccine across the realm nations, and that’s still likely to be an options for remote islands like Tokelau.

But for Cook Islands, the resumption of tourism and more regular commercial flights means the army and air force may not be needed. However, the time taken to train vaccinators in Rarotonga, Aitutaki and the archipelago’s outer islands mean it takes longer before the vaccine is rolled out.

Cooks Prime Minister Mark Brown’s expressed preference for the Pfizer vaccine, rather than the AstraZeneca vaccine that New Zealand is supplying to Fiji, means further delays, as New Zealand is waiting on supplies.

New Zealand’s Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, has embraced international regulatory approvals allowed the Pfizer vaccine to be kept for longer at regular freezer temperatures, rather than at super-low -70C temperatures. That will make it easier, logistically, to roll out in Pacific nations and more remote parts of New Zealand.

Air Rarotonga chief executive Ewan Smith said the country’s domestic airline was preparing to distribute the vaccine to the outer islands. “We have Aitutaki schedules ready to ramp up as soon as we know,” he told Newsroom today.

“We are waiting on firm dates like everyone else and don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. Just focused on doing our part well when we get to the vaccination roll-out.

“The amount of days it will take to complete one outer island cycle depends on how many people they can vaccinate in a day. Apart from Aitutaki all other islands have only one to 200 adults. So I imagine the logistics should be straight forward. Our jet gets to the Northern Group in 2.5 hours. The Southern islands are all 45 minutes away.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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