Cook Islands: 5m waves expected, tourists urged to delay travel

(July 14, 2022) A restaurant affected by severe coastal flooding in Aroa. PHOTO: Cook Islands Red Cross

A Cook Islands tourism operator is advising New Zealand travellers to consider putting off their travel as waves of up to 5 metres are expected.

Last week, the south coast of the Cook Islands was hit by 4.5m waves which flooded and damaged hotels, homes and businesses.

It came as the Cook Islands tourism industry was still trying to get back on its feet after two years of border closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Weather forecast

A weather warning from the Cook Islands Meteorological Service (CIMS) on Monday, local time, said wave conditions for all southern group islands were forecast to increase throughout Tuesday. 

Waves were expected to hit 5m by Tuesday night, continuing today.

It comes amid the second week of New Zealand school holidays, where record number of tourists were expected in the Pacific Island nation. 

CIMS director Arona Ngari told the Cook Islands News the latest forecast was associated with the high-pressure system arriving from New Zealand. 

“So basically, the system seems to have locked itself to the south of us,” Ngari said. 

“Normally, the longer they hang around the bigger the waves can be and that can be the scenario for us, we are expecting high waves compared to last week’s one. 

“This should really send the message that something is going to be happening again for us and we need to be more prepared before the onset of the system on Tuesday afternoon or evening.” 

People should expect lagoon sea levels to be up to 0.5m to 1m higher than usual, wave run-up and surges reaching the top of the beach and beyond and potential inundation of low areas. 

Strong and surging currents within the lagoon and potential debris and wave spray across low areas of the coastal road during high tide were also expected. 

The key risk times would be during high tide periods on Tuesday at 1.30–3.30pm, Wednesday 1.30– 3.30am, Wednesday 2–4pm and Thursday 2:30–4:30 am (local times). 

Tourism industry on high alert 

Cook Islands Tourism Corporation chief executive Karla Eggelton said it sent an online survey to the Tourism Business Sector (TBS) across Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu on Thursday.

The response rate has been 68 percent as of Monday afternoon.

So far, 18 businesses have identified structural damage to their businesses, three businesses have identified capital damage, 55 businesses have identified coastal damage only and 30 businesses have identified no damage at all.

“Overall, Cook Islands Tourism initial assessment suggests few businesses received structural damage,” Eggelton said.  

“Of course, there a few who were severely affected, but generally coastal damage only was the single most reported damage to businesses. 

“National Environment Service has been working to get through the requests for remedial work to reinstate the foreshore and coastal areas where sand has been removed from the beach. Many businesses are doing their best but there are lots of requests for help with machinery and manpower to get beaches back to how they were.”

Eggelton said with the new warnings for high waters and waves in the coming days, it would look to complete a second round of surveys. It will use this information to assist Cook Islands Government in developing guidelines for support.

The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Lagoonarium owner Tata Crocome said tourists should consider changing their travel plans this week. 

His team was on the phone to about 300 guests who were scheduled to arrive this week. 

“We know people still want to come but anyone that is coming needs to know that while it is safe, the island won’t be fully operational,” Crocombe said. 

Located in Arorangi, the Rarotongan was one of the hotels damaged by the waves and wind last week. 

Work to restore a quarter of the resort’s room which were left unusable because of the storm had now put on hold, Crocombe said. 

“The effects of bad weather in the Cook Islands is extremely localised. It doesn’t mean that it will affect everyone directly, you can get smashed or not. We don’t know what happens until it happens. 

“We’ve relocated our guests in the low-lying areas and beach side rooms to higher rooms and further to the back or to other properties. 

“We’re getting in touch with guests due to arrive this week to reconsider their plans and we’re preparing for evacuation inland.” 

Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council president Liana Scott said it was imperative businesses protect as much of their property as possible on the foreshore. 

“I know occupancies are high, but where possible please have rooms on standby albeit at the current property or alternative properties in the event of limited availability. 

“I think we can all agree that we should not underestimate mother nature – keep safe and be watchful of weather patterns and direction.”