Cook Islands tourism industry faces spectre of fewer visitors

Cook Islands Rarotonga International Airport
PHOTO: Cook Islands Airport Authority

Cook Islands Tourism operators are preparing for a quiet few months, as visitor numbers drop as predicted.

In November there were 10,278 visitors to the Cook Islands, a drop of about 24 per cent compared to October (12,803 visitors).

Meanwhile, the July to September quarter registered 43,244 visitors, compared to the pre-Covid peak of 58,744 visitors for the same period of 2019.

The latest statistics released to Cook Islands News show a downturn as tourism operators express concern about what they could be in for over summer.

Castaway Resort owner Paul Ash said he was not surprised by the drop in numbers.

“If anything, I expected worse,” Ash said.

“I’m hearing lots of businesses are operating at only 30 percent capacity, and you can’t do much on that. We’ve already reduced our staff hours for December, and we will be monitoring everything on a weekly basis. Your fixed costs don’t change.”

Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council President Liana Scott of Muri Beach Club Hotel, said members were certainly feeling the effects of quieter arrivals and were already giving staff additional days off or releasing staff. 

“Managing cashflow is going to be crucial for this downtime, and there are more specials out in the market to try and capture what little of the market there is presently,” Scott said.

“What is frustrating is how there are no seats available on the flights. The first availability is 28 December, with a one-way premier economy price of $1072 (US$679) and next availability being seat-only from 30 December, and an airfare one way of $977 (US$613). 

“The lack of availability and airfare cost is really off-putting to potential travellers, and this is really hurting our already anxious market.”

Edgewater Resort and Spa chief executive Andrew Whittaker said the numbers “sounded about right”.

“It’s all to do with flight availability. There simply aren’t the flights coming in at the moment,” Whittaker said.

Asked whether the resort would soon be reducing staff hours, Whittaker said they would try their best to maintain staff at the same levels.

“We expect it will be really quiet from January to March, but hopefully once the new flights arrive, things will pick up,” he said.

The Islander Hotel and Restaurant owner Rohan Ellis said the business would need to reduce staff hours heading into January and February.

“But we always knew it would be coming. It’s no surprise the number of visitors dropped, there’s been a downgrade in flight capacity from Air New Zealand,” Ellis said.

Ellis said it hoped to see signs of rebuilding in the later part of the first quarter of 2023.

“Usually when temperatures drop in New Zealand, that’s when we see them come to Rarotonga,” he said.

Ellis said he hoped the arrival of Hawaiian Airlines in May would bring back some of the North American market.

“They’re starting with one flight per week, by the end of 2023 we will see them go to three flights a week. Their approach has been very shrewd,” he said.

Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce chief executive Rebecca Tavioni said she was surprised the drop-off wasn’t higher.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of anecdotal examples of businesses struggling during this period,” Tavioni said. “Traditionally, capacity is about 30 to 35 per cent during this period, I’ve heard stories of businesses dropping below 20 percent, said Tavioni.

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