Cook Islands Opposition leader Tina Browne has called on the Government to rethink its approach to tourism.
Browne in her response to the Speech from the Throne, delivered in Parliament on Tuesday last week, said she was concerned about the way the Government focuses on numbers.
“During the pandemic, the harsh lesson learnt there was that all our eggs had been placed into one basket, the tourism basket. And much was said about not repeating this mistake,” Browne said.
“But essentially what we are seeing is a return to the same pattern of focusing on growing tourism numbers. We are too numbers focused and frankly, we cannot sustain 180,000 tourists a year – we need to work on yield.”
Browne said the Cook Islands “has the opportunity not to go to 180,000 tourists and crash our infrastructure again, but specifically target the high-end traveller”.
“This does not mean attracting just wealthy travellers, but those travellers who respect nature, the environment and want to contribute in some way to the Cook Islands,” she said.
Browne said experiential travel is a key word and regenerative tourism is a good path to follow but “must be in action and not mere rhetoric”.
“So far we have seen little of the former – action – and much of the latter – rhetoric,” she said.
Cook Islands Tourism Corporation chief executive Karla Eggelton says research confirmed there is a rise in global demand for “responsible travel”.
“This groundswell shows more and more travellers are wanting and expecting the opportunity to give back to the people and place hosting them,” Eggelton said.
“Essentially what we want to encourage and support is more businesses and community members embracing and adopting this regenerative tourism approach.”
Eggelton said although the organisation was building back the business of tourism post-Covid, it had the “perfect opportunity to determine how we do this, and to put the holistic wellbeing of our people and home first”.
“So the job for Cook Islands Tourism Corporation will be to evolve and expand the thinking and aspirations of our people and empower and mobilise this into action,” she said.
“While this is a long-term strategy, the community can expect to soon see the roll out of support for some initial pilot programmes which will be developed and implemented using a community-based, collaborative approach meaning that we engage and collaborate with our various islands and communities to ensure that the strategy, and the collective approach aligns with their values and vision for the future.”
Meanwhile, Browne also called for the diversification of the Cook Islands economy.
“Diversification was a word much mentioned by the government during the pandemic – our absolute need to diversify and not place our entire reliance to generate most of our national revenue from tourism,” she said.
“But, after a flurry of activity during the outset of our lockdown, to get people planting crops, issuing seeds and seedlings to help the public do this, the Ministry of Agriculture appears to have gone into hibernation. And this concerns the Opposition greatly.”
Browne challenged the Ministry of Agriculture to disclose what steps are being taken, if any, to work with its New Zealand counterpart to introduce the agriculture export/import protocols necessary to see Cook Islands produce making its way to Aotearoa New Zealand markets.
“For instance, Mitiaro and Mauke are great year around producers of quality limes. Prices in New Zealand for limes recently reached well over $40 a kilo – yet our Pa Enua cannot export limes to New Zealand because the required protocols are not in place,” she said.
“There does not seem to be any urgency to address this and giving our Pa Enua and Rarotonga wider export opportunities and the obvious financial benefit that follows on.”
A team from the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (NZMPI) will be holding a workshop this week aiming to confirm existing pathways and research new pathways to access New Zealand markets.
The workshop will be held in partnership with the Cook Islands Ministry for Agriculture.
Agriculture, Biosecurity Division director Ngatoko Ngatoko says the objective of the workshop – to be held from 17 – 21 April at the Muri Beach Club Hotel – is to enhance safe, profitable, and economically beneficial trade of agricultural and primary commodities in the Cook Islands to New Zealand.