AITUTAKI: PARADISE ON THE WANE?

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AITUTAKI, Cook Islands (March 20, Cook Islands Star)---Go into a little store in Aitutaki and buy a fresh nu (drinking coconut) for 60¢ or a can of soft drink for $1.20. (NOTE: US$ 1.00 =NZ$ .484 on March 20, 2000) Fresh nu is the latest fad overseas as the ultimate sports drink, with several international bottlers looking for sources of mass production. Sixty cents for the apparent healthiest drink in the world, or $1.20 for sugar and flavoring? In some ways that sums up present day life in Aitutaki and helps at the same time to suggest a mixed future for what many travel writers have described as one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific if not on earth.

Aitutaki. Is it the paradise of dreams as depicted on the videos played around the world to attract papaa’s to spend holiday dollars or is it an island of questionable dreams and hopes for those who have not immigrated to New Zealand and elsewhere? Has tourism kept it’s promise of prosperity for all or is the economy in the grip of a few business people while the gap between rich and poor widens as it has in the capital Rarotonga? Will the fragile environment find heroes to protect it’s future or will major developments leave the land and lagoon scared and useless? Ten or 20 years from now will people look back and say, "You should have seen Aitutaki at the turn of the millennium; it was so perfect. . ." CIStar looks at a rough gem set to experience to some degree the same shocks that have changed the face of Rarotonga over the last two decades.

STILL QUIET

While many places experience rapid change, many do not. The outer islands of the Cooks have in many ways remained relatively unchanged for generations. While video watching may have replaced far too many story telling nights, and white bread and it’s counterparts introduced far too many cases of diabetes and it’s counterparts, life on most of the outer islands retains much of what anthropologists call "traditional lifestyles." Meaning that family life is paramount, the extended family is intact, more time is spent in leisure than at "work," visitors return to "civilization" to report a people "living in paradise."

Aitutaki is still a place where a family will put 100,000 kilometers on a cheap Korean motor scooter and still get another year out of it, brakes long gone, a hand held torch at night for a headlight, and no one in authority to order it off the mostly dirt roads.

Yet on Aitutaki’s most developed motu (islet), mostly European tourists hunker down three times a day for gourmet meals in between laying in hammocks on the beach and sleeping in their $300 to $600 per night bungalows.

Aitutaki is still a place where an extended family can own land that an overseas developer would quickly plunk down a million dollars to lease, but that family sleeps in a 20 year old house built out of substandard, imported building materials, and goes day after day without running water to bath, cook or flush the toilet because they happen to be on the wrong end of a water reticulation system that never worked even when it was new. Aitutaki is still a place where a tere party (traveling group) will raise thirty or forty thousand dollars to take them half way around the world on one or another adventure, yet sit in church on a Sunday on 130 year old church pews slowly being eaten by wood borers and ready to collapse for lack of someone taking the time to treat the wood.

MAJOR TOURISM GROWTH

Now, after years of controversy and deals that turned out not to be deals, a major resort is apparently set to begin construction this year on the main island. The site is the former Government owned Rapae Motel, a modest grouping of eight or so duplex units that began to decline almost from the day the resort opened, culminating several months back when the local Health Inspector shut the place down over the condition of it’s kitchen. Given the level of Government enforcement on Aitutaki, observers have noted that the kitchen must have been pretty bad indeed.

And so for about a year the resort has sat empty, what was left of any furnishings have quietly found use in homes around the island, and only occasionally has someone cut the weeds that were once a lawn on what is the best beach on the main island. A series of Governments has attempted to flog the property off, with no shortage of hopeful buyers, all to be thwarted either by Government bungling or unhappiness of the indigenous landowners to the offers made by various developers. Now it seems, the owners of the prestigious Pacific Resort on Rarotonga have been rewarded for years of negotiations with the go-ahead to develop a major resort at the Rapae.

The existing units will eventually go as the property is developed utilizing the entire site. The original development utilized the "easy" part of the property, leaving spectacular black rock outcropping’s and native trees untouched. If the Pacific Resort owners use the same sensitivity to the site they did on their Rarotonga property, the resort will be beautiful and unique.

WHO WINS FROM GROWTH?

But who will benefit? Developers and their bean counters are quick to point out the number of construction jobs and permanent jobs to be created. And of course jobs will come, but what are they really worth to the workers and to the island? Is a young, or not so young Aitutakian really better off earning $4 an hour making beds and scrubbing toilets instead of growing food on his or her own land? Will the 50¢ received for the nu sold to the resort go to help buy a water tank for the house or will it go to help buy the soda pop?

AUS-AID is currently funding a complete re plumbing of Aitutaki’s reticulated water system, in the hope that all will have equal water pressure. There is some hard, dirty work for local boys at $4 an hour in the tropical sun, but that will end when the system is finished, leaving an improved water system that will make new tourist developments possible. And while the aid funded system includes a new storage tank, there will always be times when there is simply not enough water to go around. Will Aitutaki have the same experience as the Spanish island of Mallorca where locals have their water cut off in a shortage area while tourists have unlimited supplies?

And what of the workers who end up day to day at three and four star resorts? Proponents of growth in tourism sing the praises of new jobs and of "bringing home" Cook Islanders who have fled overseas in the last five years for New Zealand jobs or the dole. And while some Cook Islanders end up in middle management jobs and a precious few in top management positions, the bulk of the work is for house maids and waitresses, all too often at starting pay of $4 per hour, especially in the outer islands. While extended families can have a half dozen young people bringing home that much pay to a single household, it is not uncommon for a young mother’s entire pay to go toward disposable nappies, as she is not home to wash cotton nappies.

With each new report that the decade old "Sheraton" debacle on Rarotonga is about to be finished and opened at last, a debate opens on the subject of bringing in Filipino workers to staff the place. Tourism officials admit that a major resort cannot be staffed locally for a shortage of labor, but cannot explain how they argue at the same time that new resorts will bring Cook Islanders back to the islands from overseas.

MORE BUSINESS, FEWER PLAYERS?

Not so many months ago "business" on Aitutaki would have been hard to differentiate from "business" as it was conducted for the previous hundred or so years. The major trading company, headquartered in Rarotonga, was still run by a man who opened at 8 a.m., closed for an hour at noon, and then shut the doors promptly at 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Anyone who needed staples any other hour or on the weekend was obliged to go to one of several small shops on the island. Then, the Rarotonga based trading company sold out to a young Aitutaki trading family and Aitutaki overnight took on trading aspects of the big city. The new traders open before 8 a.m. and stay open till 8 p.m., 6 days a week. Smaller stores have had to compete, several remodeling and expanding product lines. The major trader has of course come under criticism in the small community as being too aggressive. The latest rumor circulating being that he has somehow made it impossible for anyone else to import building materials for sale.

A small group of local businessmen, all indigenous Cook Islanders, have to some degree created the impression that a clique now "runs" the island economy.

Last year, frustrated at the lack of attention the Government in Rarotonga was paying to the TV station it had itself installed on Aitutaki, a couple of businessmen cut the padlock to the station and took control. Then Prime Minister Sir Geoff Henry, an Aitutakian, was apparently in sympathy and gave them the station officially. Locals are happy with the change, getting mostly advert free programming. In fact most say the TV on Aitutaki is better than the strictly commercial operation on Rarotonga.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

Aitutaki has no sewerage system, relying on septic tanks or in the case of the existing large resort at Akitua, a small sewage treatment plant, notorious for repeated failures and as suspect as the systems at major Rarotonga resorts, say some environmental observers.

Aitutaki has had no shortage over the years of environmental disasters, the most recent being the monumental use of the most toxic chemicals for years of ultimately unsuccessful banana export farming. The banana packing shed is now a local drinking spot, banana exports are zero, and many believe the lagoon will pay the price of accumulated toxins for years to come. Anything short of sewage systems that culminate in clear water must of necessity ultimately discharge some forms of toxins into the environment, and in Aitutaki’s case, into the lagoon, which is the draw for the tourists in the first place.

The failed "Sheraton" resort has a so-called "state of the art" sewerage system installed. While it has yet to receive it’s first toilet flush, an identical system on Rarotonga, serving several houses and a college, has been a dismal failure, spilling raw sewage onto adjacent lawns and into a creek leading direct to the lagoon. Years and tens of thousands of dollars later, it still fails to deliver. The new resort at Aitutaki will be faced with finding a system that actually works. The Environmental Law that affects Rarotonga does not currently apply in the outer islands.

Those already in business may be quick to voice approval for any new project that brings "growth," but those who have seen the effects on Rarotonga may want to think again. Tourism promotions for Rarotonga used to tout the ideals of a place on "Island Time." But island time is as much ancient history on Rarotonga as the time when kids could lazily turn circles on the main road on their pushbikes. To do so now would certainly result in a trip to the hospital or worse. Yet the children of Aitutaki still enjoy such an innocent world.

Those business people in a rush to see new developments on Aitutaki will also want to consider Rarotonga once again. For if they believe that more business on the island means more business for themselves, they may need to think again. How many monopolies have been broken on Rarotonga as the economy has expanded? How many new operators have set up shop? How many Rarotonga business people will set up branches on Aitutaki or just move there altogether as tourist numbers grow?

Cook Islands Star doesn’t pretend for a minute to have the answers to the questions we raise here. That is the task of those on Aitutaki. We can only hope that these and other important issues are debated and not left to "just happen."

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