COOK ISLANDS: A NATION ON THE RECOVERY TRAIL

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By Jason Brown

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (August 2, 2000 - Islands Business Magazine/PINA Nius Online)---Welcome to the 35th year of self-government in the Cook Islands. Cook Islanders will begin celebrating the occasion in the traditional manner. Prayers and church chants, a float parade, speeches and a fierce weeklong tamure dance competition.

Some will head down to nightspots like the Banana Court where, these days, the clientele has changed. Once the most local and sometimes over-friendly of bars, the Banana Court's new owners, Ngateina Vakapora and husband Dave, find they are dealing with a completely new client ratio.

Where tourists once sheltered in corners and watched agog, now locals are totally outnumbered and often left similarly open mouthed at throngs of young backpackers, wallets and sometimes brains fixed firmly in holiday mode.

Change in customers reflects a new business environment -- one having to come to grips with an old problem: success.

Tourism is up. Never looked better. Pacific Islanders are among those coming to the Cook Islands in record numbers, as the country takes a serious nibble of the conference market for the first time. One figure? A 50 percent increase in all visitors over April last year. June figures look similar.

"That is a record, yes," says Chris Wong, mildly. Tourism Corporation chief executive Wong is credited with being a big part of turning around an industry that slumped.

There is a $NZ 3 million (US$ 1,361,361) church movie being shot on the island, courtesy of the privately owned Cook Islands Film Commission Limited. Pearls are booming.

Even the old 'backbone,' agriculture, is looking a little stronger with a near drought over and exotics like noni medicine plants being exported to Japan.

Nissan Terranos and Laurel Sedans, formerly luxury items, are imported by the dozen. Container loads of stereo gear are flying out the doors, many of them cash sales.

"I wish I had brought in more television sets," laments Piho Rua, a former police inspector and dance team leader as he surveys the empty shelves of his small general store. "I just packed up one lot for the outer islands. People are coming in with cash," says Rua, making card-dealing motions with his hands.

He used to deal mainly in pirate videos from Asia -- copyright laws have not caught up with the video age yet -- but employees are making good money these days and looking to spend it. Combat army clothes also look a big seller for retailers like Rua but, reassuringly, most of it is tamariki size. So what's the problem? The last time Cook Islanders discussed record tourism as a potential worry was in the early 1990s.

That was before government started swapping jobs wholesale for votes and loaning money like there was no tomorrow. The 1996 crisis has been and gone, and the country still has massive debts to pay.

But the tourism-based private sector is leading the recovery like it is supposed to. Now a few operators are affording themselves the luxury of thinking about where the recovery is going.

Like Fiji, the Cook Islands has long had a 'foreign' dominated business community. Or at least that's the local perception. Foreign investors often complain that Cook Islanders are lazy and inefficient.

Many Cook Islanders see papa'a as greedy and mean. Both, for different reasons, may be right. Court documents in a civil dispute between landowners and one property, Crown Beach Executive Villas Ltd., show that a former manager/director was paying herself $US 2,500 a month. At the same time, she was touting the property as five-star -- and expecting the same level of service from her staff who were getting $NZ 300 a month.

It shows the reality gap between investors expecting underemployed islanders to be grateful for a job and local resentment against the vast differences between their own wages and that of the boss.

Shortage of labor: Now with so many Cook Islanders taking their New Zealand passports overseas, labor shortages are starting to show. In fact, there is talk of the need to import a couple of hundred workers from the Philippines to staff the long delayed Italian hotel project when it finally gets going.

Cook Islanders are alarmed at that idea. As University of the South Pacific students, more than a few have experienced hard bargaining Indo-Fijian shopkeepers and all too easily slip into moans about 'greedy Indians.'

Culturally insensitive perhaps, but then that's how the students feel they are being treated too. It's not just 'Asian invasion' alarmism. Annual visitor arrivals are fast approaching four times the resident population.

With what locals see as a foreign over class and developers talking offhandedly about the need for foreign labor, Rarotonga people do worry.

"We're in danger of losing our identity," says Thomas Koteka. "There's a threshold that we have to decide on, and then we have to decide what we want to do with that threshold."

Koteka is no angry young university graduate. He is manager of the country's best boutique resort, a 53-room affair that nestles harmoniously into the beachfront of Muri Lagoon, the most picturesque part of Rarotonga.

What alarms him is a plan by the latest developers of the controversy-hit Italian hotel site. A deal has been signed with the landowners who had taken over the long stalled site, and with the Hilton management chain, too. They want to add a casino to the mix, describing it as a "vital marketing tool." Koteka, for one, disagrees. "This is just my personal opinion, but there's a big debate that has to happen about the casino.

"To say it's a 'vital marketing tool' should make our leaders stand up and say 'what about our people?' Most visitors who come here describe our people as our biggest asset. It just gives Hilton a safety valve, but at our expense and our image's expense."

That bad? "We might be the last bastion where we are not tainted by the things that have tainted other countries elsewhere. I think it's irresponsible of our leaders to accept statements like that."

Koteka is not alone in viewing the casino as a possible threat to Cook Islands identity.

"They've promised the casino will be for guests only, but our feeling is that, over time, that will be hard to police," says Religious Advisory Council president Reverend Tangimetua Tangatatutai.

Resident in Melbourne, Australia for nine years, Tangatatutai wandered through casinos there "only sightseeing" and saw first-hand the addiction. He read headlines about Asian families losing their houses, and worked with island families going without food because of gambling.

All this points to a luxury that most Cook Islanders could not imagine four years ago at the start of a debt crisis that carved the workforce in half. Then about 22,000, including visitors, the population now rests at 16,000. The former government confidently predicted an immediate recovery but, now that it's finally arrived, most people are too busy to worry about overload.

Plan: Tourism maestro Wong says something similar, sympathetic to those making up losses for the past few years. "There's no golden rule that says eighty thousand, one hundred thousand visitors is the maximum," says Wong while flying to Fiji to join the inaugural flight of Air Pacific to Rarotonga.

"It will be silly to say that we will have X amount of tourists, because people can gear themselves up for higher numbers."

Infrastructure sets its own limits, and Wong says people should not forget that there are still the outer islands to develop and a tourism master plan in place to guide that development.

Koteka agrees that the tourism master plan does set thresholds for the industry, but is still doubtful.

"There's a great big void between those who develop and those who live. And information needs to fill that gap. It's all very well doing these master plans, but the report just sits there. We need to get the information out to the people, and get them involved in the future of the industry."

Four years ago, Cook Islanders were the first to begin the difficult process of reform. Other countries like the Solomons and Vanuatu followed. For some, hopes of recovery faded even further with tragic-comic coups.

A tiny part of the Pacific, Cook Islanders have something of a weathervane role for the rest of the Pacific when it catches up: Keep an eye on development and watch out for success. And over-stimulated tourists.

For additional reports from Islands Business, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Magazines/Journals/Fiji Islands Business.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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