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By Cameron Scott

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (April 24, 2002 -- Cook Islands News)---If the Cook Islands' tourism industry is to survive, the government will have to encourage operators to improve the standard of what they offer visitors.

That's according to Rarotongan Beach Resort managing director Tata Crocombe, who says the government must also raise the minimum wage and encourage operators to provide on-the-job-training -- perhaps by providing tax breaks for companies that put a percentage of turnover back into training.

Crocombe was commenting yesterday on a letter written to the editor of Cook Islands News by Australian hospitality tutor Rohan de Silva.

De Silva claimed one of the reasons so many young people trained in the hospitality industry here leave the country for "greener pastures" overseas is that wages here are too low.

He accused some properties of "raking in profits" but putting back very little into refurbishing, stock replacement and staff development.

De Silva also questioned how the hotel industry could justify charging international rates for accommodation and food when they offered staff NZ$ 5 to NZ$ 7 (US$ 2.26 – 3.16) an hour and still expected them to maintain good standards.

But Crocombe yesterday described the wage issue as "extremely complex."

"Basically, if you're going to pay top wages, you've got to supply a top product and charge more for it," he said.

"The Cook Islands has to become a quality destination and charge for it. There's no way we can sustain mass tourism the way they do in Fiji."

The wage problem is compounded by the fact that Fiji, the country's chief competitor in the Pacific tourism market, has a minimum wage of under NZ$ 1 (US$ 0.46) an hour, Crocombe says.

"In the long term, I believe we have to pay the same rates here as they do in New Zealand and Australia.

"But the problem is, our main competitor not only has a much bigger profile and a much better airline service, they're also only paying about 20 percent of what we have to pay people.

"They have about 30 percent unemployment so they're not faced with constantly having to advertise for new staff and they don't have the problem of everyone wanting to leave the country.

"The fact is, there are simply not enough people here to sustain the kind of economic base that everyone has got used to."

Crocombe also takes issue with de Silva's assertion that hotels aren't putting money back into refurbishment and staff training.

He says the Rarotongan has invested NZ$ 10 million (US$ 4,512,000) into an extensive refurbishment program and has introduced on-the-job training and staff incentive schemes, which have made a huge difference to the hotel's level of service.

"If you're going to give people more money, you need to be able to expect a certain level of productivity from them," he says.

"We have a whole department devoted to training and an incentive program which rewards employees by up to 30 percent more on the basis of their performance measured against the standards they are trained to.

"Since we introduced that a year ago there has been a dramatic improvement in service according to feedback in guest surveys.

You certainly wouldn't have found that level of satisfaction previously.

"As far as we are concerned, it's a win-win situation. Workers are getting more pay, guests are getting great service and we're very happy.

"When we took over this place the starting wage was about NZ$ 3 (US$ 1.36). Now, with bonuses, new staff can easily double that."

At the Pacific Resort, general manager Thomas Koteka says while some of de Silva's comments are quite true, not all hotel staff in the Cook Islands are paid minimum wages.

"We have some staff who have very good salary packages and promotional opportunities," he says.

"The starting rates for junior staff are low, but we tend to follow the government's minimum wage rates -- and that's not uncommon right around the world in the hotel industry. Everyone follows the basic public service pay structure.

"But at the same time, some of the smaller owner-operated properties probably pay much more than that."

Chamber of Commerce president Ewan Smith blames the situation on poor educational standards in the Cook Islands and the country's inability to give young people the opportunity to "upskill" themselves.

"We have to realize that we are competing with the New Zealand economy for skilled people -- and with the welfare system there," he says. "Probably an embarrassing number of Cook Islanders who move to New Zealand just end up on the dole."

Smith says the basic problem is that there is no bridge in the Cook Islands between secondary school and the acquisition of work skills.

"We need to start with a clean sheet. If it's going to cost NZ$ 10 million (US$ 4,512,000) to do that, that's what it's going to cost. It needs a whole new approach from government. It's not good enough to just keep tweaking the education budget from year to year like we've been doing for the last 20 years, because that simply does not work.

"Government has to have clear aims for improving education. Simply increasing their spending because they have a $10 million windfall this year isn't an attractive option for the public."

Reiterating the Chamber's calls earlier this month for a "quantum change" in the country's approach to all aspects of education, Smith says there is a clear connection between the low standard of education and lack of training opportunities in the Cook Islands, with poor pay in industries like hospitality.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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