COOKS LOOKS AT SLOWING TOURISM DEVELOPMENT

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AVARUA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News/PINA) - Support is growing in the Cook Islands for a moratorium that would slow new tourism development on Rarotonga and, possibly, Aitutaki.

"Do we set a limit or does availability drive this issue?" asks Island Hopper's Robert Skews in a written submission to the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation about tourist numbers. "I feel that yes, we do set some parameters."

Skews, a director of the Tourism Corporation board and chairperson of the South Pacific Tourism Office, goes further.

"It is time for a moratorium on ANY property built here that they must comply with a set of minimum standards (for waste disposal)," he says.

Backing for this position came during the two-day Tourism Forum, promoted as a "reality check" for the industry, which faces concerns about environmental and social impacts.

Chamber of Commerce President Ewan Smith, who chaired the forum, says the only islands not to suffer massive migration loss were those with strong tourism.

"If we say that we've reached capacity in Rarotonga, then we have got to bring the other 14 islands into economic growth," he added.

Moana Sands owner Peter Heays had a simple message.

"Stop now. Sit back for a while," he said. "Restudy the tourism master plan and update it with new maximums and guidelines."

Heay's wife Joelene Bosanquet was the first tourism operator to call for a moratorium over two years ago.

"It's crunch time, it really is," she told chamber members in November 2000.

Heays’ submission pointed out the 1990 Tourism Master plan states that, "1500 rooms would be very unlikely to be economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable."

Said Heays, "Tourism has, since then, even without the Sheraton, grown rapidly with the number of tourist beds on Rarotonga now numbering around 2,750."

Westpac manager Terry Smith said that it was "business as usual" for the bank.

He estimated that the bank averages four to five loan applications "a day" for tourism properties. "We would approve about half of those."

But Smith says that they would follow the industry lead when it comes to the question of limiting numbers.

"If it was felt that we had reached capacity in the accommodation sector then we would be guided by that."

Repeated calls were made for the findings of the forum to be taken further than a dusty shelf in a government office.

Skews said in his submission that tighter controls on the industry must be made through the tourism accreditation scheme.

"We have properties now appearing with long-drops and they expect to take in tourists - I am sorry but this should not be allowed in the Cook Islands."

Wrapping up the forum, Smith told tourism operators and officials that the findings would be followed up by a series of taskforces, which will report back by 1 March.

Recommendations from the forum that the taskforces will look at include:

- Capping visitor numbers.

- Updating building and public health codes.

- Banks ensuring that clients meet official requirements as well as credit criteria.

- New island-by-island strategic plans.

- Consistent policies on issues ranging from tipping to media relations. - 

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

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