New Zealand TV Story Reportedly Hurts Cook Islands Tourism

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

‘Sensationalized’ report on Muri Lagoon pollution raises concern

By Rashneel Kumar

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Jan. 6, 2016) – More controversy over the Muri lagoon issue has been stirred by a report on New Zealand television last week

The TV1 story, by Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver, angered some Rarotonga residents who claim Dreaver’s story sensationalised the issue and dented the tourism industry - backbone of the Cook Islands economy.

The text version of Dreaver’s story on website appeared under the headline, "The golden egg is cracked - Rarotonga tourism industry threatened by lagoon sewage-seep."

The story, broadcast weeks after CI News first highlighted the issue, said the Rarotonga community had launched "urgent action" after the government declared Muri Lagoon a national disaster.

Traditional leader Philip Nicholas told Dreaver the need for infrastructure to deal with nutrients getting into the lagoons had never been addressed and after 40 years of inaction, the issue had become a national crisis.

Ministry of Marine Resources secretary Ben Ponia, meanwhile, said MMR monitored public health and the levels of bacteria in the lagoon very closely to ensure it was safe for swimming.

He added the ecological health the coral reef was suffering "a lot."

The story also said it was "business as usual" on Muri Beach, "where holidaymakers are assured they won’t suffer ill effects from being there."

Cook Islands Tourism Corporation is yet to make a statement but corporation chief executive officer Halatoa Fua had earlier acknowledged public concern over the "seasonal growth" of algae in Muri lagoon and its effects on the appearance of the lagoon.

He assured visitors the algae was non-toxic and presented no threat to safe swimming in the lagoon.

Dreaver’s story, which also screened on Cook Islands Television, drew wide reaction on social website Facebook, with a concerned Ali Webb saying, "She possibly has the power to cripple our whole tourism industry."

Other commentators on Facebook’s Rarotonga and Beyond page said those responsible for making the mess at Muri Lagoon should be responsible for cleaning it up, placing the most blame on local resorts.

However, Rohan Ellis, who is also a Tourism Corporation board member with wide experience in the tourism industry, said Dreaver’s story was free publicity for the country that money could not buy.

"TVNZ has covered all the ins and outs of Fiji and their government problems widely and their tourist arrivals continue to rise. Kiwis continue to fly to Fiji in droves," Ellis, the owner of The Islander Hotel, posted on Facebook.

"Smart Kiwis love Rarotonga and they know that the rest of the island is algae-free. Titikaveka to Nikao is great for swimming. Another day in our little paradise.

"Got a problem, we’ll fix it. TVNZ will provide more publicity for us."

Ellis also said none of the interviewees had mentioned that the rest of Rarotonga’s lagoons and beaches were fine.

"Muri beach is not the whole of Rarotonga."

Cook Islands TV journalist Harriet Tuara said they should not wait for the likes of "an outside pack of watchdogs" to expose a rather dated issue in the Cook Islands before doing something about it.

"This isn’t the first time One News has exposed our dirty laundry without considering the other positives about our little slice of paradise," she said.

"It saddens me that we only react to an issue when it is exposed by overseas media agencies when for years we’ve been reporting about it on the local scene. Wake up people!"

However, photographer Melanie Cooper said the story was well balanced with sensitivity to tourism while "keeping the facts there."

"Thank you Barbara Dreaver - now to fix the fixable with greater momentum."

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