Cooks Developer Considers Taking Over Abandoned Sheraton

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

Merchant of Paradise group wants to develop outer island sites first

By Cameron Scott

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, April 21, 2016) – The Merchant of Paradise development group will consider buying and finishing the abandoned Sheraton hotel site at Vaimaanga.

However, whether the project goes ahead will depend on reaction to MOP’s offers to proceed with ambitious development plans in the outer islands, says director Tim Tepaki.

He says developing the site is one of three options "on the table" that will be considered after the group has had time to evaluate responses to its offers to develop the outer islands.

"Offers for our Northern Group island developments left on Monday and offers to the Southern Group islands will be sent later in the week. One of those offers includes a plan to develop an international golf course and luxury hotel on Atiu."

Tepaki has already made one failed attempt to develop Sheraton site and says one of the reasons he has held back from on taking it on again is "operational risk."

"I held the view that going into competition with The Rarotongan, Edgewater and Pacific resorts for the same slice of our three-four star tourism on Rarotonga was silly.

"So I chose to wait and develop the outer islands and make the quantum leap to 4-6 star tourism there, before bringing the Vaimaanga online as feeder resort to the outer islands.

"I believe sustainability for Vaimaanga depends on feeding off five star-plus tourism in the outer islands and not competing with others for the same slice of the tourism cake."

The Sheraton site is up for sale yet again after plans by the New Zealand Mirage Group to revive the abandoned resort failed. Mirage Group owned the site for six years and director Simon Herbert claims the company is selling it so it can focus on New Zealand projects.

Herbert has dismissed claims that a long-time curse on the land stopped Mirage from completing the $40 million project, but Tepaki says the curse is for real.

Of course the Vaimaanga land is cursed," he told CI News yesterday. We have enough evidence of failed attempts to complete Vaimaanga to draw on!

"I also felt interference at Vaimaanga once, when I was reminded that Mama More cursed papaas and not me, so I backed off, despite my equity lender, prime lender and Hilton fronting up and telling Government that project funding had been approved in principle and was subject only to presale.

We actually achieved NZ$30 million presales before global recession occurred and interrupted completion yet again.

"As I understand it, a Mama from the More Clan came to the ceremony to launch the Sheraton project back in the 1990s, and cracked the commemorative plaque with a wooden tokotoko when she cast a spell, regarded by some, including myself, as powerful in spiritual terms.

"I understand she was angry that a papaa, a member of the Wigmore family, had shot her ancestor, a traditional landowner and her curse was that no papaa shall benefit from developing her land at Vaimaanga."

Tepaki planned to complete the site as a Hilton hotel and had the land blessed as part of a ceremony to launch his project.

He says the blessing was aimed at asking "restless spirits" to rest in peace.

"It is referred to by New Zealand Maori as "tapu lifting" ceremony, and I had local Maori perform these before I started on Stadium Gardens and Kate Sheppard apartment developments in Wellington, both major developments were completed without incident.

"Tapu-lifting is not to be confused with curse-lifting, as only the one who casts the curse can forgive and lift the curse. For that to happen will require divine intervention by God, or the Son or the Holy Spirit."

Tepaki says he has boasted from time to time that the Sheraton site "will come back to papa," and if things go according to plan for MOP, that could well be the case.

However, he has hit out at stories on the Stuff website, where he says real estate agents marketing the Sheraton site are using a drawing from his earlier proposal for Vaimaanga in order to drum up a sale.

"That is my intellectual property and another case of stolen identity. What a pack of peasants - they can’t even afford to present their own vision for development!" Meanwhile, Tepaki says MOP’s plans to develop a golf course and hotel on Atiu have been buoyed by Sir Michael Hill’s comments that the best way to boost tourism is to develop international golf.

Sir Michael made the comments while visiting Rarotonga to speak at last week’s Air New Zealand Cook Islands Tourism Awards.

"It shows us that what we are proposing for Atiu is right on the button," Tepaki says.

"The Atiu offer went out today."

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