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Tourism ‘ramp up’ expected as Cook Islands bubble opens

With the first tourists returning to the Cook Islands this week after 14 months of Covid-19 travel restrictions, local businesses are cautiously optimistic – but ANZ’s Country Head warns there likely be a ‘ramp up’ period before tourism businesses are at full capacity again.


The New Zealand-Cook Islands reciprocal travel bubble opened in full on Monday, after a one-way arrangement (Cook Islands to New Zealand) had been in place for some months.


The first flights from New Zealand are scheduled to take off on Tuesday, starting with three flights per week – still a far cry from the 27 flights per week, pre-Covid.


Bernie Shaw, ANZ’s Country Head for the Cook Islands, says many of the bank’s clients chose to mothball their tourism-related businesses or restaurants over the past 14 months, but some of these are now kicking back into action.


Ms Shaw said a lot of workers from the Cooks – especially young men – were also forced to leave the islands and come to New Zealand to find work.


Anecdotally, the number of workers leaving was a few hundred per week – and it was unlikely they would come back after the pandemic was over, having found higher wages abroad, she said.


The absence of workers, as well as fewer flights into the country, could lead to something of a “ramping up” period for tourism businesses, Ms Shaw said, as they respond to demand little by little.



"We won’t be getting back to 27 flights per week, I think, in the next 12 months."
- ANZ Cook Islands Country Head Bernie Shaw



“It looks like Air New Zealand are prepared to scale up flight numbers based on demand, so you’ll see it evolve as we go on.


“For Kiwis who haven’t been able to go on an overseas holiday for more than a year now, the Cook Islands seems like the obvious choice, but none of us have been through this before and we don’t know what people’s appetite for international travel is going to be like.”


As well as suspending operations, other Cook Island businesses had continued to operate on a much smaller scale, offering stay-cation holidays to Cook Islands residents at lowered prices in an effort both to keep staff active, and to bring in a modicum of income during a very difficult period.


Some ANZ business customers in the Cooks are already seeing bookings come in – one resort in Aitutaki is reporting a 55 per cent occupancy rate for June, while others are seeing “moderately strong” bookings over the school holidays in July.


That money will flow into all parts of the community, which is in desperate need of relief.


“Cook Islanders are very resilient - they tend to rally to each other in times of need, and they have done over the past 14 months – but it can’t continue,” Ms Shaw says.


“Long term, we have to step back in to one of our most important industries.”


Ms Shaw said the bank had done everything it could for customers struggling through the period of isolation.


“We’ve been working with our customers pretty intimately - especially the ones that have been fully impacted,” Ms Shaw says.


“So, providing things like repayment deferrals on lending facilities, providing liquidity lines, reducing interest rates, waiving the break costs on term deposits, and also helping with different ways for customers to bank, like eGate solutions and online platforms – just making sure they’re set up to operate if there was an outbreak in the Cook Islands.”


ANZ’s eGate service allows merchants to receive credit card payments through their website, which Bernie said had allowed some Cook Islands businesses to pivot to an online model to cater to customers ordering goods and services from overseas.


A dramatic 20 per cent drop in GDP is forecast for this year - but the opening of the bubble is a new spark of hope for many.


“Everyone is very excited - from customers, to ourselves at the bank,” Ms Shaw says.


“It’s been a very, very challenging 14 months - we were promised opening days and they continued to be delayed, and delayed … so to now finally have a date to work towards, it’s really leveled off people’s anxiety and they’ve got something really positive to focus on.


“We can’t be anything but optimistic about what the future holds for us here, but we also can’t expect it’s going to be smooth sailing – the last 14 months haven’t been, and I suspect there are going to be a few bumps on the road to recovery.


“But at least we’ve got to that first milestone.”


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