Podcast: The Detail

Desperation in paradise

It is deeply ironic that while many South Pacific countries and territories are Covid-free, tourists can't go there - and the economic pain is plain to see. 

Pacific Island states are looking at risky money-making opportunities as they desperately seek ways to revive their economies hit hard by Covid-19.

Tourism keeps many countries and territories such as the Cook Islands afloat but the hotels and resorts have been empty since March when borders were closed.

“We go down to Muri Beach early in the morning to walk the dogs and this is where a lot of the tourist accommodation is concentrated,” says Cook Islands journalist Florence Syme Buchanan. “Muri is quite famous for being the golden strip of the Cook Islands. And with every hotel closed, we’re walking along this beach that’s normally packed with tourists ... it’s just empty.”

Tourism is worth at least 87 percent of the Cook Islands economy.

“We are in very serious, dire straits. There is deep, deep concern amongst the business sector.”

She talks to The Detail's Sharon Brettkelly from her home near Muri Beach, saying there’s one upside to the disappearing tourists – have a listen to the podcast to find out what that is.

The situation may also force diversification and a return to agricultural ventures of old.

With no date for a Pacific travel bubble, she says businesses are looking at other opportunities such as reviving exports of fruit and vegetables – chillies, papaya and avocados for example.

But RNZ Pacific's Johnny Blades tells Brettkelly that some countries are looking at high-risk ventures ... “including deep sea mining, which is a real area of fraught debate”.

“People are struggling … there’s so much uncertainty.”

In Fiji, 40,000 jobs have been knocked out. “It’s the economic motherlode for the country,” says Blades.

Pacific Islands are heavily reliant on an industry that's disappeared. Photo: Alexia Russell

Collin Tukuitonga is the associate dean for Pacific programmes at University of Auckland's medical school.

He says Pacific countries can't afford to wait and it’s time to get a bubble going with the Cook Islands and Niue to start.

"Somehow we’ve got to look carefully at the transit arrangements so there’s no contamination, and that people from the US don’t hop on the plane to Rarotonga,” he says.

“These are management issues to address. So for example, there’s I think some very good ideas about how to separate people in transit. I don’t see it as a show-stopper … you can manage it. It’s never risk-free, it’s never zero. But I don’t think we give enough credit to border officials. There has to be some work done to make sure those protocols are in place.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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