COVID-19: Cook Islands desperate for travel bubble as NZ's new community cases issue another setback

New Zealand's latest community case of COVID-19 is yet another setback for the ill-fated air bridge between Aotearoa and the Cook Islands, stirring grave fears for the Pacific nation's devastated tourism industry.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that talks had resumed regarding the Cook Islands' travel bubble and "good progress" was being made, with the possibility of Kiwis taking off for a tropical holiday this Christmas. 

However, a contractor who recently worked on-board vessels docked in the Ports of Auckland and Taranaki tested positive for the virus on Saturday, marking New Zealand's first community case since September 25. Two colleagues of the port worker were also recorded as confirmed cases on Wednesday.

The latest infections will once again hamper progress towards successfully opening the two-way travel bubble, as it's crucial that New Zealand - a country that has recorded 1556 confirmed cases of COVID-19 - does not transfer the virus to the Cook Islands, which is currently COVID-free.

"There is [a] concern because, of course, they are COVID-free - and any COVID coming into Pacific countries would be particularly devastating," Ardern told Magic Talk earlier in October.

Yet Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council president, Liana Scott, says the Pacific nation cannot wait much longer for New Zealand to open its borders. Many businesses on the brink of closure are holding out hope for the travel bubble, seen as a critical lifeline for the Cook Islands' decimated tourism sector.

Speaking to Newshub on Wednesday, Scott said many operators have already shut up shop and left the island - and the ones that remain open in Rarotonga are bleeding cash.

"There have been some small operators that just can't hang on any longer," she said. "The ones that are open are experiencing a cash-burn situation - every day they're half open, ready to roll out as soon as the borders open, is every day that they're bleeding funds.

"There's still quite a bit of stress on the island. We're such happy, go-lucky people, that generally people don't wear their heart on their sleeve - but you can see they're suffering on the inside. There's been more open conservations."

The Cook Islands' tourism sector is crying out for a cash injection from Kiwi visitors.
The Cook Islands' tourism sector is crying out for a cash injection from Kiwi visitors. Photo credit: Getty

Scott says it's imperative that businesses are able to operate at a moment's notice to kickstart the stagnating economy when the air bridge eventually opens - and when it does open, it should remain open.

"[An] open-close scenario really isn't going to work. Even if let's say we did have the 28 days that we successfully had no cases, and then borders opened and then there's a community case - it's difficult to close again," she said.

"The economy is in dire straits and really does need visitors... we don't have a big population so we don't rely too much on [local] tourism. Perhaps we do a trial run and see how it goes."

The Cook Islands are taking a proactive approach to public health measures despite their COVID-free status, to ensure the response can be activated in the event of an infection. Scott says the hospital is prepared with extra incubation rooms, and people with flu-like symptoms are able to have a nurse dispatched to their home to test for the virus. The nation also has its own contact tracing technology and QR code system, much like the NZ COVID Tracer app.

"There have been worries about our capability at the hospital, but they've got things really under control," she said.

"The island is being really proactive... everyone here is ready for an open border. 

"At the end of the day, we don't know how long this is going to last. We just need to be a bit more adaptable to the situation."

Earlier this month Ardern said "good progress" was being made in talks to open the two-way air bridge - but New Zealand once again has a community case.
Earlier this month Ardern said "good progress" was being made in talks to open the two-way air bridge - but New Zealand once again has a community case. Photo credit: Getty

While the New Zealand-Cook Islands' air bridge hangs in the balance, there is currently a one-way trans-Tasman travel bubble operating between New Zealand and certain Australian states. 

Kiwis wishing to cross the ditch can travel to New South Wales, Northern Territory and South Australia without needing to quarantine on arrival. However, they are still required to complete 14 days of managed isolation upon their return to New Zealand - and pay for it. The agreement is currently not reciprocated to Australians.

New Zealand recorded 25 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, 23 of which were imported. The remaining two were the workplace contacts of the community case who tested positive over the weekend.