Cook Islands tourism leaders plead for Jacinda Ardern to announce travel bubble date

The Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council is urging Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to announce a firm date for a travel bubble, following concerns time has already run out for many tourism operators.

It follows a commitment by the Prime Minister to establish a two-way quarantine free travel bubble with the Cook Islands sometime in early 2021.

Liana Scott - president of the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council and owner of Muri Beach Club - says hundreds of businesses have closed and while they may be able to reopen, every day shut cuts another hole in owners' pockets.

"There's hundreds of businesses who have had to close their doors. That's not to say that they can't reopen, that's just to say that they haven't got any tourists whatsoever they've got no ability to operate."

Ardern and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown confirmed on Saturday the timing of removal of mandatory quarantine for people arriving from the Cook Islands to New Zealand will be decided early next week.

People travelling from New Zealand to the Cook Islands will still need to isolate for now but both Prime Ministers and their Cabinets have instructed officials to continue working on implementing two-way quarantine-free travel in the first quarter of 2021.

Scott says industry members she's spoken to agree having a firm date for the commencement of a travel bubble is the most important factor in staying afloat.

"It is very much just about getting a date to start with. Mainly because people are holding on and it really comes down to their financial ability." 

And delays will only further the financial pain felt by tourism operators.

"I think every single day counts, it's not a matter of weeks counting it's now down to the days so look just please take that into consideration because things are dire behind the scenes," Scott says in a plea to Ardern.

"There are some very very stressed and anxious business people out there who are just needing that lifeline and that is just the ability to start operating, they're not asking for a handout."

The National Party's COVID-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop on Saturday said it was taking too long to set up the bubble. 

"Today's announcement of 'next steps' in travel between the Cook Islands and New Zealand is an utterly meaningless statement that does no more than repeat that officials are still working on the issue," he said.

"The Prime Minister must explain the delay when a month ago she said there was 'progress' and that it would only take 'a couple of weeks' before a bubble would be up and running once both sides were happy."

He said that the Cook Islands was heavily dependent on tourism, including from New Zealand. 

"Pre-COVID, tourism made up 85 per ent of GDP. Getting the bubble up and running should be a high priority as it will help save jobs and livelihoods in our Pacific neighbour."

Bishop said quarter-one could mean late-March - if nothing goes wrong.

"In the meantime we’re going to see businesses fall under and both Kiwis and Cook Islanders lose their jobs. The Government needs to get on with the job immediately."

Among the hundreds of businesses that have closed their doors is Rarotonga's third-largest hotel the Pacific Resort, and the Rarotongan Beach Resort which Scott says is "100 percent closed". 

The struggle only worsens for tourism tour companies such as lagoon and buggy tours which have "no business whatsoever". 

"They are very much stuck between a rock and a hard place," Scott says.

"All they can do at the moment is just use the government subsidy to pay wages but that doesn't stop the other expenses that occur on a month by month basis such as insurance."