Cook Islands excited to welcome Kiwis as travel bubble begins

Excitement is building as the Cook Islands prepares for the first arrival of Kiwis in more than a year. 

A quarantine-free travel bubble officially opened on Monday with the first flight from New Zealand landing on Tuesday afternoon. 

Prime Minister Mark Brown told The AM Show this is the first step towards recovery for the island nation which was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"It's been a while since we actually closed the arrivals into the country so we are really looking forward to today, and this first step towards our recovery.

"There is one flight today and another on Friday and it will slowly pick up. But we are looking at growing that over the next month or so." 

Celebrations were held at Auckland International Airport as the quarantine-free travel bubble with the Cook Islands opened.
Departure gate celebrations at Auckland Airport as the Cook Islands bubble opens. Photo credit: Newshub.

Brown said the pandemic saw the Cook Islands lose 20 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which highlights how important the bubble is. 

"It's significant for us. We have a GDP of about half a billion dollars a year, we would say 20 percent of that has been knocked off in the last year from the loss of income from tourism.

"So it's a big chunk… compared to New Zealand's loss over the same period is about 2 percent. For us the recovery, which is what we are now looking at… is critical but it's going to be a long haul - it's going to take two to three years to get back to pre-COVID levels."

He said the opening of the bubble coincides with a delivery of vaccines to the Cook Islands. Brown said all of Rarotonga is expected to be vaccinated in the next 10 days. 

"The bulk of Cook Islanders are looking forward to being vaccinated, the messaging that has gone out has been very good. There are of course some who will object… but that's their call."

"They [vaccines] arrive on this flight that's coming today and within hours the first doses will be administered to the front line... Then the rollout begins tomorrow [and] with our small size we can expect Rarotonga to take about 10 days and then we will move out to the other islands."

Cook Islanders have been allowed into New Zealand quarantine-free since January but the same did not apply to Kiwis wishing to travel to the islands.    

The bubble couldn't come soon enough for struggling tourism businesses who can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

President of the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council, Liana Scott, told RNZ while it won't be the same as pre-pandemic levels, it will be a big boost for struggling businesses. 

"We are expecting a slow, steady start, but this is our journey of recovery phase, so we're still excited about it."