Cook Islands operators seeing light at end of 15-month tunnel as travel bubble opens

Cook Islands tourism operators and businesses say they are primed for a return of Kiwi visitors after this week's bubble opening and expect Air New Zealand to respond to any increases to travel demand.

After over a year, New Zealanders are finally able to travel to the Cook Islands without having to quarantine.

The first flight to Rarotonga will touch down tomorrow, and there will be daily flights between the two countries after that.

Australians heading to the Cook Islands will need to spend at least 14 days in New Zealand first.

The president of the Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council, Liana Scott, said while the islands wouldn't reach peak tourism levels, the bubble would be a big boost and offered light at the end of tunnel for the economy.

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

Although New Zealanders didn't account for all tourism revenue, visits from Aotearoa had always been a financial mainstay, she said.

"New Zealand is still the biggest market for sure. It made up about 62 percent of our numbers, so definitely a big chunk and of course Kiwis have pretty limited places that they can travel to at the moment, so that will make a difference as well.

"We're expecting between 50 and 55 percent occupancy for most places, only based on the current schedule for this season, which is one flight per day. But Air New Zealand has assured us if demand grows they'll increase that flight schedule. So anything is possible at this stage."

Threats to the travel bubble posed by Covid-19 and the possibility of new community transmission cases would always be a worry to operators, but they were staying positive and trusting existing health and travel protocols put in place.

Vaccination programs were giving the country confidence, with the nation's health authorities able to administer 600 jabs per day, meaning the whole of Rarotonga will soon be covered in under a week," she said.

"There is always that element of worry, but I think that the bigger worry is if we don't have a bubble and it doesn't open, because the economic consequences of that are pretty major.

"We've got vaccination starting this coming week as well, so everything is kind of happening at once. That's a vaccination of the whole of the population and that's certainly going to give that extra layer of protection, which I think offers a bit more assurance with an open border."

General manager at Tamanu Beach Resort on the island of Aitutaki, Nick Henry, echoed Scott's comments. He told Morning Report the operators were ready for the influx of travellers, but initially they weren't expecting huge numbers.

"We're been ready and waiting for some months now. Fortunately at Tamanu Beach we've had our restaurant opened seven days a week since October, but it's been a struggle relying solely on local travel," he said.

"Fortunately we get a number arriving in from Rarotonga, so it's kept us afloat and with the government wage subsidy we've managed to keep our employees employed through this 15-month period."

Less fortunate were some surrounding businesses, which had closed and had lost staff who travelled instead to New Zealand for seasonal opportunities. Expectations of how fast the bubble would bring work opportunities back to the islands were realistic, Henry said, but added the figures were promising.

"For Aitutaki, I know we've got a slow movement for May. For example, in our hotel we've got just five bookings for the rest of this month to date and around 30 percent for June and we're getting up to almost 60 percent for July, which is very exciting."

He said that July figure was double what he had anticipated and expected Air New Zealand to meet any increased demand.