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«Land, Water and Tourism in Aitutaki, Cook Islands Wendy E. Cowling, Anthropology Department, The University of Waikato Introduction* Most island ...»

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Refereed Papers: Identity and Globalisation

Land, Water and Tourism in Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Wendy E. Cowling, Anthropology Department, The University of Waikato


Most island governments in the South Pacific have placed a great deal of faith in a continued annual increase in numbers of tourists as a

guarantee of national economic growth. This is particularly the case in the Cook Islands. The response by local, mostly small-scale

entrepreneurs has been to invest in the building of tourist accommodation, not only on the main island of Rarotonga, but also on the island of Aitutaki. Until recently the piecemeal development of accommodation on that island has occurred with little reference to the impact on the environment.

Aitutaki is an atoll of volcanic origin in the Southern Cook Islands, located 259 kilometres north of the main island, Rarotonga. It is higher than most atolls, having Maungapu, a 127 m. hill of old coral in the centre. The island is renowned for the beautiful lagoon, which has a number of uninhabited islets within the reef which encloses the lagoon. The surge in building on Aitutaki has been in response to the Cook Island Government’s “push” for tourism development. It is also due to optimism on the part of the accommodation proprietors that, if well-promoted, Aitutaki will have a significant increase in tourist numbers. Most visitors fly to the island for the day (Monday to Saturday) from Rarotonga to take a cruise. They visit some of the islets and snorkel over coral heads which are well populated with fish and, sometimes, turtles.

The Aitutaki Island Council has approved a permit for the building of a new “luxury” hotel, to be sited in part of the Aitutaki lagoon, on the grounds that this enterprise would provide jobs for island residents. There is local concern regarding the impact of this development on fish breeding stocks. There is also strong local concern about the removal of a great deal of land on the island from local ownership and access because of the recent surge in the building of tourist accommodation. Aitutaki people are also apprehensive about the possible impact of increased tourist numbers on the island’s infrastructure, particularly on the power and water supplies. The supply of piped water to village households is regularly cut off without warning, partly due to a decrease in water levels in the collection galleries and partly due to the failure of pumping facilities. The Aitutaki community is representative of many small island communities worldwide which, in responding to what they believe to be central government wishes and prompts, may ultimately experience serious economic, environmental and social problems.

“Resortland” I have recently arrived back from outer space. Or I might as well have, given that I’ve been deliberately marooned on a tropical island for the past week, with nothing more to intrude upon my idling mind than the lapping waves against the sand, the clank of rigging against the mast of a yacht moored offshore, and the odd, distant, delighted cry of a child playing in the hotel pool. Yes, it’s been hell, but someone has to do it.

I call this place Resortland. It can be anywhere, really, so long as the climate or the landscape or both are conducive to the leisure pursuits of the mobile middle classes. In Resortland there are few clues to your actual location, in the cartographical sense … it’s an international style of marble and chrome and hardwoods and ceiling fans and palm trees and pool bars and swizzle sticks that could be anywhere from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean to the Pacific to South-East Asia and beyond (Macdonald, 2004:C10).

This advertorial style of travel writing commonly appears in New Zealand and Australian daily newspapers as well as in televised travel programmes. The glamorous views of “Resortland” are an important focus for sales by travel agencies to people for whom a hedonistic experience on a tropical island is only the swipe of a credit card away. What was once available only for the rich is now been democratised and the islands of the South Pacific are now competitively marketed as accessible and safe destinations, whether for land tourists or cruise ship passengers.

The islands and their peoples, however, have to provide the playground facilities - the land for the resorts, the water for the swimming pools, the disposal facilities for the sewage and the rubbish, as well as present easily understood displays of local culture. On the positive side they receive a contribution to the national GDP and a proportion of the population have full- and part-time work. However, simultaneously the governments of what are termed Small Island Developing States (SIDS) by the United Nations are also recipients of messages from supra-government agencies such as those of the United Nations Environment Network (UNEP) and the UN Programme for Action for the Sustainable Development of SIDS (United Nations, 2005), that they should develop a policy of sustainable development. (See Appendix 1 of this paper).

There are inherent tensions and contradictions in the current emphasis on what has become a somewhat idealized if not fetizished

concept, that of sustainable development. The question asked, but not necessarily answered, is this:

Can the concepts of sustainable development, incorporating the protection of island environments, including the conservation of land, of ground water supplies and of island seascapes, be maintained while South Pacific nations such as the Cook Islands simultaneously aim to increase their GDP and local levels of employment by the ongoing expansion of tourism?

* Any errors in this paper are my own and not those of people who were kind enough to share information with me. Thanks to the Cook Islands Prime Minister's Office for permission to research in the Cook Islands, and to Queen Manarangi Tutai Ariki and Des Clarke, Vaipae, Aitutaki; Papa Taituria, Papa Tikaka Henry, Messrs. Ron Maki, Putangi Mose Jnr., Rey Puapii, Bobby Bishop, all of Aituaki; Peter Mason, NIWA, Christchurch.

Proceedings of the 4th DevNet Conference: Development on the Edge Refereed Papers: Identity and Globalisation In a speech made in June 2004, Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, stated that tourism and its contribution to the economies of SIDS are threatened by overdevelopment, pollution, loss of biodiversity, climate change and beach erosion (Annan, 2004).

Cook Islands’ politicians, bureaucrats and members of the general population have recognized that their nation is not exempt from these threats. One suggestion for the achievement of sustainable development, currently being promoted in the Cook Islands, is the development of a “better” type of tourism such as eco- and “geo-tourism”; including the provision of local, less luxurious accommodation and village home-stay accommodation.

The main proponent of “Geotourism” (also known as “Ethnic tourism” or “Cultural tourism” in the academic tourism literature) is Dr.

Peter Phillips, who is employed as a consultant by the Cook Island Tourism Corporation. In an interview for Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat in August 2004 Dr. Phillips described what the term involved. He said that this style of tourism, espoused by the publishers of National Geographic as a way of protecting local environments, would appeal to “interactive travelers” (see Burnford 2004:1). Such people, he said, did not want the “rest and recreation mode” offered by resorts, but were interested in experiencing and learning about “the full range of the local”, including flora, fauna, architecture, crafts, cuisine and cultural performances. He describes the concept in more detail in the first report of the findings from consultations with people on ten of the Cook Islands in May, 2004 (Phillips 2004:3-4).

There are wealthy travellers who would be interested in geotourism experiences. However, on the whole, this concept does not fit with the increase in the building of luxurious, over-water accommodation units in resorts in Pacific island groups, and in other island nations, This type of resort was once mainly available for very wealthy people in island groups such as the Maldives and on an island in the Straits of Malacca in Malaysia.1 Now they are common. First established in the South Pacific on the island of Bora Bora in Tahiti, these resorts have been built in Vanuatu, most recently in New Caledonia (Coral Palms Island Resort), and one is planned for Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. A holiday at one of these resorts is now within the financial reach of many people in Australia and in New Zealand.

Experts afloat in the Pacific (and drifting past each other) The information outlined below will not come as a surprise to anyone with an interest in environmental issues in small Pacific islands nations. There are a range of experts such as meteorologists, hydrologists, environmentalists, agronomists, disaster experts and development planners, both indigenous and expatriate, who work in the Pacific and who could contribute part of the narrative. Our interests are similar in that we wish to enable people to have a better quality of life. However, people like myself, an anthropologist, do not often meet with these specialists.

We may just miss each other as we visit island communities for field research. The experts also do not necessarily meet with each other unless they are employed by the same organisation or regularly participate in international conferences. There are other individuals who have contributed to the present situation, including the foreign economists who advised the Cook Islands Government to undertake drastic economic reforms in 1995. A number of consultants have written reports on the economic possibilities of increased tourism in that nation2 and there have been a variety of other consultants, funded by foreign aid programmes to do a variety of assessments. Again, we do not meet each other except perhaps at conferences or as our paths accidentally cross during our stay in the islands. Then there are the Cook Islanders themselves, both expatriate and resident, many of whom hope and plan for an economically viable future life for themselves and their families on their home islands.

Local issues with the inadequacies of the water supply were not the anticipated beginning point of a period of field research in the Cook Islands in February to April, 2004. I had gone there primarily to observe tourist development on Aitutaki. I had chosen Aitutaki as my base because people from that island who live in Hamilton, New Zealand, had concerns about the rumours of the proposed construction of a luxury over-water hotel, known at the time as the “Captain Cook Hotel”, adjacent to a wetland area which runs parallel to the first airport runway.3 The lagoon waters that would front the hotel are not suitable for swimming and are part of an area on which a local protection order (rahui) was placed to enable fish stocks to regenerate. The plan would involve part of the lagoon being dredged to deepen the water level.

There has been a tendency in tourism planning worldwide to assume that tourism is a “good” which will directly or indirectly benefit most of the residents of the favoured community. In the case of Aitutaki a very small portion of the population derive their main source of income from tourism, as owners of accommodation; as suppliers of goods, such as the owners of grocery shops, souvenir shops and mixed businesses; suppliers of services such as cruise and other boats and the hiring of cars and mopeds; as proprietors of bars and cafes; or as employees of these businesses. A slightly larger group of people, including families with children, earn small amounts of money as part-time entertainers, performing in dance troupes or in string bands. A small number of men sell fish and seasonally grown vegetables to the hotels and restaurants. The remainder of the population are dependent on income derived from Government employment, on subsistence agriculture, and on remittances from family members in Australia and New Zealand.

Tourism in the Cook Islands

Kurosawa, Susan, “Hydro Therapy”, Weekend Australian, May 22-23, 2004, Travel Section, p.1. She writes: “Over, in, on – no matter the description, this is the tropic resort world’s most coveted accommodation. Distilled to its bare (thatched, fan-cooled, supercomfy) basics, the overwater bungalow does not, as the description suggests, loom over the water, but crouches lightly in it, on stilts.

The bungalow could be a villa, a bure, a fare, or a fale, depending which particular satellite of paradise you are in. … the illusion is of semi-isolation, the lagoon as a boundless ensuite pool”.

“Elements of the [Cook Island Tourism] Masterplan were implemented directly by the Tourist Authority under assistance provided by the then NZODA [New Zealand Official Development Assistance, the New Zealand Agency for International Development] Tourism Masterplan Implementation Programme”. The Cook islands Tourism Corporation, “Tourism Master Plan Update”, Drumbeats, May/June, 2004, p.7.

Mr. Tim Tepaki, the entrepreneur, has been reported as saying that the Cook Island market had to expand to incorporate more luxury standard accommodation which would be available for $500-1500 a night. “…Tepaki perceived Aitutaki to be the jewel in the scheme of future development … You’ve got to have the best to offer”. The Cook Islands Independent, Issue 84, February 14, 2004, p.3.

–  –  –

In 1995 the Cook Islands already had a large tourism sector and it was emphasised that the expansion of this sector was essential for the economic survival of the nation. Continued expansion occurred during the past decade. In 2003 78,328 people visited the Cook Islands (Cook Islands Tourism Corporation website, sub-section “Statistics”).

In December 2003 the Government reported that:

The tourism industry has led the growth of the Cook Islands economy for the past 20 years with an average growth in visitor arrivals for the period 1987 to 2000 of 6.3% and contribution to GDP for the same period increasing from 27% to 51%.

Tourism revenues have grown in nominal terms from $20 million in 1997 to over $81 million in 2000 (Government of the Cook Islands, 2003a:31)

Following an extensive consultation process with members of communities in ten of the Cook Islands it has been concluded that:

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