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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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…there is no clear vision for the future of tourism in this country … we have had what the National Geographic Society calls ‘destination style drift’ towards being a ‘rest and recreation’ destination which is hard for the outsider to tell from any other white sand and palm tree place in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, or Caribbean.…the recommendation from the consultation phase is that we need to focus our efforts on developing a style of tourism that sustains and enhances the well being of resident Cook Islanders and their environment, culture and heritage (Cook Island Tourism Corporation 2004:1).

Concern was expressed during the Cook Islands 1st National Development Forum held in November 2003 regarding the disproportionate amount of foreign owned businesses. in the country, particularly in Rarotonga. In the nine years since 1996 45 per cent of the businesses registered with the Cook Islands Development Investment Board had foreign investors (Government of the Cook Islands, 2004a:10). Further, “65 per cent of accredited resorts and self catering accommodation on Rarotonga are owned by foreign interests” (Government of the Cook Islands, 2004a:10). The effect of this, combined with substantial out-migration from 1995 onwards, has caused a significant erosion of the indigenous (Maori) culture.

The lack of an environmental strategy linked to tourism development was criticised during sessions of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation-sponsored Cook Islands Tourism Forum, held in Rarotonga, 3-4 December 2002. A staff member of the Cook Islands’ Government Environment Service stated: “The reality is that while many people talk about conserving the environment we face major difficulty in achieving compliance”. He blamed “The absence of regulations, ignoring of strategies such as the Tourism Master Plan, National Environmental Management Strategy 1994, and the Rarotonga Environment Act 1994” (Cook Islands Tourism Corporation 2003:77-78).

Environmental matters have become subject to greater regulation in the Cook Islands since November 19, 2003 when the Cook Islands Government brought into law an Environment Act. This Act gives greater powers to the Island Environment Officers who work in conjunction with local committees, the Island Environment Authorities as well as Island Councils. A requirement of this Act is that any developer applying for a permit will have to obtain an environmental impact assessment report..Plans for resort developments are also displayed in government offices to enable members of the public to see them and lodge objections.

In 1995 the Cook Islands government restructured the public service by halving the number of employees. This action was in response to the recommendations of foreign economic consultants that there was an urgent need for financial reform. At the time it was anticipated that some of the public servants who had been made redundant would, following a government-sponsored transition programme, become small business proprietors, perhaps particularly becoming involved in tourism ventures. Some did, but many emigrated with their families to New Zealand and to Australia. The population decreased by approximately 16 per cent In 2001 the population was 14,990, with 63 per cent of the population classed as “urban”.

Income in the form of remittances and gifting in cash and kind from expatriate Cook Islanders is important for the national economy..

The government also receives aid funding from, among other countries, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, The People’s Republic of China, France, the Asia Development Bank and the European Commission.

Aitutaki Aitutaki has a resident population of around.1400. Many former residents live and work in Rarotonga or in Australia or New Zealand.

Most of the island households maintain strong inks with expatriate members of their families overseas. In 2004 “mature” tourist accommodation was available on the island in the form of two “luxury” hotels and a “luxury” resort. The older of the two hotels, the Aitutaki Resort and Spa, was built twenty years ago and has eight bungalows with part of their verandas built over the waters of the lagoon. In 2004 these cost visitors $1590 per night, but other bungalows on the property are about a third of this.

There are twenty businesses offering six to eighteen self-contained accommodation units, variously termed “lodges”, “villas” or “bungalows”, in a price range from $30-$200 per night. Most such units have fans and solar water heaters, and the more expensive have air-conditioning. Some of the small tourist properties have composting toilets and rain water tanks. Although the usual tourist facilites, such as cafes, are few, Aitutaki clearly gives tourists a high level of aesthetic and experiential satisfaction. A search for Aitutaki via Google found many tourist “blogs” describing people’s experiences. I also found high levels of satisfaction in fifty interviews which I had with visiting tourists.

Most of the small scale tourism accommodation businesses are owned and managed by a husband and wife, who employ one or two workers as cleaners. At least one of each of these partners was born on Aitutaki; several of the spouses are from New Zealand, Australia, or in one case, Tonga. The oldest of these businesses, a guest house, was established twenty-four years ago and the second oldest eighteen years ago. In both these cases the business of renting accommodation began almost accidentally in that it seemed logical to do this during the periods the houses were not being used by their owners who were living and working in New Zealand.

In 2003/2004 approvals were granted for the building of three new complexes. Two of these comprised twelve stand-alone units, with eight stand alone units in another. The quality and aesthetic appeal of these constructions varied. The new constructions are comprised of clusters of small, detached buildings which are located on sites fronting or close to the lagoon. Two of these sets of units have the

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appearance of sheds or garages, as do a number located on other sites. That is, they are rectangular, with small windows and fronted by a verandah.

The builders of the newer accommodation on Aitutaki have invested large amounts of money because of their belief that there will be a continuous increase in the number of tourists visiting Aitutaki. This view was optimistic in that in 2004 the daily occupancy rate was quite low (30-40 per cent). The low occupancy rate was attributed by some proprietors to the fact that there are well-patronised day trips for tourists who are flown over from Rarotonga to cruise and snorkel in the lagoon. Nevertheless, there is a steady flow of visitors who stay for three to five days. However, this flow is seasonal and there is local speculation that many of the new developments may often be empty. However, in late 2003 the then Prime Minister, Robert Woonton, during the opening of the Aitutaki airport runway extension, predicted that large-capacity planes would soon be landing there carrying large numbers of tourists travelling direct from the U.S.A. and Canada.

The piecemeal development of accommodation on Aitutaki has, until recently, occurred with little reference to environmental issues, including the protection of the coastal landscapes, maintenance of the quality of the water in the lagoon and the capacity of the local water supply. In 2003 the Aitutaki Island Council approved the permit for the new luxury hotel on the grounds that such a hotel would provide jobs for island residents. This is questionable as many of the residents in the employable age group live either in Rarotonga or overseas.

Water and land issues It is water – the lagoon – which attracts tourists to Aitutaki. The lagoon offers many recreational opportunities, including sailing, fishing, snorkelling and simply relaxing, while looking at the ever changing vistas. However, it is fresh water, or lack of it, that has caused local concern about the impact of increased tourist numbers on the island’s infrastructure, particularly on the water supply.

Many members of the population have worked and lived in New Zealand and in Australia. They live in modern style bungalows and have become used to having indoor bathrooms and constant supplies of water. In 2003 there was a well publicised campaign by the Ministry for Sustainable Development and the Environment to encourage household members to conserve water.

Many households on Aitutaki have rain water collection tanks and a Canadian aid-funded scheme is in the offing which will involve assisting others to obtain tanks. At present the water which is piped, free of charge, to island households, most of which have flush toilets and showers, is drawn from collection galleries 290 metres long in an area known as Vaipeka. The collection galleries contain accumulated seepage of groundwater from the hills behind them. The water is pumped to three large water tanks and then piped to households. The water tanks were built with Australian government aid in the 1980s and 1990s and the Vaipeka galleries were renovated and extended in the 1990s also with funding from AUSAID. Most owner/builders of tourist accommodation have large rainwater tanks with pumps to supply the bungalows/units, but some have also built their own wells to tap into and pump out supplies of groundwater. Some of these businesses also utilise the free piped water.

Up until May 23, 2004 there had been no public meeting of Aitutaki people to enable them to discuss the implications of the accelerated building program or the possibility of one or even other luxury hotels being constructed in the near future. There was a groundswell of dissent but this tended to be expressed in private conversations. (see Cowling 2005, in press). There was particular concern about the way in which family leaseholds have been purchased and sometimes sold on to investors, both Cook Island and foreign. Extended family land holdings, including sites on the islets in the lagoon, vary in size. The smallest is about quarter of an acre, and they are often dispersed in different locations on the island.

Land is currently used for house-lots and for agriculture, although many hectares are currently uncultivated because the owners live overseas. Fallowing is also practised. Officially and traditionally, land cannot be sold. Pieces of land, ranging in size from half-an-acre to several acres can be leased to a family or non-family member for sixty years, provided a majority of the members of an extended family [kainga] who live on the island agree. Aitutaki residents can represent non-resident land owners living in say, Australia or New Zealand, in this process. The would-be lessee has to state whether the intended use of the land is for building a house or for agricultural or commercial purposes. The former is the most common form of land transfer. The lease can be reviewed within five or fifteen years.

Originally, the payment by a resident of Aitutaki for such a lease was $1.00 per annum, but it is understood that outsiders would pay more.

Many expatriate Cook Islanders hope, at some time, to retire and return home. A number of partially built homes which can be seen on Aitutaki are testament to this hope. As families accumulate savings they arrange for containers of building materials to be delivered to the island and then spend a short period on the island supervising the construction. A few of the guest houses on Aitutaki were built by the owners in this way and were then turned into budget accommodation for tourists.

Conclusion People can hardly be blamed for wanting to remain in their home islands and earn a living and tourism ventures have seemed to be a viable way of doing so. The problems inherent in encouraging visits to Aitutaki by greater numbers of tourists have been acknowledged in reports to the Cook Islands Government. Some “rationing” has been suggested, with a figure of 500 per day perceived as the maximum appropriate for visitors staying overnight in accommodation on Aitutaki (Rey Puapii, Atitutaki Tourism Officer, pers. comm.

March 2004).

The local concerns about the alienation of land have been noted by Government agencies. The Economic Focus Group in November 2003 when reporting their findings to the 1st National Development Forum noted that there was “Continuing uncertainty and tensions over land, especially on Rarotonga and Aitutaki” (Government of the Cook Islands, 2003c:2-8). The Law and Governance Focus Group reported that “Land issues have become critical with more Cook Islanders becoming disenfranchised from their land”. Additionally, this Group reported that “Disparity will continue to grow between Rarotonga and the Outer Islands and within the Outer Islands with continued division amongst decision makers on matters such as traditional titles, religion and sport, affecting the cooperative effects of governance. The Infrastructure Group reported that that the supply of accessible safe water was inadequate.

An ideal picture of the future has been articulated by planners and politicians in the Cook Islands in their recent discussions, together with a long list of priorities. (Government of the Cook Islands 2003c). However, it seems unlikely, given the shaky start of a coalition

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of politicians in a “Government of National Unity” in November 2004, that sufficient and speedy action will be taken in the near future in the ways in which many people would wish.

The promotion of geotourism may or may not assist the small business owners of Aitutaki. Perhaps it may generate assistance to encourage and enable local people to restore aspects of the island’s environment, including wetland areas, and slow the pollution and despoliation of the lagoon. It is clear that the local people should be kept better informed by the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation and the Island Council on decisions being made about tourism ventures, such as the proposed luxury hotel, rather than reading the news in the Cook Island newspapers or sharing misinformation in the local stores. This may help persuade them to see the possible benefits of tourism for all. They would need a guarantee of government support (such as improving water supply) to ensure their quality of life will not be impaired. Any degree of commitment however, will be affected by the fact that many local people have the option of (regretfully) leaving the island (for Rarotonga) and the Cook Islands for countries such as New Zealand on a short and long term basis.

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