Sustainable Tourism Development

The Executive Summary of the Geotourism Strategy produced in 2005 began: “Tourism is the most important sector of the Cook Islands economy yet it represents just a trivial part of a large, highly structured, and highly competitive global industry. To succeed, it is simply not enough to be handy to small
markets like New Zealand, to be a “safe” destination (if you are long flights from major markets), and to promote the classic fantasy of a South Pacific of blue skies, white beaches, and dusky maidens.
Furthermore, success in tourism cannot be measured just in commercial terms using crude yardsticks like the number of visitors. Tourism affects everyone and everything in the country, to a greater or lesser extent. Because it brings in people from outside with their various demands and their own attitudes, values and ways of doing things, it affects the environment, society and culture.”

Tourism in the Cook islands developed in a stop-start manner through the 1990s and 2000s. This was more due to outside factors, like airline economics (such as the loss of the through route from Frankfurt and London) than anything else. While a range of individuals and businesses have made valuable contributions to developing tourism in the Cook Islands (including such pioneers as Hugh Henry and leading operators like Ewan Smith), the industry is still at the mercy of forces it cannot control.  

One of the keys to overall success in tourism development is a clear strategic intent in terms of destination style - quite simply, what type of tourism does the country want?  Fifteen years ago the first Master Plan criticized the lack of distinctiveness in what the Cook Islands was offering. The situation has not changed since then, with the Rarotonga (the main face of Cook Islands tourism) developing a middle-of-the-road, rest-and-recreation style of tourism, with no clear market focus and mundane branding based on a poor pun (see right).  If lack of distinctiveness was a problem back in 1991, it is even more so now in a global  industry with every country is struggling to differentiate itself, typically with much larger promotional budgets than the Cook Islands. Close neighbour, New Zealand, has realised the value of having a target market and clear positioning. It now has tightly integrated development and marketing strategies to deliver sustainable tourism. All the reasons why New Zealand has focused its approach on the interactive Traveller, including financial constraints and finite resources, are equally relevant in the Cook Islands.

This strategy has a strategic intent that starts with the people and environment of the Cook Islands, not a narrow economic perspective. As such it builds on the goal of the George Ellis-led Aitutaki Tourism Task Force in 1994 of the development of tourism in a manner that is economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable. It does not, therefore, seek to define targets for numbers of hotel rooms or the carrying capacity of individual islands as the 1991 Master Plan did. These are management issues which can be addressed in a range of ways if the context is right and appropriate mechanisms are put in place. They also need to be dealt with in a systematic way at the individual island level by partnerships between the Island Tourism Organisations and the Island Councils, working within the framework of agreed Island tourism plans.

This broad-ranging approach is essential because of the Cook Islands’ dependence on tourism. If the strategy does not work for all Cook Islanders, it will ultimately achieve nothing. As the materi says, “E a'a te mea nui rava atu o teia ao? Ka karanga au e, e tangata, e tangata, e tangata!" (“What is the most important in the world? I say to you, it is people, it is people, it is people”). In social and economic terms, the fundamental question is “what role will Cook Islanders have in tourism?” In particular, are indigenous Cook Islanders to be successful owners and managers, just wage workers or perhaps watch what is happening in their country from Australia or New Zealand?

One of the particular challenges is to find a style of tourism that will work throughout the Cook Islands, not just on Rarotonga.  Tourism development in the Cook Islands largely equates at the moment to national development. But the “rest and recreation” focus on Rarotonga now will simply not work on the outlying islands.

The questions around destination style have been well considered by the Sustainable Destinations Initiative of the National Geographic Society. While simplified, the spectrum between “touring”, “rest and recreation” and “entertainment” destinations usefully shows the slippery slope of unfocused tourism development. The Society advocates instead a form of eco-cultural tourism they call “geotourism” . This they define as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place - its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents”.

This strategy takes the National Geographic’s definition of geotourism as the starting point and adapts it to local circumstances. It sets the goal as: to develop tourism that sustains and enhances the well-being of resident Cook Islanders and their environment, society, economy and culture (a reframing which came about in part through discussions with former Premier, Sir Geoffrey Henry).

Five purposes spell out the goal:

  1. (1)ensure that resident Cook Islanders benefit from tourism;

  2. (2)protect and enhance the Cook Islands environment;

  3. (3)enhance the tourism industry’s economic viability;

  4. (4)protect and enhance the tangible and intangible indigenous culture; and

  5. (5)implement national and island tourism plans in an efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable manner.

The strategy defines the expected results of achieving these purposes and a range of actions needed to meet them.  The agenda is large, but so is the task. These actions are summarised in the main report (which is available on request). They are set out in more detail in the Appendices which also includes a Logframe for planning and monitoring. This shows who are the key stakeholders; the indicators used to tell when the action has been achieved; where the information is coming from; and what the action assumes will happen to make it possible.

Making the assumptions clear is important because, in some respects, those underpinning the 1991 Master Plan were not robust. A lot of the thinking in the Master Plan was based, for instance, on the completion of the Vaimaanga Hotel and strong government regulation of the industry. Neither of these eventuated. One of the most important assumptions for this geotourism strategy is that public policy and the public sector is engaged, aligned, committed and resourced. This has not been the case in the past. A concerted approach involving a wide range of stakeholders will be needed to implement the strategy.

During the mid-1990s the Tourism Master Plan Implementation Committee was an effective mechanism for supervising the New Zealand-funded Tourism Master Plan Implementation Assistance Programme. A similar co-ordinating committee was recommended for the geotourism strategy. It was recommended that this should have wide representation including the Island Tourism Organisations, the Mayoral Forum, and traditional leaders.

In terms of the impact of adopting a geotourism approach, research by National Geographic with the Tourism Industry Association of America, and by Tourism New Zealand shows that there is a market for the geotourism destination style. National Geographic, for example, estimates a potential market with strong inclinations towards geotourism of 55 million in the United States alone.

A geotourism focus also avoids:

  1. Bulletcompeting head-to-head with Fiji on price in the R&R resort market (a fight the Cooks Islands can’t win - except when Fiji is undermining its own industry with security concerns);

  2. Bulletplaying “me-too” in ecotourism which the SPTO is promoting across the region; or

  3. Bulletnew, large resort development on islands like Aitutaki (which was mooted when the Strategy was being developed but which thankfully has not proceeded).

The geotourism style is broadly compatible with most of the existing accommodation as geotourists/ interactive travellers stay in all types. In New Zealand, 18% of Interactive Traveller visitor nights are spent in backpackers. At the same time more interactive than non-interactive travellers stayed in “Resorts, Luxury Lodges, and Retreats”.  Interactive travellers spent twice as many visitor nights in motels as those classed as “non-interactive”. They also go home with higher levels of satisfaction than the regular visitor.  The fact that this type of traveller also tends to be Internet-savvy will also mitigate some of the issues related to the costs of old-style promotions and representation in both wholesale and retail markets.

Adoption of the strategy will also address many of the issues raised in the consultation (the most extensive every undertaken in tourism in the Cook Islands) undertaken during strategy development. For example, very few people wanted to see staffing shortfalls in tourism made up by bringing in workers from overseas (with potential social consequences). Most would rather see efforts made to retain and even attract back Cook Islanders from New Zealand and Australia.

A geotourism approach provides the basis for employing and valuing Cook Islanders in tourism and for long-term economic, social and environmental sustainability. The geotourism approach also aligns directly with the new environmental initiative embodied in the National Environment Strategic Action Framework. When effectively implemented, many of the measures in the Framework would provide long-term security for a geotourism-based industry.

A geotourism approach for the industry would also address the economic issues related to the high rate of “leakage” of foreign exchange earnings. While it is inevitable that there is a reliance on a fair proportion of imported goods, the “leakage” of tourism revenues is lower for people who stay longer, travel wider, buy local crafts, and consume local foods and beverages. In conclusion, from an industry perspective, Cook Islands has geotourism resources in abundance. This strategy defines a path for tourism development that will protect and enhance them for the benefit of all Cook Islanders.”


In August 2006, the Minister
for Tourism, the Honourable Wilkie Rasmussen signed the National Geographic’s “Geotourism Charter”, the first country in the Pacific to do so.  Despite Ministerial endorsement and widespread support for the strategy during the consultation (particularly among indigenous Cook islanders, Including the traditional leaders, the House of Ariki) the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation has yet to fully implement the strategy. 

Under the former CEO of CITC there was a rebranding which took on some visual elements of the culture, but the wide-ranging agenda designed to arrest the drift further into rest-and-recreation tourism and the loss of population on the Outer Islands has not been actioned.

In the interim, Rarotonga has possibly benefited in terms of visitor numbers from events in Fiji and the boost in visitor numbers from New Zealand who now make up over 60% of all visitors to the Cook islands.  But the situation in Aitutaki for some of the smaller operators is dire; little progress has been made on tourism development elsewhere; and visitor numbers is a crude measure of the state of tourism telling nothing about yield, the developmental effects, or the distribution of benefits.


Cook Islands Geotourism Strategy

Copyright Mahi Taapoi, 2008-12.  All Rights Reserved. 

Mahi Taapoi is the specialist tourism development arm of Dialogue Consultants Ltd, Auckland and Wellington, Aotearoa-New Zealand