Checkpoint, RNZ Auckland, March 27, 2021

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern receives her Cook Islands counterpart Mark Brown at the Auckland Museum on March 26, 2021 (Picture for Stuff by Ryan Anderson)

Cook Islands businesses are disappointed over travel bubble vagueness, and while PM Mark Brown is “very confident” of a May start date, he said that it is a requirement for the economy’s survival into next year. 

New Zealand and Cook Islands Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern and Mark Brown met at Auckland War Memorial Museum on March 26, 2021 and jointly announced plans for a Cooks Vaccination Campaign and an aid package of $20 million to support Cook Islands government services, but no firm date for a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble. 

Ms Ardern said that there had been significant work done, and the countries were “working in earnest towards a May commencement” for a travel bubble. 

“The Director General of Health has also advised that beginning Vaccination will add to the safe opening of quarantine-free travel,” she said.

Joint Commitment 

Mr Brown told RNZ’s Checkpoint that the delegation had come with the aim of firming up a date for the bubble and – despite any reticence from New Zealand officials – he was happy with progress so far and confident of opening up in May. 

“We have made a joint commitment with New Zealand that we will be looking at May. It is a requirement for our economy now to be able to survive into the next year,” he said.

Mr Brown said that he understood New Zealand’s sentiments in terms of wanting to protect Cook Islanders, particularly in light of the recent measles epidemic in Samoa but it was time to get back to business.  

Tourism at risk

He said that without a bubble by the end of the year, private sector tourism operators, many of whom invested millions of dollars into their product, stood a real risk of losing their investments due to lack of income. 

“That is a far greater issue than just a balance sheet problem because there’s a far greater structural problem with the economy that we need to address in the first step. We are sort of still guessing what exactly New Zealand needs,” he said.

Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce President Fletcher Melvin said that he was disappointed, and New Zealand needed to start treating the Cook Islanders like adults. 

“If they said May … and they put a date on it, we would accept that. But this idea that it ‘could be’ May just means that it is probably not (going to happen). If history is anything to go by. So that is what we are going to walk away with thinking.” 

Cook Islands- a favourite destination of New Zealanders (Picture from PlanetWare)

Hard questions asked

Mr Melvin said that some hard questions needed answering about New Zealand’s lack of commitment to opening up to the Cook Islands. 

“I don’t think anybody could have walked away from that news conference with any firm answers, always vague and there is never really any commitment. We all thought we had ticked all the boxes to this stage so – I don’t know. We are sort of still guessing what exactly New Zealand needs from us. Something concrete for once so we can all try and reach those goals, whatever they are,” he said. 

Mr Melvin believed that New Zealand was being too paternalistic. 

“In the past I would be hesitant to criticise the New Zealand government. They have done a great job looking after themselves. The aid money was helpful, but not enough. We are talking about potentially $40 million,” he said.

Brown remains confident

Mr Brown said that he was “very confident” of a May start date. 

“I made clear in my discussions with officials and with the Prime Minister that we are ready now. There are a few little details that we do need to iron out but as a country, our health preparedness is at a state where we are ready to be open for business. Those details included documentation of processes in the event of an outbreak in New Zealand. Any outbreak would occur in New Zealand first and that is where we would shut down passenger travel,” he said. 

Mr Brown said his country could vaccinate the entire eligible population in two weeks. 

“We entered the Covax agreement for the supply of vaccines as part of New Zealand’s supply for the vaccine,” he said. 

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