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The Cook Islands is in a precarious position that will not improve until New Zealand sends big-spending New Zealanders, and plenty of them.
About 80% of the Cook Islands’ income is from tourism. It is the economic lifeblood of a country whose biggest resources are its beauty and hospitality.
New Zealand accounts for about 60% of all visitor arrivals — at least, it did before the global pandemic stopped international tourism altogther.
The Cook Islands swiftly closed its borders. It had no choice: with 80 hospital beds and two respirators, it did not have the capacity for its people to get sick.
As a consequence, the Cook Islands is Covid-19 free, and free to seek help from its closest, community transmission-free, ally.
New Zealand and the islands are linked by more than their virus status. The Cook Islands is self-governing in free association with New Zealand, is part of the Realm, and its people are New Zealand citizens.
Those who live there have the same rights as mainland New Zealanders. Like the rest of us, that means they have the right to expect a fair deal from Wellington.
The travel bubble idea has been live since New Zealand started working on one with Australia. It now seems the least risky option.
The governments have hammered out the text of an arrangement to facilitate quarantine-free travel, which also outlines the health and border requirements and details a slew of border and travel protocols. Next, health and border officials will undertake quality assurance and system checks to ensure the arrangement is ready for a final decision.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the bubble might be in place before the end of the year. She also says it will not happen if it cannot be assuredly, safely achieved.
The stakes are high. New Zealand will expect the Cook Islands to prove it has complete control of its borders in a maritime zone where boat-borne island hopping was the norm.
It will also need to be sure its testing and contact tracing regimes are robust and complete, and that there is no potential for lag-time in reporting suspected cases to its bubble partner.
The Cook Islands will need the same assurances. After all, the tiny nation is opening its borders to a much bigger country that has many more cases presenting at its many borders.
Yesterday, a Cook Islands tourism business owner said the process was taking too long and that many jobs would be lost if the bubble was not in place soon.
Hundreds of Cooks Island New Zealanders would be out of work, joining the thousands of other New Zealand workers displaced by the collapse of international tourism.
He blamed the timeframe on the mainland’s effective tourism lobby, which he said did not want to lose millions to a destination that should be treated the same as Queenstown or Rotorua.
If this is the case — and the Prime Minister suggests it is not — then the loss to New Zealand tourism must be considered alongside the gains if the bubble works. The tourism flow will be largely one-way, and thousands of New Zealanders will spend there what they might otherwise have spent at home. But the bubble might also provide the tools to reopen New Zealand tourism to select parts of the world.
It will be a small-scale test-case as to how to establish a workable, safe bubble with an overseas territory. What is learned should help New Zealand more quickly respond to safe opportunities with other Pacific countries and, if things settle down, parts of Australia and Asia.
It will provide a blueprint for further agreements and it will reassure other countries that New Zealand is ready to receive their citizens without risking their Covid-19 status.
If successful, a bubble that links New Zealand citizens will show the world we are open for business, but on mutually satisfactory terms.