28 Jul 2023
Pacific's 'best-kept secret' islands are now easier to get to
28 July, 2023
The Sydney Morning Herald: By Craig Tansley
Last month the first direct Jetstar flight from Australia to the Cook Islands touched down at Rarotonga International Airport.
The first of three direct flights launched per week from Sydney to Rarotonga, it marked the first time a budget carrier has flown direct to the Cook Islands from Australia and the first time any airline has offered more than one direct flight per week (pre-COVID, Air New Zealand offered one direct flight per week). It’s also the first Australian carrier since Ansett to service the route.
While the Cook Islands mightn’t seem a secret to most Australians, research by the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation shows less than one in every 100 Australians actually know where the Cook Islands are.
In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 350,000 Australians holidayed in Fiji – but only 29,000 made it to the Cook Islands. In the 20 years prior to COVID, the number of Australians travelling to the Cook Islands annually increased by only 5000 people. Meanwhile, 120,000 New Zealanders visited each year, with direct flights between Auckland and Rarotonga operating since the airport’s opening in 1974.
“They have to be the South Pacific’s best-kept secret, to Australians anyway,” Australian ex-pat Barry Weizman says. “I’ve been here over five years and most of my friends in Australia still have no clue at all where I live. Most of them think I’m in New Zealand somewhere.”
Graeme West, general manager Australasia for the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, says it’s the difficulty Australians have had flying to the country that has left the islands off our collective holiday radars.
“When you have to fly through Auckland and get on another plane, it’s hard to compete with direct flights to Fiji, or Vanuatu. But now with 30,000 seats a year (plus indirect flights through New Zealand), we’re expecting our best year for Australian visitors.”
As the Cook Islands come to the attention of the Australian public at large, can travellers expect to experience a holiday similar to those they’ve already experienced in Fiji and Vanuatu? There are some key differences. You won’t find a single chain hotel here for starters, nor will you be transported the moment you arrive to a resort or a private island. No building is taller than the tallest coconut tree – it’s the law – and there are no traffic lights or peak hour traffic. Chickens, piglets and dogs are the main traffic hazard. The speed limit is 50 km/h, or 40 km/h if travelling by scooter, as most motorists here do.
“In Fiji, Australians tend to stay around their resorts and most of their entertainment and activities are organised by resorts,” local tourism operator Charlotte Piho says. “But in the Cook Islands ... you don’t spend much time around your accommodation.
“The whole island (Rarotonga) is like a resort, and you’re not just mixing with other tourists, you’re hanging out with locals at bars and restaurants. You’re a part of their world, they’re not just working for you. It’s all about immersion. In the Cooks, you become a Cook Islander.”