Cooks in a whirl to regain visitors

By Jim Eagles

In the Cook Islands they have cooperation down to a T for getting tourism back to normal. Jim Eagles pays a visit.

A bulldozer at the Edgewater Resort restores the beach while tourists enjoy the sun. Photo / Jim Eagles
A bulldozer at the Edgewater Resort restores the beach while tourists enjoy the sun. Photo / Jim Eagles

What do they do in Rarotonga when the place is hit by five cyclones in little more than a month?

Print a T-shirt: "Cook Islands Cyclone survivor. Outlast 'em all. Meena, February 2005. Nancy, February 2005. Olaf, February 2005. Percy, March 2005."

The latest, Rae, which didn't cause any real problems, doesn't rate a mention.

Been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt. And a lot of people are buying the T-shirts to celebrate the fact that the islands have indeed outlasted the worst cyclone season on record.

Despite the appalling battering they have taken, the signs of which are everywhere, the Cooks are definitely open for business and ready for tourists.

The spirit which produced the T-shirts, making light of nature at its worst, has also worked wonders in restoring services, repairing hotels and resorts, and getting tourist attractions back into action.

Kelly Cook, marketing officer with Cook Islands Tourism Corporation reckons "about 5 per cent of rooms are still closed as a result of cyclone damage and we're about 60 per cent full, so there's still plenty of spare capacity".

From my observations I'd have thought that occupancy figure a little optimistic. Most tourist operators I spoke to said things were very quiet and I arrived for a tour of the Cook Islands Cultural Village to find it closed "because we didn't have enough bookings today or tomorrow".

But there's definitely plenty of spare rooms because resorts are getting repairs done faster than travellers are returning.

A good example of the situation is provided by the Edgewater Resort - where I stayed last week - which was one of the worst hit by the cyclones and one of the quickest to recover.

Along with other tourist operators, the resort was warned by the Cook Islands Government late last year that ocean temperatures meant this would probably be a bad summer for cyclones.

"We put a cyclone plan in place," says general manager Justin Rous, "though we never dreamed we'd have to use it quite so often." Of course there's not much you can do to stop a cyclone, so the plan was basically to remove the sliding doors and furniture from the vulnerable seafront units, move guests to safer units inland, and hope any damage was not too serious.

"The impact of Olaf was much worse than anything the resort has experienced before but we never had to close," Rous says.

"Our guests were quite safe in the units further back, and although the dining area was closed were were able to provide breakfasts in our upstairs conference suite and other meals in our secondary restaurant, the Spaghetti House, which is well away from the sea."

Within a few days of the fifth cyclone, Rae, the resort was pretty much running as usual. "We haven't repaired all the rooms yet," says Rous, "but we're only a third full so there's no hurry for that. We're better off putting our resources into more urgent things."

That has included building new walls along much of the seafront to provide improved protection from any future cyclones.

The finishing touch came the day after I arrived when trucks, diggers and bulldozers restored the white sandy beach.

The sun came out, the loungers were filled with suntanning bodies - even while the diggers were working - the pool was busy and beachside bar was full of tourists drinking cold beers and cocktails with names like Hurricane Heta.

I went for a snorkel that afternoon and the fish were back in the lagoon too.

Cyclone? What cyclone? Pass the sunblock.

Not all resorts have been so lucky. The Crown Beach Resort just along the coast, for instance, is expected to stay closed for some months. But almost everywhere else the "vacancy" signs are up.

Most restaurants, even the Crown Resort's Windjammer Restaurant, are also back in business.

One of the few exceptions is the landmark Trader Jack's in the heart of the capital, Avarua, which was gutted by the storms.

Owner Jack Cooper did re-open for a time using a container as a base - it was quickly nicknamed Jack-in-a-box - but when cyclones continued bearing down he decided it would be more prudent to wait for the season to pass.

Other establishments in Avarua have been quick to try to fill the gap. Outside the shattered remains of Trader Jack's another waterfront operation, the Whatever Bar and Grill, has placed a sandwich board paying tribute to Cyclone Meena for having improved its access and offering "mini Olaf burgers" and "Nancy catch of the day".

Rarotonga's many tours are all running much as usual although Avana-Eco Tours has had to suspend its kayak and mountain bike trips around the Avana Lagoon after the base building was smashed by Cyclone Nancy.

But the companion Raro Eco-Tours is still taking visitors round the island by van and using owner Paul Lynch's seaside home as a base.

"That many cyclones is a record," says Lynch, "so now we know we can get through the worst that can happen. We've taken a bit of a knock but we're already back in action and as long as the tourists keep coming and enjoying themselves we'll be fine."

In fact the extent of the damage done by the cyclones - and the amazing amount of restoration work done - is now something of a tourist attraction.

Everywhere there are damaged or boarded-up houses, uprooted trees and ruined crops, piles of iron torn from roofs and mounds of coral flung inland by the storms.

The villages have mostly carried out their own repairs on a co-operative basis, gathering at the meeting house each morning to decide on the priority for the day, the men then going off to do the work and the women cooking communal meals.

One small example of this approach was offered by our Eco-Tours guide, Francis Williams, who fled his house to take his family to safety when the winds started stripping off the roof. "When I came back to see what I could save my neighbours had already tied the roof down and the rest of it was still there."

Working together, the villages have cleared roads and paths, replanted gardens, and patched up homes and buildings.

The historic Titikaveka Cook Islands Christian Church, which has stood as a centre of worship since 1835, was badly hit by Nancy. But last week the villagers were putting the finishing touches to the roof and patching the coral block walls ready to resume worshipping there on Sunday. Other historic buildings seem to have escaped, but an avenue of pines trees in the church area of Avarua, said by our guide to have been planted by an early missionary, the Reverend Aaron Buzacott, and reputed to be the tallest in the Pacific islands, were so weakened by the winds they had to be topped.

Locals have also cleared away the piles of rubble the cyclones dumped on the memorial at the gap in the reef at Avana marking the traditional site where canoes set out to migrate to New Zealand. Nearby are two shipping containers which the cyclone left sitting on the beach.

The storms left the huge replica sailing canoe which sits beside the memorial relatively unscathed, but a smaller sailing canoe nearby, which was part of the anti-nuclear fleet at Mururoa, has been smashed into driftwood.

The island's art and craft galleries are flourishing, with the exception of the Avananui Gallery which was smashed by Nancy.

But one aspect of island life not yet back to normal is the fruit supply. The Punanganui Market in Avarua, usually piled high with every kind of tropical fruit, had very little during my visits last week, though there was still plenty of craft work on sale.

Rarotonga is an incredibly verdant place, and the rains brought by Cyclone Rae have further boosted growth, so supplies should be flowing again before long. And there is a bonus. All the mangoes blown down by the cyclones have resulted in a boom in the manufacture of bush beer. It's just the stuff to wash away the cyclone blues.

Another reason for cheer is out at the international airport where Jack Nanumanga is once again welcoming visitors with his ukulele.

Nanumanga, who is reckoned to have met every flight since the airport was opened in 1974, had to miss a couple of days when he was confined to hospital with cracked ribs after being blown off the roof of his house.

But now he's back, singing, strumming and calling a cheery "Kia orana" to tourists, as though nothing had happened. "It wasn't much," he said. "Nothing to complain about."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Flight Centre has packages to Rarotonga.

Getting around: Budget Rent-a-Car can be contacted on 00 682 20895.

Further information: See cook-islands.com.

Jim Eagles visited Rarotonga as guest of Flight Centre, Cook Islands Tourism Corporation and Budget Rent-a-Car.

- NZ Herald

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