Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Licence to annoy the poor tourists

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Holidaymakers queuing in the heat so they can see the sights on a moped would rather feel the heat on a beach.

It took Finn McCahon-Jones two hours over three visits to the police station to get a Cook Islands driver's licence, precious time taken out of his holiday.
It took Finn McCahon-Jones two hours over three visits to the police station to get a Cook Islands driver's licence, precious time taken out of his holiday.

I have a Licence to Drive a Motor Vehicle, issued by the Government of the Cook Islands. This may not seem like something to skite about but it is, in its small way, a testament to human perseverance.

Visiting Rarotonga a year ago I, like thousands of other tourists, rented a little moped to get around on and, as the law demanded, dutifully queued at the police station for a local driver's licence.

It was a long wait in the heat, the thick end of an hour. I can think of many better ways to spend the first day of a short holiday. They took my photo, recorded my details, charged me $20 and explained apologetically that the machine that made the plastic licences was out of order and they'd send it later (to my home address, where it would be an expensive but useless memento).

I endured the inconvenience and mild indignity - I've been riding motorcycles and scooters since 1969, after all - as part of the cultural experience of visiting our Pacific neighbours.

But the non-delivery was a step too far. Planning another trip this month, I emailed the local constabulary to inquire after my lost licence.

The news got grimmer: the meltdown of an entire database meant they had lost the details of several months' applications. They were kind enough - after recovering my email, which also seemed to go missing for several months - to take my word for it that I'd paid for one and issue it at last. But it got me thinking.

Like the rest of the island nations in the Pacific, the Cook Islands is not a party to the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic which provides, among many other things, that a driving licence lawfully issued in one of the 67 signatory countries will be recognised in another.

It works in Britain, the US and Europe, along with Mongolia and all the Stans. But in the Cooks, they like you to queue up and pay. And since I applied, they have made it even harder because you now have to bring your passport as well as your licence: last week, I watched a dozen exasperated punters swear volubly when they realised this as they reached the head of the queue, which can stretch out the door.

It seems a slightly offhand way to treat a member of the extended family: the Cooks, like Niue, are in a special relationship with New Zealand technically known as "free association".

Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens: they carry New Zealand passports - and they can drive in New Zealand for 12 months on their Cook Islands licences.

So, even though I was on holiday, I made an appointment to see Police Minister Teariki Heather and have a talk about the matter. He told me that the Cabinet had "taken on board" tourism industry representations and other complaints and decided two months ago that valid licences from other countries "would be acceptable here".

The sticking point is the status of the instant moped riders - tourists without motorcycle licences saddling up for the first time.

At the moment, they have to demonstrate their competence to the bike hirers by riding up the road a bit without falling off.

The minister suggests that the first-timers will be "directed to the police station for some sort of practical test", which seems ill thought-out to say the least: it would replace a licence queue with a test queue that would be shorter but, at least potentially, much slower moving.

The vagueness of the whole proposal - there is still no date for its introduction, though the minister told me Cabinet regulations were typically implemented within three months - had a strong ad hoc whiff about it all.

The Finance Minister would "have to take a look" at how to compensate for the loss of income, Heather said. He instructed his executive assistant, Ben Mose, to provide me with details of tourist numbers and projected revenue loss, but the rest has been silence and my follow-up emails to him seem to have gone missing too.

The fee, of course, is not the point. A $20 impost on tourist drivers, who use the island's road, is perfectly fair: add it on to the rental charge and collect it from the hire firm. But a country that depends on tourism should avoid annoying tourists - and a queue is a sure-fire annoyance.

Sometime soon(ish) then, your licence will work in the Cooks. My advice: don't hold your breath.

- NZ Herald

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