Two Kiwi firms want to turn the Cook Islands’ ghost hotel into a five star resort

Two New Zealand companies have submitted a $40 million plan to restore an infamous Rarotonga resort once linked to the mafia and subject to a local curse.

Auckland-based Mirage Group Ltd and Napier builder Herbert Construction NZ Ltd have lodged an Environmental Impact Assessment with a Cook Islands Government agency seeking approval to turn the derelict Sheraton Hotel site into a five star resort.

Malcolm Herbert, who runs the Hawkes Bay building company, said guests could be staying at the refurbished hotel by mid-2016.

"All we need is the green light to start," said Mr Herbert.

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The rundown site will be familiar to the thousands of New Zealanders who holiday in the Cooks each year and travel the 36km road circling the island of Rarotonga. Horses graze on grass sprouting from cracks in broken pavers. Graffiti covers exterior walls, room wiring has been torn and hoses are all that remains of air-conditioning units.

Any fittings which could be removed have long gone and the few which remain - immovable sunken baths, high-quality wash-basins - are chipped or smashed.

Mr Herbert insists the colourful history of the site does not worry him or his development partner, Mirage Group's Simon Herbert, who is behind Auckland's Bayswater and Hobsonville marinas.

The hotel dates from a 1987 deal when the Cook Islands Government signed a $52 million contract with an Italian bank. The Italian Government insured the set-up, an Italian contractor started work but then went bust.

Even the sod-busting ceremony ushering in what guests hoped would be a shiny new era for the small Pacific nation was upstaged when an angry resident claiming to be the true resort landowner gatecrashed proceedings.

More Rua arrived dressed in warlike regalia and invoked a curse before thrusting a spear into a rock bearing a project plaque. The block split to the ground - an omen some took to signal the scheme's failure.

Another Italian company later stepped in but failed to finish the 200-room job when Rome pulled funding amid allegations of mafia-related corruption. Intrigue surfaced when an Italian project manager was slain in Vanuatu amid hints his death had hallmarks of a contract killing. It turned out to be domestic related.

Malcolm Herbert, who has a joinery factory in Fiji, said the key to completing projects in the Pacific was to accept local customs as part of a country's culture.

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Mirage has a long-term lease deal on the waterfront property. The partners say the finished resort will have 198 rooms, 16 apartments and 18 bures built over an artificial saltwater lagoon. Documents filed with the National Environment Service in Rarotonga require the Cook Islands Government to re-route the round-island road behind the property and construct two 40m rock breakwaters to protect a sandy strip in front the resort.

Cook Islands Tourism Board chairman and Air Rarotonga head Ewan Smith said the property had been a blight on the island. Its completion would give the island its first five-star resort, which could draw high-value customers from Europe and North America.

New investment was critical for the Cooks to compete with other South Pacific destinations. Tourism is the lifeblood of the Cooks' economy, which also benefits from New Zealand aid money. About two thirds of the nation's 120,000 annual visitors are from New Zealand. "Fingers crossed," said Mr Smith.

Resort dogged by Cook Islands curse

Land beneath the abandoned Sheraton Hotel has been fought over for decades. Arguments over ownership is behind the dispute, which has seen fortunes - and at least one life - waged and lost.


Photo / Babiche Martens

Known locally as Vaimaanga, the land early last century was leased by a settler, New Zealander William John Wigmore, as a copra plantation.

In 1910 landowner More Uriatua decided to cancel the lease. Wigmore objected, told More Uriatua he didn't own the land and shot him dead during a row. Convicted of manslaughter, Wigmore was briefly jailed and left the Cooks.

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In 1913, when he returned, More Uriatua's daughter Metua invoked a curse on the property, declaring that any business on the land was doomed to fail. Wigmore was the first to stumble. His plantation failed and he walked away.

Over the decades other investors ploughed money into the block but all got burned.

A pineapple project petered out, and a nursery for tropical herbs and spices bit the dust after running up big losses.

At the rear of the property rows of untended trees are all that's left of a citrus scheme.

The hotel that took shape in the the early 1990s has never welcomed a paying guest.

The only visitors who ever stayed at the hotel are claimed to have been escaped prisoners.

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