It's the typical wet, winter in New Zealand that should bring peak season for the Cook Islands. Instead, Rarotonga resorts are on the brink of collapse and in danger of taking the islands' tourism-reliant economy with them.

Travel restrictions from New Zealand - the Cooks Islands' only air link - are strangling the country's tourism sector. Operators and residents on the Covid-free island say this is being done needlessly.

An end to wage subsidies looms at the end of September, and the tourism sector is begging for an exception to New Zealand's overseas travel restrictions.

The Sea Change villas on Rarotonga employ 12 full-time staff. Photo / Supplied
The Sea Change villas on Rarotonga employ 12 full-time staff. Photo / Supplied

"It's an economic tsunami," says Craig Bennett, manager of the Sea Change Villas. "You can see it approaching and it's just going to wipe everything off the island."

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Talking to the Herald from Muri Beach which, at this time of the year should be full of tourists, Bennett explains he is "outnumbered by dogs", catching sight of a pet walker - the only other souls around.

The lack of willingness to consider an exemption for Rarotonga seems without sense, and many Cook Islanders feel betrayed by the demand for them to quarantine in "self isolation facilities" in New Zealand, which many see as disease-free islanders' greatest risk of exposure to Covid-19.

As "a Covid-free country of the realm" the closure of air links to New Zealand seem like double standards, he says. "It should be no different to flying to the Chatham islands - or Great Barrier Island for that matter."

"It's madness" not to give the island a fighting chance, Bennett says, adding there is little hope for the rest of the island's economy if travel does not resume.

"If not I think we'll see similar to what the islands saw in the early 90s," he says.

The tourism industry has allowed many of the Cook Island diaspora to return after the economic downturn that made many leave for New Zealand. The scars of this island exodus are still visible. The derelict Sheraton Resort or "cursed hotel' became an off-beat tourist attraction. Abandoned in the early 90s, the project went bankrupt and many of the skilled tradespeople fled the island. Tourists in Vaimaanga on the island's south side, would pay a small fee to explore the "biggest white elephant" in the south Pacific.

Dark Horse in a white elephant: the empty Sheraton Hotel Rarotonga Cook. Photo / File
Dark Horse in a white elephant: the empty Sheraton Hotel Rarotonga Cook. Photo / File

Now it's a haunting reminder of what might still happen to many of the island's properties.

"Those in the private sector are struggling," says Bennett. "That's not just tourism. Building work has stopped, shops are struggling. That's what happens when 70 per cent of the economy dries up overnight."

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The other end of the air bridge

In Auckland tour operators and those depending on the links to reopen to the islands are also decrying the border closures.

Rick Felderhof, managing director of Our World & Our Paific has described the delay to an air bridge as "senseless".

"There's absolutely no risk of Covid to New Zealanders," he says.

He can understand the concern that the Cook Islands' are the ones risking the most by opening borders - but with New Zealand recording no community infections for months, "the biggest risk is the Islands going bankrupt".

Felderhof says there are reasons for some Pacific Islands to be hesitant, and that for larger island economies such as Fiji a New Zealand air bridge would be not nearly enough to keep the tourism industry above water.

At the beginning of the year Samoa suffered a measles epidemic that infected almost 6000, leaving 82 dead.

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However, Rarotonga's size and close ties to New Zealand make it a special case, with other dependencies like Niue.

"It's practically domestic tourism."

New Zealanders make up over 60 per cent of the Cook Islands' tourism - Rarotonga-Auckland is the only international air bridge.

"I'm passionate about the Pacific and it's nearly criminal to let people suffer who don't need to," Felderhof says.

Since the beginning of the pandemic the islands' population of 15,200 have not recorded a single case of coronavirus. That is in spite of testing 15 per cent of the population for the infection.

Still the borders are closed to non-residents and those returning from the Cook Islands have to undergo 14 days quarantine in an isolation facility.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, last week Foreign Minister Winston Peters spoke to the Cook Islands' deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown on July 2, about the possible reopening of travel between Cook Islands and New Zealand and mitigating the impact on tourism.

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Responding to the Herald the ministry said it was "very aware that safe travel zones could be a way to soften the economic and social impacts" of the Covid-19 crisis, and this was at the centre of these conversations last week.

"The NZ Government is aware that Cook Islands Prime Minister Puna has called for the lifting of border restrictions between New Zealand and Cook Islands and the resumption of travel between our two countries."

It was committed to working with Australia to support the wider Pacific region, once it "is safe to do so".

As yet the borders are closed to non-residents and those who make the journey have to observe mandatory quarantine.