First quarantine-free flight to Rarotonga from NZ 'first step' to recovery for Cook Islands

The first flight from New Zealand in the travel bubble with the Cook Islands will touch down in Raratonga today, ending 15 months of no tourists for the Pacific nation. 

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Mark Brown says today’s flight is the “first step” in a long road to recovery for the islands. Source: Breakfast

Landing at 2.30pm May 17, Cook Islands Time, the 300 passengers who departed Auckland will be greeted by music from Jake Numanga, who is fondly known as "Papa Jake".

Papa Jake told Pacific Correspondent Barbara Dreaver on Breakfast he had been playing for more than 35 years and had never missed playing for a flight. 

He remarked "we need them" when asked about what the travel bubble meant for the islands. 

The Kia Orana Aunties, described by Dreaver as the "Kardashians of the islands", will also be there to greet travellers. 

They joked they were the "best thing in the Cooks", so people had to meet them. 

At the airport in Avarua too, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said the opening of the bubble today was "a big relief".

"We're looking forward to this first flight."

He said today's first flight was the "first step" in a long road to recovery for the islands. 

Prior to Covid-19, the island had enjoyed 175,000 visitors annually.

With tourism playing a vital role in the country, their loss had meant a more than 20 per cent drop in GDP. 

Brown said the Cook Islands and New Zealand had worked hard and put in the "hard yards" to establish the two-way quarantine free-travel. 

With the Covid-19 vaccine arriving on today's flight, he said those on the frontlines would be vaccinated "within hours of arrival". 

The Kia Orana Aunties said this would include them. 

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The Islander Hotel’s Rohan Ellis says “today is the perfect day to reset” and welcome the first quarantine-free flight to Rarotonga. Source: Breakfast

It would take about 12 weeks to vaccinate the country's entire population, with the vaccine roll-out beginning tomorrow. 

Rohan Ellis, owner of The Islander Hotel, said the country was "really looking forward" to the establishment of the travel bubble today. 

He told Breakfast it had been "quite low-key" in Rarotonga for the past 15 months.

The Government had been a "lifeline" for the people, Ellis said, providing a business support package, a wage subsidy, and interest rate holidays.

"They have really stepped over and above to keep everybody in line and keep everybody ready for today," he said. 

"The last 15 months has given the island the opportunity to recover and regenerate and today is the perfect day to reset and welcome visitors from New Zealand to Rarotonga."