The Cook Islands Government's inaccurate and startling announcement yesterday about a tourism bubble opening with New Zealand as soon as next week has done more harm than good.
Clearly a failed attempt at trying to force Jacinda Ardern’s hand into giving a date now and using mouthpiece media to do it, it’s a rookie mistake, an embarrassment, and has done nothing for healthy diplomatic relations.
Jacinda Ardern must have choked on her cornflakes when she heard the Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown’s ambitious announcement.
So, here are the facts – yes, discussions are happening between the two governments, yes, there is an agreement for a tourism bubble, but no date has been set as to when that will be as specific processes need to happen first.
Everyone knows the Covid-free Cook Islands is crying out for tourists and that Kiwis are crying out for a safe island destination to holiday in.
It’s a match made in heaven. But it’s not unreasonable for the New Zealand Government to ensure any border reopening with island neighbours gives as much consideration to safety as to speed.
It needs to be done right the first time and it needs to be done properly.
While New Zealand looks good with no community spread of Covid, this could change down the track. There could be border breaches, there could be any manner of things. It only takes one person.
If procedures are put in place to start with, like tracking and tracing, then these can swing into action to protect both local populations and visitors.
And tourism can continue. The last thing that needs to happen is the speedy opening of a tourism bubble and then having to close it again because it wasn’t done right the first time.
It’s easy to understand the Cook Islands' desperation. Come September the island Government’s wage subsidy for those impacted by Covid-19 runs out and tourist operators will be even worse off than they already are.
Many families who rely on the tourism dollar have taken loans to build the holiday houses they rent to tourists – and interest rates in the Cook Islands are nine or 10 per cent.
The country is doing it tough, as is Samoa, as is Fiji.
Tomorrow French Polynesia will open up its border to the world, including the Covid-ridden US.
And no quarantine period for visitors shows the measure of that desperation.
That country’s leadership is taking a calculated risk with the lives of its people to protect jobs and the economy. But what a risk.
The Cook Islands tourism industry has very strong and noisy advocates – they always have been and that’s not a bad thing.
The continuous stream of calls to “open the border now” has been relentless. The campaign to get anyone on board who will listen has been widespread – personalities, talk show hosts, reporters, opposition MPs, anyone who can be used, is being used.
Theories abound about New Zealand not wanting Kiwis to take their tourist dollars elsewhere, that it’s political etc etc.
Maybe there’s some truth to that but it doesn’t change anything and you can guarantee the same people in New Zealand who are bleating on about opening the bubble now will be the first to indignantly proclaim that New Zealand didn’t look after its island neighbours should something go wrong.
Jacinda Ardern has been consistent in her messaging about protecting Pacific countries and that’s hardly surprising after being burnt by Samoa’s measles epidemic which originated from New Zealand.
Speed is important, it absolutely is, but so is safety for our island neighbours.