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'Spirit of optimism' in the air ahead of travel bubble with NZ, Cook Islands PM says

There’s a “spirit of optimism” in the air as the Cook Islands look ahead to the opening of a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand, Prime Minister Mark Brown says. 

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Mark Brown says the bubble is great news for the islands’ economy, but there’s a long road ahead to recovery. Source: Breakfast

Yesterday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the bubble would be in operation from May 17. Air New Zealand said it would be operating two to three flights a week to the islands, ramping up to daily flights come the July school holidays. 

It follows a year of difficulty for the Pacific nation that gets more than 60 per cent of its GDP from tourism. Last month, Brown told Breakfast his country’s economy was in freefall, and its tourism industry was losing a million dollars a day in revenue.

Today, Brown said he was pleased to see bookings to visit the Cook Islands started soon after Ardern’s announcement yesterday afternoon. 

“They’ve been ready, they’ve been waiting,” he said of Cook Islands businesses. 

“We’ll just see what the actual demand will be.”

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The travel bubble is set to begin on May 17. Source: 1 NEWS

Because he wasn’t expecting Air New Zealand flights to increase significantly this month, it gave businesses time to prepare for any influx of visitors that may come, Brown said. 

“I was at the market on Saturday and there’s a spirit of optimism there. There were nowhere near as many people as we normally would have at the market, but people were understanding that there was an announcement that was imminent and they’re looking forward to having more visitors.”

Brown warned there was a long road ahead to recovery, though, with economists estimating the islands had lost more than 20 per cent of its GDP because of the one-year border closure.

He said it would take at least two years of “hard work” to start recovering from the pandemic. 

“We’ve got a lot of ground to make up … We’re starting from below ground zero to get back up to where we were previously.” 

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The Tourism Industry Council's Liana Scott and Cook Islands News editor Rashneel Kumar are among those looking forward to the quarantine-free arrangement. Source: Breakfast

The country is also grappling with a fleeing workforce amid its economic woes. In March, when a one-way travel bubble to New Zealand was in place, there were fears the Cook Islands would lose about 40 per cent of its workforce as residents looked for work in New Zealand. 

Brown said businesses needed to be “innovative” with the workforce that remained in the nation.