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Cook Islands bubble: Tourism operators wanting more flights as demand surges

More flights from New Zealand to the Cook Islands are needed in order to meet “enormous demand” from tourists wanting to visit now that a two-way bubble has opened, a resort owner says.

Quarantine-free travel from New Zealand to the Cook Islands started on Monday, but the first flight isn’t until Tuesday, with Air New Zealand flight NZ940 scheduled to depart Auckland for Rarotonga at 8.55am.

An Air New Zealand spokesman said the flight, serviced by a 302-seat Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, is sold out.

Pre-Covid there were four international carriers flying about 24 flights per week into Rarotonga but now Air New Zealand will have the destination to itself, starting with two return flights per week before ramping up to daily Dreamliner flights from July 1.

A Jetstar spokeswoman said its services to Rarotonga, when it operated them, originated in Australia so would not be part of a New Zealand-Cook Islands bubble.

“We look forward to the Australian government working with the Cook Islands and other Pacific Island governments for two-way quarantine free travel in the future,” she said.

Tata Crocombe, who owns and manages The Rarotongan Beach Resort, Sanctuary Rarotonga and Aitutaki Lagoon, said it was welcoming about a dozen guests from New Zealand on Tuesday.

“They’re going to be showered with more love than they can imagine,” Crocombe said.

The return of international tourists would be celebrated with dancers, string bands, champagne and flower garlands, he said.

With twice weekly flights the industry would be operating at about 3 per cent capacity, he said.

“It’s a start, but it’s just not sustainable.”

At this time of year pre-pandemic it would have been at about 85 per cent capacity, he said.

He said there was “enormous demand” from travellers out of New Zealand wanting to visit the Cook Islands.

“It’s kind of a head scratcher as to why we haven’t got more flights.”

When Air New Zealand increased frequency to daily flights the Cook Islands would still have a fraction of the air capacity it once had, he said.

Prior to Covid-19 Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Air Tahiti Nui were operating international flights into Rarotonga, and it had services from Auckland, Christchurch, Sydney, Los Angeles and Tahiti, he said.

“Now we’ve only got one carrier with one service from Auckland.

“It’s a start, but it’s not sufficient to sustain the Cook Islands economy.”

He said the Cook Islands accommodation sector would have more than enough capacity to cater for New Zealanders.

“There’s absolutely no capacity issues at this time.”

Cook Islands Tourism New Zealand and Australia general manager Graeme West​ said airlines were perhaps being “conservative” about deploying capacity to the Cook Islands because they had learnt from their mistake of putting too much capacity on the Tasman initially when New Zealand opened to quarantine-free travel from Australia.

“I think they learnt from that. They probably saw that there is an element of the population that, at the moment, aren’t jumping on a plane straight away.”

As airlines saw demand increase they would continue to put capacity on, he said.

West said there had been an “exceptional booking pattern” over the past few weeks, but future demand would be dependent on air capacity.

He expected load factors on the daily Dreamliner flights to be high until there were more flights added or competition arrived.

Historically about 150,000 New Zealanders visited the Cook Islands per year, which made up about two thirds of total visitor arrivals, he said.

Tourists generally spent around $200 per day per person in the Cook Islands and many accommodation providers were offering the same rates from 2019, he said.

New Zealanders would be the only international tourists at the Cook Islands, and its resorts and hotels had never looked better, he said.

“It’s like New Zealand has its own little tropical island to itself.

“It’s going to be a beautiful time for Kiwis to visit.”

Air New Zealand Auckland-Rarotonga economy airfares range from $270 to $621 one way.

Flight Centre NZ general manager product Victoria Courtney said the vast majority of bookings to the Cook Islands had been holidaymakers rather than friends and family visits – partly because the bubble had been open from the Cook Islands to New Zealand for some time.

“The demand for the Cook Islands has been big and sales have been steadily increasing since the announcement.”

Customers were feeling confident about the low risk of Covid, she said.

At this stage it was not aware of any plans for other airlines to start back on the New Zealand to Cook Islands route, she said.

“Although we anticipate this may change once consumer confidence grows.”

ANZ bank’s Cook Islands country head Bernadette Shaw​ said the bubble was the start of the Cook Islands’ economic recovery.

”We don’t expect it to recover overnight, but it’s that first step to getting things back to life here,” Shaw said.

Tourism made up roughly 70 per cent of the country’s GDP, she said.

“So losing that overnight and not having that industry operating for the last 14 months has had a drastic effect.”

She said there were “murmurings” of flights from Australia returning to the Cook Islands.

“That’s maybe two to three months away.”

She said the industry would not be prepared for a return of pre-pandemic airline capacity, and a slow scale up was an appropriate approach.

“That feels like the most considered way to do it.”

As a banker she favoured a conservative approach, but some customers would prefer “30 flights tomorrow”, she said.

“They have been waiting a long time… so I can understand why.”

She hoped for increased competition to bring in more arrivals and drive more competitive pricing.

Source: STUFF NZ

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