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New flights having 'positive impact' on Cook Islands tourism

The Muri Beach Club Hotel

EXCLUSIVE BY RODERICK EIME IN RAROTONGA

Air New Zealand’s recently introduced direct flights from Sydney to Rarotonga are having a positive impact on tourism according to Liana Scott, Vice President of the Cook Islands Travel Industry Council and General Manager of the family-owned Muri Beach Club Hotel (MBCH).

“Australians are good spenders and they’re very welcome here,” Scott told HM. “The new Air NZ direct flights are definitely having a positive impact.

“Australians are spending an average of six nights on Rarotonga and during high season (June – August) we’re at 100%. It’s over 70 at other times except for Christmas when expatriate families are coming home for holidays,” Scott said.

The main island of Rarotonga is the largest and most populous (14,000) of the seven Southern Cook Islands which also includes Aitutaki. The international airport is located immediately to the west of the capital Avarua on the northern coast. The entire island is just 32 kilometres around and the population lives exclusively along the coast. Resort and hotel development also follows the coast and the entire road is dotted with little cafes, restaurants and accommodation across all ranges.

The big accommodation brands are notable in their absence. There is no freehold title and leases only extend to a maximum of 60 years. Back in the late 1980s, an ambitious 300-room resort project was launched by the CI government with European loan funding. Nearing completion the funds ran out and the project collapsed. Sheraton was to take up the initial management contract and later Hilton added their weight to a revival attempt, but today the vast complex lies overgrown and forlorn, the subject of numerous abortive bids and even more conjecture and rumours.

In lieu of the major management brands, representation companies such as World Resorts of Distinction (WRD) handle sales representation for resorts such as MBCH. WRD also represent properties in Samoa and Fiji, while Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) maintain their branding with the iconic Pacific Resort on Aitutaki.

Tourism is the islands’ greatest income earner, so the 100,000 annual visitors are the heart and soul of the Cooks and the accommodation model of small, boutique and family-owned is the prevailing model on Rarotonga.

“My father John also owns the poultry farm,” Scott said. “And the standing joke around here is ‘how many eggs does it take to build a resort?’”

The Scott family-owned Muri Beach Club Hotel, located beachfront on the lagoon, is typical of the upscale offering on Rarotonga. What began as a private club concept expanded into 30 rooms in 2005 and there’s plans for another 30, but not in the short term. The 4-star (self rated) MBCH enjoys a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor and advertises a rack rate starting at NZD$468 per room inc breakfast and watersport equipment, although canny shoppers can find substantial rate relief on the booking sites depending on the season.

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