Cook Islands

Older people on the outer islands such as Atiu rely on agriculture

Despite having a resident population of less than 11,000, Cook Islands celebrates over 700 weddings per year. Fortunately, this is not due to a catastrophic divorce rate but to the romantic attraction of these largely unspoiled islands for couples from New Zealand/Aotearoa and beyond. After the nuptials, the more adventurous guests can try their hands at game fishing for marlin, tuna or wahoo, or dive into the spectacular underwater scenery, or just laze on the beach watching whales.

The Cooks, named for the 18th-century explorer, comprise 15 islands in two groups scattered over two million square kilometres of the South Pacific. Most people live in the hilly volcanic islands that make up the southern group – particularly in the largest, Rarotonga, which sports the smartest shops and resorts. The more remote northern group, largely atolls, has far fewer residents or visitors. Transport is difficult: a subsidized shipping line delivers goods to the outer islands, while passengers usually travel, expensively, by air.

Captain Cook and earlier Spanish explorers were beaten to the spot by around 400 years by the ‘Cook Islands Maori’ – originating from what are now French Polynesia and Samoa. In the 19th century the London Missionary Society laid the foundations for the country’s robust Christian legacy. By 1888, the British government, nervous that the islands might be seized by the French, made the southern group a protectorate. Then in 1901, New Zealand, overriding the objections of the islands’ ariki (chiefs), annexed both groups of islands. Independence was restored only in 1965 when the Cook Islands became self-governing in ‘free association’ with New Zealand. This allows for co-operation in defence, the use of the NZ dollar and, crucially, makes Cook Islanders NZ citizens.

Flag of the Cook Islands

In the past, people survived largely by farming or fishing or harvesting the islands’ distinctive black pearls. Many people still have plots of land, growing taro and yams, and the country exports some fresh fish and pearls. But nowadays most Cook Islanders rely directly or indirectly on tourism, mainly on the largest islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki. In 2010-11 over 108,000 visitors spent $230 million, and Rarotonga was visited by 28 cruise ships, some with more than 2,000 passengers. Tourism is healthy when New Zealanders are feeling flush, but quickly catches a chill when times are harder. Tourism also depends on regular flights by Air New Zealand – encouraged by subsidies of up to $12 million per year. The other source of foreign exchange is aid – around $44 million in 2011-12 – mostly from New Zealand, Australia and Japan. China is also making its mark, having, for example, financed a new courthouse and police station, though, as elsewhere in the Pacific, the shoddy constructions are already showing cracks.

Politics in the Cook Islands is often lively. There is a 24-member parliament, for which there have been 12 elections since 1965. In the most recent, in 2010, the Cook Islands Party, led by Henry Puna, defeated the incumbent Democratic Party, which had been tainted by a catastrophic deal with an oil company. MPs take a fairly populist line, doling out cash for weddings and other local events. And they are not renowned for loyalty, frequently changing allegiance after elections. Parliament is advised by a 15-member House of Ariki. In 2008, a group of ariki attempted a coup, aiming to recover their traditional powers and eject the British queen as head of state, though the rebellion eventually subsided. Each island also has an elected council that works with a government-appointed island secretary.

Overall, the most serious issue facing the Cooks is the exodus of young people, heading overseas for education and work. Around 50,000 Cook Islanders now live in NZ or Australia. A trickle of retirees move in the other direction, but not enough to stop the population steadily shrinking.