"Eease into the groove" Cook Island businesses ask Kiwis for patience and to enjoy the restart. Photo / Supplied, Koka Lagoon Cruises
Next Monday, the first jets full of quarantine-free travellers will touch down at Rarotonga airport. The Cook Islands hold a timeless appeal for Kiwi holidaymakers but, following a year of closed borders, some things have changed.
Here are some of the top Cook Islands travel operators and experiences on the Islands on what we can expect from the restart.
Kre e roa atu ana!
One of the most popular day trips on the island of Rarotonga is the day trip into the Muri Lagoon.
Operators Koka Lagoon say they are gearing up ready for the bubble to open next week.
"We are looking forward to coming out of hibernation, it's a strange feeling," said manager Serena Hunter. "Our crew are excited about getting back on the water and entertaining."
While the bookings have been steady, the Koka Lagoon cruises are cautiously optimistic about numbers.
"We are already fielding booking requests for June/July so it may start off a little slowly on the bubble opening next week but it looks like it will pick up from there.
"The cruises for locals during the border closure were few and far between so [the crew] are looking forward to being back on the job."
Part of the restart has involved training and Covid safety procedures, which are familiar following a year of pandemic precautions but a sign that the Cook Islands have not escaped the need for physical distancing and disinfection regimes.
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Koka Lagoon Cruises asks guests to bring their own snorkel gear where possible, but has freshly disinfected masks and breathing pieces available to borrow.
"Our crew along with other industry employees undertook Kia Orana Plus training workshops held by CI Tourism to help prepare for the border opening, and being prepared and health and safety procedures," she said.
"We are so fortunate to have this bubble with New Zealand who have been at the forefront of Covid preparedness and response and we are looking forward to welcoming visitors back to our shores."
For a full day out snorkelling on the lagoon, with a seafood barbecue book at kokalagooncruises.com
The Ariki Adventures run the unique sea-scooter safaris and paddleboard outings on the East coast of Rarotonga. Their electric-powered motors were an instant hit with visitors when first introduced, and are used to propel them through the water and closer to wild life.
Business owner Kave has said it's been a great feeling to have bookings come in again.
Tours will be running from 17 May though in smaller groups, with more modest numbers.
"We forgot what it was like. We've had to turn off so much stuff, now it's a matter of kick starting the bookings and all that sort of things. So, we're looking forward to it," he said.
One of the more surprising outcomes of the pause in operations is the noticeable increase in sea life around the island's lagoons, says Kave.
"In our heyday we were running some big numbers. But over the past year the environment has changed. We've seen a lot more marine life within and on the outside of the lagoon.
"We're running smaller tour sizes to lessen our impact on the environment. We'll be focused on running tours that are good not just for tourists but the sea life as well," he said.
While the bookings are "slow but steady," Ariki Adventures are looking to the winter holidays to bring in more visitors.
"Certainly things are picking up from June onwards. Lots of bookings are coming through for the July School holidays, which is great.
"It's important for us that July Period. We've been kept alive by the government with a subsidy but that finishes at the end of June. We've got to make sure we're all ready."
With regards to what New Zealanders can expect, he asks visitors to have patience and enjoy this historic moment for the Cook Islands.
"I think an important point to note is that we ask Kiwis to be patient with us as we rebuild. We have lost a lot of our workforce to NZ in search of employment and businesses like ours have been in hibernation for a while," says Kave.
"Give businesses time to ease into the groove."
The inter-island plane service Air Rarotonga is still serving the more remote and exotic Cook Islands, though on a limited schedule.
"We are currently adjusting our flight schedules and packages to meet the welcomed increase in demand," says the airline.
While Air Rarotonga aims to add more services through June, the popular Aitutaki day trip is running every Wednesday.
To get some idea of the rich collection of atolls which make up the Cook Islands, the trip is a must do.
The trip is a 10-hours stop on the sandy lagoon island of Aitutaki. The Aitutaki tour departs Rarotonga Airport at 8 am and returning by 5.30 pm, with hotel transport from $493pp.
Packages and flights to other destinations such as jungle-clad Atiu or the reef-bordered Mauke are yet to be restarted, though the airline plans to announce these soon.
Scenic flights are also available to book from Rarotonga Airport.
There is also increased flexibility for bookings made with the airline, should you not be able to make your trip.
"To give you peace of mind, in the event of border restrictions and disruptions, changes can be made free of charge, refundable tickets can be fully refunded, and credits can be issued for non-refundable tickets," says a spokesperson for the airline.
"We can't wait to welcome you Kiwis back."
Popular stops for tourists looking for a taste of Cook Islands culture, for the past 13 months the island markets on Rarotonga have been catering to locals.
On the north of the Island, Punanga Nui Market is open Mondays to Saturday, with the main market on Saturdays.
While the focus has recently been more on food and local produce, you'll still be able to pick up traditional souvenirs such as cook island black pearls or a Rito hat.facebook.com/PunangaNuiMarket
When attending the markets, make sure you keep on top of contact tracing. Download the CookSafe+ app and switch Bluetooth on.
On the East coast of Rarotonga, the Muri Night Market is getting ready to reopen.
"We would love to open full time when we are able," said market owner Tu Purua. It had been "hard without tourists," he said.
"It will take time for things to get back into the swing of things here with vendors etc," however the market will soon be announcing a reopening date.
Tara Crocombe who is a managing director for three luxury-end resorts, including Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort, says they are up and ready for borders to open.
Catering for the local Cook Island market she says the resorts "served over a thousand meals a day during the busy Easter period, so we are more than ready for the return of the Kiwi and Aussie visitors."
The resorts are hoping for a wider travel bubble with Australia to start soon, not only to open travel to Australian visitors, but to allow Australian airlines to return to the islands."Getting airlift back to pre-COVID levels will be critical to the long-term recovery needed after more than a year of border closures as our tourism industry generates over 85 per cent of the Cook Islands economy," said Crocombe.
Currently welcoming seven services a week from Auckland, pre-pandemic Rarotonga International Airport saw 30 services a week, from JetStar and Virgin Australia alongside Air New Zealand.
"Given the Trans-Tasman travel bubble, we hope that we will be able to welcome back Australian visitors to the Cook Islands shortly thereafter."
Crocombe was also hopeful that the plans for a "Pacifika Air" carrier from Christchurch might eventually materialize in some form to "add more critical marketing and air lift capacity to the Cook Islands overall mix."
On Monday, the New Zealand CAA said Pasifika Air's operator's certificate application is currently on hold.
Many New Zealanders hoping to stay locally and in B&Bs may find that there are sadly, fewer rooms to rent in the Cooks.
"There have been a few homes that were renting short term that have moved to long term," said Liana Scott, president of the Tourism Industry Council.
"These therefore would come out of the market pool until perhaps next year. Unfortunately they just could not hold on any longer and had financial obligations that needed to be met."
However, Scott said many of the operators had successfully managed to pivot to local-needs, providing services like swimming lessons to Cook islanders.
She said the Islands is "abuzz" with the news of quarantine-free travel.
"Yes, the economy has taken a massive hit, but the positivity in its people always seems to shine through."
For more information on the quarantine-free travel bubble between Auckland and Rarotonga, visit the Cook Islands Travel website: cookislands.travel/nzfaq
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