South Seas Islands Pin Future on Geotourism

Angela Burnford
National Geographic Traveler
October 1, 2004
The Cook Islands fit the image of a South Seas paradise: white-sand
beaches, turquoise lagoons, and coconut palms. This Polynesian chain
scattered across a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) of ocean receives
more tourists per capita than any other South Pacific destination.
That's four visitors per year for every one of the Cooks' 20,000

It sounds like a success story. Yet Cook Islands authorities are revamping their entire tourism strategy.

So what's not to love?

Cook Islanders are said to be known for informality and approachability. Nearly everyone speaks English, though the native tongue is Cook Islands Maori. Drive around Rarotonga, the main island, and you'll pass beachside accommodations—from backpacker hostels to larger resorts—lots of restaurants and bars, and plenty of shopping.

But according to tourism consultant Peter Phillips, the Cooks have become a destination "hard for the outsider to tell from any other white-sand and palm-tree place."

Commissioned to update the Cook Islands' tourism strategy, Phillips's initial report stated, "There is no clear vision for the future of tourism in this country." He told the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation that the destination offers the same tourism products as South Seas competitors like Fiji and French Polynesia. "So there is one boat for high-speed boating offshore; there is a microlight [aircraft] operator; there is the usual safari tour in a Land Rover."

Island tourism authorities have now endorsed Phillips's recommended solution: geotourism. Phillips came across the geotourism concept in a presentation made by the concept's developer, Jonathan Tourtellot, National Geographic's director of sustainable tourism. Tourtellot defines geotourism as "tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents."

Few Cook Islanders appreciate the uniqueness of their culture and heritage, according to Phillips. "People down-value everyday life, so many of the really distinctive aspects of the locality can come under threat or be lost."

Plenty to Save

A geotourism inventory of the Cooks shows there is plenty to save. Self-governed in association with New Zealand, the islands are split into two groups: the Southern Group, home to the two most populated and visited islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki; and the remote Northern Group, consisting of small coral atolls with abundant marine life. Today travelers venture to outer islands in order to find things unique to the Cooks, such as rare wildlife, local cuisine, and handicrafts sold directly by the residents who made them.

The northern atoll of Penrhyn is known for natural mother-of-pearl and islanders who craft shell jewelry and finely woven pandanus hats. Ask a local how to weave and you'll get an individualized lesson. "The approachability of Cook Islanders means that you don't need a formal setting to be taught," Phillips explained. "A woman making a hat on Penrhyn will happily show you, although then you will realize how hard it is."

Islanders have traditionally called Atiu, in the Southern Group, the "land of birds." Atiu is home to an endemic swiftlet called a kopeka, of which only 400 remain. The kopeka flitters silently outside by day and at night nests in Anataketake cave (one of many limestone caves on Atiu), clicking and echolocating (using sound to locate objects) like a bat.

Perhaps the most famous of Cook Islands handicrafts are tivaevae: brightly colored, intricately embroidered quilts pieced together by small groups of women using a technique developed in the Cooks. Because of the social significance of crafting tivaevae and the number of months required to make one, they are considered prized family heirlooms and remain inside the home. However, you can view tivaevea at the Atiu Fibre Arts studio and, if you're willing to pay upward of U.S. $1,300, you can buy one for yourself.

A New Plan

Phillips began his project with the most extensive tourism consultation ever undertaken in the Cooks. With government officials alongside, he met with locals, business owners, and other tourism stakeholders on 10 of the 15 islands. "I have found the concept of geotourism extremely useful in broadening people's thinking about the character of tourism," he reports.

The task now is to build a tourism strategy based on the distinguishing character of the Cooks. Earlier this summer Phillips gave a presentation on geotourism that was broadcast twice on Cook Islands television. The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation has since authorized him to write a new plan based on a definition of geotourism he adapted to the islands: "tourism that sustains and enhances the well-being of resident Cook Islanders and their environment, culture, aesthetics, and heritage."

Don't Miss a Discovery
Sign up for the free National Geographic travel newsletters. Every month we'll send you our top travel stories and tips by e-mail.

For more travel stories, scroll to bottom.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.