The return of tourism to the Cook Islands – but no return to mass tourism

The return of tourism to the Cook Islands - but no return to mass tourism

Excitement among Cook Islands tourism operators and officials at the opening of quarantine-free travel with Aotearoa New Zealand was understandable. The impact of the pandemic on the island nation’s economy has been massive and will be felt for a long time.

But it wasn’t long before a local environmental organisation sounded a warning about the risks of a return to high-volume tourism.

The popular Muri lagoon area has already suffered from pollution. There is also pressure on sacred sites such as Avana harbour, legendary departure place of the seven canoes that sailed to Aotearoa around 700 years ago.

On the other side of the world, there is a renewed movement to save Venice from pre-pandemic threats of over-tourism and cruise ships damaging its ancient canals.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, too, people have been given pause to think about whether a return to tourism as usual is viable.

One iwi, Tūhourangi Ngāti Wahio at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua, has seriously considered whether to allow tourism to resume in their village. Virtually synonymous with the birth of tourism in Aotearoa, the iwi now questions just what benefits its people are receiving from tourist activity.

Everywhere, it seems, there are debates about what tourism will look like in the post-COVID era.

No return to mass tourism

As regular flights between Aotearoa and Australia resume, the issue of high-volume tourism and its environmental impact is now front and centre.

Significantly, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has advocated for using the disruption caused by COVID-19 to transform the local tourism industry.

This would be based on the industry being accountable for its environmental costs, and involving local communities and mana whenua in decision-making — echoing other calls to recalibrate tourism within “sustainable bounds”.

Few people would argue for a return to unsustainable practices, but what does this really mean? And who might we turn to for solutions?

Listening to Indigenous voices

We argue Indigenous philosophies of enterprise and economy have the potential to provide those answers — if we are bold enough to allow such voices to be heard.

In Māori philosophy, people and the environment are kin. As such, they depend on one another for their well-being. Consequently, some of the voices we need to hear are those of Papatūānuku (Earth mother) and her elements, the rivers, mountains and seas.

What is more natural than wanting to have a conversation with your relations in times of trouble or joy? This can be an alien concept for many, but the Māori practice of karakia (incantation) is essentially about communicating as kin with the natural elements.

In fact, these ideas have already found expression in Māori tourism operations on the Whanganui River. Te Awa Tupua, an ancestor of the iwi of the river, has been recognised as a person in law through a settlement of past wrongs under Te Tiriti o Waitangi between Whanganui iwi and the Crown.

This is an excerpt from an article by Jason Paul Mika and Regina Scheyvens, originally published by The Conversation.


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