I am one month into four months of research leave in Rarotonga.  I have visited here a number of times in the past seven years, and over time it has come to feel like a home away from home.  I am here to look at tourists’ impact on the local environment, how tourist practices may change – or not – when not at home, and what role tourists can play in maintaining the pristine environment that we see splashed across Cook Island marketing.  What I have intended to explore, compared to what I am seeing and being told, however, are not sitting in particularly neat alignment.

My first encounter with a local was with a papa (man) who gave me a ride from the airport on the night I arrived in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  We were talking about what I was doing here (we had met on a previous visit and recognised each other), and he told me a number of stories.  He told me of a generational difference (he was maybe 55/60) whereby the young ones have not been taught some of the practices of his generation, such as composting green waste rather than burning it.  He said he will sometimes tell people to pick up their rubbish, and just that evening he had seen some tourists arrive, who were given some mango and discarded the skins on the ground in the airport parking lot.  He told me a local asked them ‘would you do that at home?’, and got them to pick it up.  He said that he wondered whether the reason visitors feel like they can litter and don’t seem to care, is because they come in thinking that the locals are ‘subservient’ and ‘stupid’.  I immediately felt embarrassed – and pretty stupid: it had not even crossed my mind that there might be that kind of attitude, even though I had on occasion overheard visitors making ‘jokes’ or observations that I thought were pretty rude, but I chalked this up to there just being some quite ignorant and somewhat obnoxious individuals in the world!  I did not take this thinking further (bad sociologist L) and consider that it might be part of some wider attitude that some visitors come to the Cook Islands with.  The embarrassment I felt was due to having been a tourist to the Islands a number of times, and thinking about how this is the impression that at least some people must have about the attitudes ‘we tourists’ bring with us.  I told him that I hoped that wasn’t the case, and that my imagining of things was that people would just get into ‘holiday mode’ and unfortunately, leave some of their ethics behind.  I suspected this was likely to be more so for the younger adult visitors.

I have been distributing and collecting surveys completed by visitors to Rarotonga.  At this time of year (off-peak season) there are a lot of visitors from North America, as well as the usual mix of various European (particularly German and French) visitors, New Zealanders, British, Australians etc.  As the cooler months arrive here and peak season kicks in – during April – there will be a bigger influx of New Zealanders (who make up around 2/3 of the visitor numbers to the Cook Islands).  Regardless of where these visitors come from (though I am informed that the Europeans are exemplary models), I have been repeatedly told by accommodation providers, that visitors tend to be pretty good with being respectful of the local environment.  I am also told quite frequently by these same people that it’s the local population that are more the issue.  A pertinent note to make before proceeding from here is that this reference is repeatedly made with respect to the most visible environmental issue:  rubbish and littering, especially plastics.  Additionally, run-off into the Muri Lagoon (probably the most well known beach in Rarotonga, frequented by tourists and densely populated by accommodation providers compared to other areas of the island), has heightened local environmental concerns in recent years, in particular due to the unsightly algae that has appeared in the lagoon, which has put some tourists off visiting.

Rarotonga is no different to other small islands in the South Pacific (and elsewhere) in that as exposure to developed nations increases, and as more money comes into the local economy from tourism, local people quite understandably want a piece of the action.  In Rarotonga this has taken the form of more scooters and cars on the roads (and not just small cars, but SUVs and small trucks as well), more processed food being imported and purchased, more people going out to eat or buying takeaways, and more people buying more ‘gadgets’ – appliances, mobile and e-technology for example.

At the same time, a number of people have told me (people that are residents but not ‘locals’ as such), that locals simply don’t care about how this is impacting on their environment.  Explanations for why this might be have not been forthcoming, but are rather accompanied by anecdotes: a locally owned cruise boat that let its anchor crash into coral rather than being tied to a buoy; locals that leave their rubbish lying around; throwing cigarette butts wherever; burning rubbish (green waste and other rubbish); and not recycling ‘properly’ are some examples.

Now, I know that there are locals that care:

  • there is the Te Ipukarea Society (TIS), an environmental NGO doing amazing work on a number of fronts including working with local youth, biodiversity, climate change, waste, and eco-sustainable development;
  • there is advertising on local television that addresses environmental issues (running at the moment is a commercial that asks people to keep to walking tracks, and leave the flora alone);
  • there is a ‘rent a plate’ scheme at the Muri night market, which raises funds for a local school, as well as other market vendors who give you plates and cutlery to borrow rather than distributing disposable versions; and
  • I have met locals that are making changes in their own lives: one woman told me she no longer buys gladwrap for the home, for example.

A number of locals have also talked about how they have observed changes over time: a man involved in tourism noted that Rarotonga is so busy now compared to years ago, that he will be returning to his island of birth in the South of the Cook Island group (which is much less populated) at the end of this year.  Another man told me that he sees all the ground taken up by graves (which are oftentimes on family land, near their houses) as unnecessarily taking up space.  The rapid development of the Muri Lagoon area and beachfront accommodation everywhere was also a point of concern, given the amount of infrastructure on the water’s edge and how this can impact shoreline and marine biodiversity.

All these different views and takes on things have left me in a bit of a quandary, and has prompted me to pay a bit more attention to observing what I see around me: I’m becoming an environmental private investigator (EPI) it seems.  I began taking note of a few things.  Firstly, in crude counts of locally owned versus rental vehicles conducted as I sit or walk down the roadside (I have focussed on vehicles other than motorbikes and scooters), it appears that locally owned outnumber rented by at least two-thirds (there’s an average 3,800 visitors on the island at any one time, compared to a local population of around 9,000).  When looking for rubbish deposits, while there is the odd spattering of rubbish most places you walk (other than anywhere in the immediate vicinity of resorts), there are notably much larger amounts of waste to be found in ‘local’ hangouts (because it is cleaned up regularly when near resorts? Due to a lack of rubbish bins?).  When observing plastic shopping bag use versus reusable bags at the supermarkets, visitors tend to be more likely to use a reusable bag (around 1/3 according to those times when I’ve paid particular attention), while I cannot at this point recall a single occasion where I have seen a local bring in a reusable bag to collect their groceries – though baskets are used quite often by locals at the punanga nui (big market on Saturday morning).  The public buses (which locals get a reduced fare for – $20 instead of $30 for a 10 ride concession ticket), seldom have locals on them; local tickets are mainly used by residents employed in the Cook Islands from out of the country, oftentimes in lower paid hospitality work.  At the same time it is visitors that often have plastic water bottles in hand – which you seldom see locals with, and it is the visitors that are more often present sipping cocktails with plastics straws (plastic straws are a current point of contention for a number of people involved in the hospitality industry).

Some things have clearly changed, while others remain the same: locals meticulously maintain grounds around houses, and local food is still widely produced on family garden plots along the back roads.  Attending church and cultural traditions continue to be significant, and the generosity of locals who will go out of their way to assist when problems arise is heart-warming (though not always helpful I’ve found!).  It’s as though there is a tug of war between changing times and retaining culture and tradition.

Dr Corrina Tucker in a former lecturer in Environmental Sociology at Massey University and SAANZ Secretary.