Industry Advice 14 May 2020
Tere Carr is the Director and co-shareholder of Lagoon Breeze Villas in Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Tere proudly runs the villas alongside her husband Mike and was also part of the Pacific delegation that attended PCF's first Maori Pacific Business Forum in June 2019. We reached out to Tere to update us how she has manages to keep her business afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic and the future of the Cook Islands tourism post-lockdown.
Kia orana Tere, how has your business been since the Maori Pacific Business Forum?
My husband and I are shareholders in a medium sized tourist accommodation property called Lagoon Breeze Villas which has 26 villas. We were experiencing very good occupancy rates prior to the announcement of the pandemic in March 2020, as high as 80% for most months. Over our summer months many guests came from Canada to supplement the traditional low season. Over the winter months much of our business is from NZ, a traditional tourism partner for the Cook Islands for many years. Business was doing well with Rarotonga being an attractive destination for many Kiwi’s and the coming winter months would have been an extremely busy one for us.
How has COVID-19 affected your business and the Cook Islands overall?
On March 23rd 2020 our government announced that our border would be closed immediately. This was extremely appreciated by the local residents as it was feared that the entry of Covid-19 into our islands would greatly affect our people, many of whom are elderly and considered high risk. This decision followed on from the strong measures taken by the NZ government to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in NZ and the Pacific Islands and has meant that Covid-19 has not yet entered the Cook Islands.
Since that date our business has gone to zero income and many cancellations and adjustments have been made to forward bookings. Needless to say, the immediate future remains uncertain as to when borders between countries will open and people can travel once again.
What strategies or coping mechanisms have you put in place to help you through the COVID-19?
Since March, our time has been spent answering queries from guests affected by their travel plans and assuring them that we will be open for business at a future date, when Covid-19 has been contained in some way. Many guests have been very understanding and supportive and because our accommodation has a high number of returnees who love our property, we are certain they will return once it is safe to travel again.
Keeping up to date with social media posts on our fb page and keeping our guests informed has been a great way to stay in touch and to let them know that they are very much appreciated and missed.
What sort of support has been available for you during COVID-19?
Tourism has been a backbone of our economy so it was greatly appreciated that at the same time our border was closed, government initiated a financial package to assist all businesses affected by Covid-19.This was to ensure that businesses could continue paying their employees a minimum wage for the months of April, May and June. Our government has made it clear that it is a priority to keep as many of our people employed until such a time as our border opens again.
We employ 19 Cook Islanders and 2 New Zealanders. The government subsidy has been a welcome relief to many business owners on Rarotonga, especially in the accommodation sector. The downturn has also had a run-off effect on all other businesses who rely on tourism such as car rental companies, tour operators, restaurants and so forth.
While our employees are receiving the minimum wage subsidy, we are mindful of the challenges they too face in meeting their financial commitments given the reduced hours and income. We are however also grateful to our government who has provided free power to all residential homes and a heavily reduced rate to businesses. Internet charges have also been reduced by half. Extra one-off financial assistance has also been provided to the elderly and to families who have children under the age of 16. All of this goes a long way to assisting families to cope with reduced incomes over the next 3 months until the end of June, where the situation can be re-assessed.
How do you see Lagoon Breeze Villas moving forward in the future?
The majority of our guests originate from New Zealand and we are watching the situation there very carefully with the expectation that once Covid-19 is contained, our border with NZ can be re-opened with obviously new measures employed to ensure that the virus does not ever arrive on our island. While everyone agrees that the tourism business worldwide has many challenges ahead however, for us in Rarotonga, we welcome the opportunity to continue our close bond with NZ whose government and people have been very strong and traditional supporters of tourism and growth in our islands.
We as a nation have been through difficult financial times in the past and have survived. We remain confident that some normalcy can return soon albeit with some controls in place to protect those who visit us as well as those who live here. In the meantime, this down turn is allowing our islands to rejuvenate and rest and I am sure that the environment is thankful for that.
Image: Tere Carr