A remote island with a small population in the Cook Islands did remarkably well at hosting a large number of tourists recently – a feat that will bring economic benefits for some time.
Report – By Imogen Crispe.
A recent natural phenomenon meant that more visitors than has ever been recorded flocked to Mangaia in the Cook Islands for one weekend. And the tourism benefits have been flowing ever since.
The southernmost island, which has a population estimated at 610, successfully played host to hundreds of tourists because of a rare total solar eclipse of the sun last month.
The visitors, who were in Mangaia on July 10 and 11, have already produced economic benefits and boosted the island’s reputation, says the Secretary of Mangaia Island Administration, Helen Henry.
“This is the biggest number of tourist arrivals at one time that Mangaia Island has ever experienced in the last two decades, or probably in the history of Mangaia recorded from the 1900s to date,” says Henry.
Joe Fagan, from the University of Auckland, was part of a small group of independent film makers who went to Mangaia from New Zealand to document the historic event.
“We were initially interested in how there were an awful lot of tourists going to this remote little island, and we were quite curious to see what on earth was going to happen,” says Fagan.
Rohan Ellis, managing director of Cook Island Tours, was involved in organising the eclipse tours to Mangaia, and says they faced “huge challenges and issues” leading up to the eclipse.
‘Like Jurassic Park’
“Mangaia is almost like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs,” Rohan Ellis says.
“It has very basic facilities and amenities in terms of accommodation.”
The official number of visitors to Mangaia for the weekend as released by the island’s Tourism and Culture Unit was 301, but Ellis says there were closer to 600 international tourists there for the eclipse.
Henry says the island usually only receives about two international visitors each month.
Fagan and the film crew were expecting all sorts of problems when the tourists arrived.
However, the island surprised them: “On the day the tourists arrived, everything was done. It was quite amazing,” says Fagan.
“All these problems that we had foreseen happening didn’t eventuate at all… the locals somehow managed to pull it all together at the last minute and everything went really smoothly.”
Fagan says everyone, including the children, pitched in and helped out with the event.
In the months leading up to the eclipse, Ellis took a team of builders from Rarotonga to Mangaia to construct extra facilities, with the help of the locals. “The residents were fantastic,” he says.
Ellis says the tours his company organised could not have gone ahead without the locals.
Henry says that although the eclipse was a huge burden to the island, the Mangaia people have “an amazing virtue” of being able to come together to achieve. This is why the weekend went so smoothly. “Everyone pooled resources to do their bit in making the event successful and satisfactory to the visitors.”
Fagan and his film crew decided to change the focus of their documentary to centre on the local people’s success at “pulling the whole thing off”, and their interactions with the tourists. They even roped in a few locals to do some filming, including Mangaia Tourism Officer Taoi Nooroa.
Efforts made by the local people included having the markets open every day instead of weekly, putting up tourists in their homes, making meals and hiring their vehicles to tourists.
“The locals were ecstatic. For once the people had a purpose other than their daily chores to sustain themselves and their families,” says Henry.
The locals enjoyed the company of the visitors and vice versa she says.
Fagan says the locals “absolutely loved” having the tourists around and got a lot out of it. “You could see them interacting with the tourists and talking to them,” he says. “They made lots of new friends and it was pretty amazing.”
Visitors came from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, America, China, Italy and Europe.
Most of the tourists were eclipse fanatics, also known as “eclipse chasers” or “eclipse freaks”.
Fagan says they are “absolutely mad”.
“They’re fantastic, but they are just so devoted to following these eclipses.
“One guy described it as a sickness, you can catch this disease and then you can spend the rest of your life chasing these eclipses.”
Henry says for some of the eclipse fanatics, this was the 10th or 13th solar eclipse they had seen around the world.
Eclipse chasers follow total solar eclipses – which occur every 18 months on average – around the world, trying to see as many as possible.
The beginning of the eclipse was slightly obscured by cloud which frustrated veteran eclipse viewers, but most people still found it to be a thrilling experience.
Henry describes her feelings about it as “ecstatic, exhilarating, and all the words under the sun that describe excitement”.
Fagan says “after the totality the clouds disappeared so we could… watch the sun coming back out which was awesome”.
Skipper of Rarotonga-based yacht Southern Cross, Paul Green, had a clear view of the eclipse out at sea.
“We probably had the best views… It was quite special.”
But according to Ellis, the local people were not particularly interested in the eclipse.
“They didn’t understand the fuss and hype,” he says.
“They said ‘Mr Rohan we can’t understand why people would come to Mangaia from all over the world to watch the eclipse’. For the people of Mangaia it was just another day.”
Ellis says the economic improvement to Mangaia as a result of the eclipse was fantastic.
Henry agrees and says hundreds of thousands of dollars are estimated to have flooded into the island over the weekend.
She also says that already she has seen an indication of tourism growth since the eclipse.
Imogen Crispe is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.