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Last Updated: Saturday, 4 November 2006, 13:24 GMT
Leaving Captain Cook's 'paradise'
By Nick Squires
BBC, Cook Islands

With their blue lagoons, white sand beaches and palm trees, the Cook Islands present, at first glance, a vision of paradise. But the islands are also experiencing a slow exodus as people seek a better standard of living.

A beach on the Cook Islands
The islands are named after Captain Cook who explored them
It is all but impossible to get lost on Rarotonga, the picturesque main island of the Cook Islands.

There are two roads and two buses. The front of each bus bears a sign which indicates its destination, or rather its direction.

One is marked Clockwise, the other Anti-clockwise, and they leave from the Cook Islands' sleepy capital, Avarua.

Forty minutes is all it takes to go right round the island, which is only 20 miles (32km) in circumference.

Before you know it, you are back where you started.

The bus travels along a winding coastal road, passing smart beach resorts, quiet villages and beautiful 19th-Century churches built out of crushed coral and lime, dazzling white in the sunshine.

But between the fields of ripening paw paw and the luxuriant hedges of bougainvillea and hibiscus you also see many empty houses, shuttered and forlorn, slowly mouldering in the tropical heat.

Around 14,000 people live in the Cooks but another 80,000 live overseas

Doors and windows are boarded up, the gardens have run riot and there is often an old car rusting away in the drive.

They are the homes of Cook Islanders who have left the country in search of higher-paying jobs and better education for their children.

Most of them go to New Zealand. A special arrangement means that islanders are automatically entitled to Kiwi citizenship.

Others make their way to Australia or the United States.

Dramatic scenery

A signpost on the Cook Islands
The islands are scattered over 770,000 square miles
Depopulation is a huge issue here. About 14,000 people live in the Cooks but another 80,000 live overseas, with big expatriate communities in Auckland, Wellington and Sydney.

At first glance you wonder why anyone in their right mind would possibly want to leave a place like this.

The Cook Islands are the epitome of the South Seas tropical hideaway.

The beaches are long and all but empty, the sand is bone white, the lagoons a hundred different shades of blue and the coral reefs home to jewel-like tropical fish and giant clams.

As a local tourism slogan goes: "Visit Heaven - while you're still on Earth."

The place is choc-a-bloc with canoodling lovebirds, so much so that I often felt I was the only lone traveller in the whole country
Fifteen islands make up this tiny country, scattered over an area of ocean the size of Western Europe.

Rarotonga is particularly dramatic, a volcanic remnant with a mountainous interior made up of dark green peaks, razorback ridges and sheer cliffs.

The Cook Islands' beauty and its laid-back pace of life have ensured that tourism is the main employer and the biggest earner.

Honeymooners flock here, as do people wanting to get married on the beach.

The place is choc-a-bloc with canoodling lovebirds, so much so that I often felt I was the only lone traveller in the whole country.

Cannibal tourism

As if romance and resorts are not enough to entice tourists, Cook Islanders are also happy to play up their sometimes bloodthirsty past.

Map of the Cook Islands

In other parts of the Pacific the mere mention of the C-word - cannibalism - can cause grave offence. But here the locals make light of their ancestors' habit of eating their enemies.

I came across T-shirts being sold in the local market with a cartoon of an islander dangling a boggle-eyed white man over a steaming pot. "Send more tourists," the caption read. "The last lot were delicious."

A boat skipper I met recounted with relish how his ancestors would prepare a large underground oven - or umu - in which to cook their victims.

"In those days if you made one little mistake, we'd eat you," he said, chuckling to himself. "But then the missionaries came and people realised that they shouldn't eat each other any more."

Returnees

The captain was telling me this as we cruised the lagoon of Aitutaki, an island to the north of Rarotonga.

Some of the contestants from Survivor
Using the island for television shows has boosted the local economy

The lagoon, acclaimed as the most beautiful in the world, is enclosed by a string of idyllic sandy islands.

Some of them were used earlier this year for the latest series of Survivor, the American reality TV show.

They have also been the setting for a British show, Shipwrecked. Together these productions have brought millions of pounds and hundreds of jobs.

Many islanders told me of friends and relatives who have decided to come home after years abroad.

They also seem to have coincided with a renewed sense of optimism.

I got sick of the rat race, so I decided to come home
Cook Island resident, Nga

Typical of the trend was a guide called Nga who took me on a tour of Aitutaki's interior in his bright yellow Landrover.

He spent 10 years working in a paper mill in Melbourne. "I got sick of the rat race," he said. "So I decided to come home."

He now has a thriving business. "A lot of people are coming back," he said as we jolted along a rough dirt track built by the Americans in World War II.

It would, however, require a truly epic economic renaissance to tempt back even half the Cook Islands' far-flung diaspora.

That is unlikely to happen any time soon. The islands will retain their easy-going charm and sense of isolation.

A taxi driver I met, a formidable matriarch with five grandchildren, put it this way: "God gave us a little piece of paradise in this secret corner of the world."

Anywhere else, that would sound like tourist brochure hype. Down here in the Cook Islands, they really mean it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 4 November, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Regions and territories: Cook Islands
19 Jul 06 |  Country profiles
Country profile: New Zealand
09 Aug 06 |  Country profiles

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