Talks have started between the Cook Islands, French Polynesia (Tahiti) and Samoa on possible regional airline connectivity between the three countries.

Cook Islands Finance Minister Mark Brown said the initiative was part of the “One Polynesia” approach of doing business to ease financial burdens on Polynesian countries.

He said following a promising start to the Manatua Cable project, which aims to improve internet services in the participating countries, countries had ventured into other sectors including the possibility of regional airline connectivity.

“There was a proposal by the government of French Polynesia and the initial thought or discussion point around this was to look at the connection between French Polynesia, Cook Islands and Samoa from a regional airline perspective,” Brown said.

“During the Forum Leaders Meeting, we took the opportunity to meet separately as three countries to explore the possibilities of an air service between (them) which can hook up or link up to the international air services currently provided to America through the Cook Islands, through to Australia from Samoa and through to Europe from Tahiti.”

Air Rarotonga managing director Ewan Smith said east-west regional air links across the South Pacific had been the subject of recurring discussion ever since the demise of the “Coral Route” linking Tahiti, the Cook Islands and Fiji early in the last decade, after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US re-shaped airline networks around the world.

He said traffic then comprised round-the-world and circle Pacific leisure travelers taking advantage of stopover options in the South Pacific en-route to or from the USA and Europe.

But he said a return to those days does not fit with modern airline economics, based on point-to-point networks carrying a mix of high yield business as well as leisure travelers.

“The challenges to re-establishing these links include the fact that South Pacific countries do little trade with each other that ordinarily would generate business traffic,” Smith said.

“In terms of short-haul tourism, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu are fundamentally in competition with each other for destination tourism traffic from Australia and New Zealand.

“The major airlines operating through the region have shown little or no appetite for recommencing east-west connections to north-south networks, so it is likely that this would only occur with substantial financial backing from governments in the region.”

Brown said taskforce would look at the possible east-west regional air links across the South Pacific between the Cook Islands, Samoa and Tahiti.

Preliminary investigation work would involve the private sector as well, he added.

“This is something the government cannot do on its own and this is something one country can’t do on its own, so its needs this One Polynesia approach.

“This is a collective approach of doing business, but it also must engage the private sector as well.”

Air Rarotonga currently participates in a joint venture with Air Tahiti using ATR72 aircraft on the Tahiti-Rarotonga route.

And Smith said an expansion of this service further west was not in the company’s present plans.

 

(Source: Cook Islands News 26 September 2017)

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