Explore Foreign Direct Investment in the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands is a thriving economy largely supported by its tourism industry. This unique destination, rich in culture and resources, offers world-class tourist experiences from fine dining, to nature walks and so much more in between. Located just 1,155 km west of Tahiti, the Cook Islands comprises of 15 islands that’s scattered over approximately 1.9 km2 of the South Pacific Ocean. This tropical group of 15 islands are split into two groups, commonly referred to the Northern Group and the Southern Group.

Unique Destination, People, Culture and Government

The island of Rarotonga, which is situated in the Southern Group of islands is the principal island where you will find located the Rarotonga International airport, Central Government Administration and most private businesses. The island of Rarotonga, being the largest of the 15 islands, is 32km in circumference and home to a population of around 14,000.

Rarotonga’s distinctive environment features are boasted through the white sandy beaches, fringing reef and several mountainous peaks that overlook the lush forested hills and valleys. There are around 24 named mountains in Rarotonga, the highest and most prominent mountain is Te Manga, which stands at 652m above sea level. Raemaru, Te Kou, Ikurangi, and Te Rua Manga are equally just as reputable with each offering magnificent views and uncrowded trekking trails, which are better enjoyed with local and knowledgeable hiking guides. 

Whilst Rarotonga boast beautiful white sandy beaches, the island of Aitutaki has in its own right earned international recognition due to its vast pristine lagoon with varying hues of blue. Located in the Southern Group of islands, 264 km north of Rarotonga, Aitutaki at times is mistaken as an atoll because of encircling islets. However on the other one side of the lagoon is a significant area of high land which is the main inhabited island. According to the recent census report, it is the second most populated island in the Cook Islands with around 1640 inhabitants. After Rarotonga, Aitutaki is the second largest tourist destination in the Cook Islands, receiving approximately 34,777 visitors a year.

Just like Rarotonga, Aitutaki offers world class luxurious accommodation like the Pacific Resort and the Aitutaki Private Lagoon Resort and Spa. There are many activities for tourist to enjoy, such as water activities from boat cruises, jet skiing, fishing, sailing and kitesurfing to name a few. The temperature in Aitutaki, being slightly warmer than Rarotonga, and often sunny all year round, makes the island an attractive place to carry out water activities. 

The Cook Islands by and through its Constitution is a self-governing nation, with three branches of government; the Executive, the Legislative and the Judiciary. The Executive power is exercised by the government with the Prime Minister been the head of government of a multi-party system. Currently, the Honorable Mark Brown of the Cook Islands party reigns as Prime Minister of the Cook Islands after been reelected in 2022 with an increased majority.

The Parliament of the Cook Islands has 24 members whom are elected for a five year term in single seat constituencies. The House of Ariki which is composed of chiefs has equally a significant role as advisors to government including its Legislative. Ancillary to that is the Koutu Nui which is a similar organization consisting of sub-chiefs. The importance of the House of Ariki and Koutu Nui requires highlighting given that land tenure in the Cook Islands still hold traditional and customary practices.

The Judiciary is established by part IV of the Constitution, and consist of the High Court of the Cook Islands and the Cook Islands Court of Appeal. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council serves as the final court of appeal. The King’s Representative on the advice of the Executive Council, appoints the Judiciary. For non-resident Judges, they are generally appointed for a three year term.

In the Cook Islands, the land tenure system is based on traditional customary land ownership. The majority of land in the Cook Islands is communally owned by extended family groups and is passed down through generations. This system is governed by customary laws and practices, with land allocated for various uses such as residential, agricultural, and commercial purposes. While there is also private land ownership in the Cook Islands, customary land remains an important aspect of the land tenure system. Therefore for any foreigner wanting to own property and carry out business in the Cook Islands, the maximum hold on a lease is 60 years.  

For visitors, making your way around the Cook Islands is very easy considering that English is prominently spoken. Although Cook Islands Maori is the native tongue and also the official language of the Cook Islands, most Cook Islanders can converse confidently in English. The actual Cook Islands Maori dialect is closely similar to New Zealand Maori and the Polynesian language. The Cook Islands Maori became an official language of the Cook Islands in 2003 after ratification through the Te Reo Maori Act 2003. It is also the language that is spoken in the Parliament of the Cook Islands.  

Investment Policies, Legislation & Requirements

Investment Code 2003

The Investment Code Order 2003 (“Code”) stipulates Government’s policy on Foreign Investments for use by Investors, Government Agencies and the Community at large. The Code also provides for sectors of the economy and specific business activities reserved for Cook Islanders only. Where the proposed Investment activity is reserved for Cook Islanders Part E of the Code provides the exceptions under which a Foreign Investor may qualify to invest in the reserve sector.

  • Part A provides that the general investment policy is to a) ensure that business activities contribute significantly to the economic development of the Cook Islands and have a net economic benefit; and b) give priority to investment by Cook Islanders.
  • Part B identifies that priority areas for investment are agriculture, marine resources, and the tourism industry.
  • Part C provides the high-level approach Board consideration of applications.
  • Part D identifies reserved business activities.
  • Part E provides for exceptions to the general rule that applications will be refused for reserved activities.
  • Part F identifies factors to determine whether a proposed investment is likely to have a net economic contribution.
  • Part G provides additional criteria for assessing applications.

NSDA:

FDI policy and systems are relevant to pledges, including:

 6 (To Tatou Tu Tangata – Our identity),

 11 (To Tatou kimi’anga puapinga – Our prosperity), and

 12 (To Tatou Kite Pakari – Our knowledge and innovation).

 

Te Akapapa’anga Uki: One Generation, 25 Year Plan:

Of relevance to FDI is the goal to diversify the economy in support of pledge 11.

Te Kaveinga Iti 5 Year Score Card:

Goal 3: Economy, Employment, Trade and Enterprise:
• Indicator 3.1: Increase individual income (real median income)
• Indicator 3.2: Improve national economic growth (real GDP)
• Indicator 3.4: Increase economic diversity (growth in non-tourist related industries)
• Indicator 3.7: Cost of doing business and trade

Goal 14: A Sustainable Population:
• Indicator 14.2 “true self-determination and ability to decide our own future

 Indicator 14.3 target “to have the balance shift away from foreign ownership towards local ownership as far as practicable”
 

EDS
• Objective 4: Investing in our islands
• Attracting foreign investment
• Business Info eShop

ERR
• ERR Workstream 8 foreign investment to benefit the Cook Islands
 
Programme Note: Foreign Investment to benefit the Cook Islands
1. Reconsidering the barriers to foreign investment and reviewing the foreign investment environment to identify how this can be improved to provide clear gains for all parties, and
2. Attracting foreign investment in key industries to drive our current and future economy. 

Foreign Investment in the Cook Islands is regulated by the Development Investment Act 1995-1996, the Development Investment Regulations 1996 and the Development Investment Code Order 2003.

The Development Investment Act ’95-’96

The Development Investment Regulations ’96

Amendment to the Development Investment Regulations ’96

 

Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus)

PACER Plus is a free trade and investment agreement between Australia, Cook Islands, Kiribati, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Co-operation Agreement (SPARTECA)
SPARTECA provides duty free and unrestricted access for specified products originating from Pacific Islands Forum countries to Australia and New Zealand.

Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA)
Provides for free trade in goods between member countries, excluding alcohol, tobacco, and government procurement.

Generalized System of Preferences

The Cook Islands is granted GSP treatment by Australia; Belarus; Canada; the European Union; Kazakhstan; Russia; Switzerland; Turkey; the United Kingdom; and the United States of America

Foreign direct investment span across multiple sectors and areas of the economy, which interconnects across a number of Cook Islands policy:

  • National security policy
  • Trade policy
  • General immigration policy
  • Competition policy
  • Government procurement
  • Public-Private Partnerships policy
  • General environmental protection policy
  • Climate change policy
  • Marine management policy
  • General land policy
  • Tourism
  • Offshore financial services
  • Offshore fisheries
  • Agriculture
  • Aquaculture
  • Seabed minerals
  • Pearl farming
  • Investment registration
  • Immigration and work permits
  • Company registration
  • Land leases
  • Land use planning 
  • Tax registration
  • Superannuation registration
  • Ministry of Justice Foreign Company registration
  • Tourism
  • Financial services
  • Seabed minerals
  • Liquor licensing
  • Internet Service Providers
  • Fish exporting
  • Legal practitioners
  • Professional licensing – construction and physical development
  • Food businesses
  • Pearl farming
  • Land transport
  • Offshore fisheries
  • Marine transport
  • Is Government approvals
  • Import and export

Resources and Looking forward

Whilst tourism makes up a significant part of the Cook Islands economy, contributing to almost 70% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – it’s important to shine light on other under-developed areas of resources. The C-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of  diversification. Other areas to which the Cook Islands Government have looked to explore include our Agriculture and Marine Resources sectors. 

Agriculture is an area that has high potential for growth given that Rarotonga and other pa enua islands in the Southern Group were once major exporters of various fresh produce. The Southern group of islands contain more fertile soil, which, in the past, use to export to the New Zealand markets produce such as: citrus, pineapple, tomato, capsicum, beans, chilies, taro and pawpaw. In a 2016 Report on the State of Cook Islands Biodiversity and Agriculture, much of the impacts of the agricultural industry in the Cook Islands have been a result of competitive prices of fruits and vegetables to the New Zealand market from Asian and Latin American countries. Furthermore, tourism had quickly developed and with Cook Islanders been New Zealand passport holders – it is easy for them to move freely between the two countries. The opportunities in New Zealand have attracted large portions of Cook Islanders abroad.

As part of the agriculture sector action plan 2020-2025, there are aims to provide recovery pathways with significant focus on agro-ecological farming – what this means is more focus on sustainable practices to reduce climate change, such as recycling resources and prioritizing local supply chains and produce. In the recent Census 2021 report, at least 70 per cent of all households in the Cook Islands are engaged in one or more type of agricultural activity. Of those that were engaged, the majority, 44.2 per cent were growing flowers and ornamental plants and 43.8 per cent were engaged in harvesting and growing fruit trees. What’s clear is that Agriculture is still largely done for home use. There is need to facilitate broader initiatives to look at expanding the export of our crops and produce to overseas markets, and furthermore to look at advances in agriculture and technology.

Marine Resources in the Cook Islands includes the pearl industry, offshore and inshore fisheries, aquaculture and more recently, the exploration of manganese nodules. Given the Cook Islands geographic location and very vast EEZ, naturally this boasts an awe-inspiring marine ecosystem teeming with diverse species and invaluable resources.

The Northern Group islands in particular offers a unique and rich marine life in retrospect to the Southern Group of islands. Geographic features of the islands in the North consists of flat-lying coral atolls with enclosing vast lagoons. The marine ecosystem there is home to a wide array of species, including vibrant coral reefs, endemic fish species, turtles, dolphins, and whales. This outstanding biodiversity forms the foundation of the island’s ecological integrity and contributes to the overall health and productivity of marine resources, which are yearning for sustainable and long-lasting investments to be carried out.

The Ministry of Marine Resources is responsible for the management of all living and non-living marine resources in the Cook Islands, and as part of their vision and commitment to the people of the Cook Islands – it is, to ensure sustainable resource management and economic development of our Marine Sector. At present, non-fillet frozen fish remains the top export of the Cook Islands at a total capital export value of $13m. The main destination of non-fillet Frozen Fish exports from Cook Islands are: Japan ($6.9m), Thailand ($3.77m), China ($1.83m) and Indonesia ($501k).

Carrying out business in the Cook Islands

Trading Banks:

  • ANZ
  • Bank of theCook Islands (BCI)
  • Bank of the South Pacific (BSP)
  • International Flights: New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and French Polynesia
  • Domestic: Air Rarotonga flies daily to the Southern Group, and twice weekly to the Northern Group

Shipping:

  • International: Monthly Break-bulk and containerised Shipping except Auckland, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga.
  • Domestic: Scheduled Weekly Services to Southern and Northern Group Islands

The Cook Islands’ government actively encourages foreign direct investment and the establishment of new enterprises and business activities that make a positive contribution to the economic and social development of the country. BTIB’s Foreign Investment Division continuously promotes the Cook Islands as a desirable and attractive place of investment.

  • No Death Duty Tax
  • Income Tax (company) 20% for residents, 28% for non-residents
  • Value added Tax – 15%
  • Withholding Tax – Foreign pay-outs – 15 (on interest, dividend, and royalty)
  • Sophisticated telecommunication links with the rest of the world and almost daily air services to New Zealand, Australia and the USA
  • Developed infrastructure for business, quality housing for expatriate staff and good health and education services
  • No Foreign Exchange Controls
  • Freedom to repatriate capital and profits
  • No Wealth Tax
  • No Gift Tax