cooks tourism future.jpg

// FOLLOW UP meena and the minister. photo: avarua residents including tourism minister piho rua sheltered in the shell of paulina's restaurant after dawn broke on a fading cyclone meena. weeks later, doubts are growing about the potential impact of rua's leadership on the industry. --------------------------

by editor jason brown Tourism minister Piho Rua was seen this afternoon, arms akimbo, in the old marine resources building. Looking out to sea, talking with an official. His reappearance on the Avarua waterfront is a reminder the country's number one industry may have a problem. "He kept changing the subject all the time," reports one business man after a meeting with Rua. He's not the only one. Rua's role in the industry has been discussed around town as Rarotonga shakes off cyclone tensions and eases back into normal routine, including meetings of the chamber of commerce. Rua's role was discussed briefly at Monday's special meeting of the national Chamber of Commerce. Very briefly.

"who is the minister?"

"Who is the minister?" asks importer Brian Baudinet at the open meeting. About 65 people swapped smiles. This after all is an industry that survives hurricane ministers like Dr. Joe Williams. And real hurricanes, five of them. In a row. Rua may or may not be a similar. He is the first new MP for Rakahanga in 30 years, replacing long-time political lion of the north, Dr Pupuke Robati. Rua is a former policeman and prison superintendent with more than two decades of experience questioning criminal suspects. Rua rose to the rank of chief inspector, where he was not shy of wielding authority. His public profile dimmed when he went into business with former bond manager and convicted thief, Michael Benns. Then dived after he became the island's biggest pirate. Given past experience with ministers like Williams, business people are not too worried about Rua's background. No, the problem is, they are just plain confused by Rua's approach to the industry.

"he talks about this, that"

"He talks about doing this, doing that," said the business man, who commented on condition of not being quoted. One thing that Rua has talked about publicly to the media is knocking down the wharf front restaurant, Paulina's, and the old Marine Resources building. In it's place, the tourism minister wants to build an open park capable of holding concerts with a large, portable, stage at water's edge. "Light it up at night," he tells avaiki nius agency, building an image of hundreds of people along the waterfront, watching performing arts. Visionary stuff, say supporters. Especially while the reality in front of him at the time was the aftermath of cyclone Meena. Rubble strewn across the road, the new justice ministry fence smashed over. "Good!" he says. "I hate that fence." Most people would agree with him, and think similarly about the distinctly Chinese flavour of the new justice building.

"good! i hate that fence"

Questions remain. What, for example, about the local businesses at the wharf? "Eah!" says Rua dismissively, flicking his hand. As many as 10 people worked in one of the buildings, featuring a small scale, local style restaurant, and an attached tattoo venue, specialising in traditional designs. A toilet block was smashed in by Meena. All facing uncertain future. After Meena, Cook Islands Investment Corporation chief executive Tarita Hutchinson told avaiki nius agency the fate of the buildings rests with the board of the CIIC. At that stage, the board had yet to meet. Since then, there have been conflicting stories about what will happen to the Avarua waterfront. And that's without going into the rumours flying around Trader Jack's, only half of them put out by the owner of what was the country's best-known restaurant himself. Instead of allaying nerves in the country's engine room, however, minister Rua was off shocking the arts industry.

'sacking williams'

Performing and visual arts were estimated in 2001 as being worth $5 million to the country, according to a report by Arama and Associates. Sacking the head of the Ministry of Cultural Development, Sonny Williams, was another confirmation, said critics, that Rua is a loose cannon. Supporters say Rua is just the man to shake up an industry that has engineered its own problems, mostly environmental. Some feel, however, this is the last kind of thing the country or its number one industry needs when trying to recover from five cyclones.