Considerable concern has been expressed about the apparent decline in the resident population of the Cook Islands in recent years as a result of people moving overseas.

The resident population is defined as people intending to reside in the Cook Islands for twelve months or more. Hence, it includes foreigners working in the Cook Islands and their families, so long as they intend to stay for twelve months or more.

The resident population was estimated at around 15,000 in the 2001 Census, down from 18,100 in the 1996 Census. The most recent official estimate put the resident population at 12,400 in June 2005. Based on these figures, it would appear there has been a further decline in the resident population of some 2,600 since the 2001 Census.

However, there are significant issues with the official figures. It is easy to measure the total number of people arriving in and departing the Cook Islands. But separating them into visitors and residents is much more difficult. The current approach relies largely on what people list as their permanent address when arriving and departing the country.
This leads to anomalies in the data. For instance, the official figures imply that there were some 7,800 visitors in the country in June 2005 (i.e. the difference between the total population of 20,200 and the resident population of 12,400).

This is not plausible.

Based on data on visitor arrivals and average length of stay, it is estimated there were really only around 2,300 visitors in the country at this time.

The Ministry of Finance and Economic Management (MFEM) has made some rough recalcula-tions of resident movements by estimating the numbers of visitors in the country and subtracting these from the total population. Based on these estimates, the resident population has actually in-creased by around 2,100 since the 2001 Census.

Interestingly, the estimates suggest that resident movements are strongly influenced by economic conditions. While the resident population fell sharply during the recession of 1995 to 1998, it has increased during the period of strong economic growth since 1999. It would therefore appear that the best thing the Government can do to encourage more people to stay in or return to the Cook Islands is to enable greater economic opportunities through sustainable economic development.

One important caveat is that the resident population includes all people intending to reside in the Cook Islands for twelve months or more, regardless of ethnic origin.

In the 2001 Census there were around 980 residents who were not of Cook Island Maori origin. While the number of foreigners has almost certainly increased since then, it is not possible to quantify the increase. Hence it is not clear how many residents are of Cook Island Maori origin, and how this number has changed over time.

It is important to improve the statistics on the resident population. The Statistics Division has taken a number of steps to try to get a better handle on movements of residents, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration has recently computerized its database.

However, it will not be possible to get accurate data until the next Census in November 2006.

Complete report: MFEM, Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update