The Cook Islands has been recognised as the top destination to visit in 2022 - and the good news is - it's still COVID-free.
In early December, officials panicked when they thought they had recorded the first case of the virus. A 10-year-old boy who had travelled from Auckland to Rarotonga, the main island, was found to test positive twice.
However, the tests were considered "weak positives" and he tested negative soon after, leading officials to believe that it was merely a historical case. This could mean the young boy was exposed to the virus in the past but did not have it and was not infectious.
"Today’s ‘negative’ result [...] means we did not detect any virus in the mucus sample we took from the boy. This is good news," said the country's secretary of health, Bob Williams.
So the tiny, paradise nation still retains its reputation as one of the only countries in the world to avoid COVID-19 together.
The Cook Islands (population 17,000) have fully vaccinated 96 per cent of their population. This sees it come in a close second to the nearby nation of Palau, which holds the world record of a 99 per cent vaccination rate.
The islands came top of the list revealed by Lonely Planet this year, chosen for their topicality, sustainable tourism and 'wow' factor.
Judges at the Best in Travel awards particularly praised the nation for its creation of Marae Moana, one of the largest marine parks in the world. As well as the establishment of the Mana Tiaki Eco Certification Programme, which recognises best practices in sustainability.
Where are the Cook Islands?
Located between New Zealand and Hawaii, the Cook Islands consist of 15 islands, occupying two million square miles of the Pacific Ocean.
The largest island, Rarotonga, is home to rugged mountains and Avarua, the national capital. To the north, Aitutaki Island, has a vast lagoon surrounded by coral reefs and small, sandy islets.
What is there to do in the Cook Islands?
Lined with palm trees and framed with blue skies, the white sand beaches make up a uniquely tropical landscape. Underwater, the area is home to 130 different types of coral, 600 fish species, turtles, reef sharks, whales and dolphins.
The country is renowned for its many snorkelling and scuba-diving sites.
The small surface area of the islands allow travellers easy access to both outdoor adventures and many community events. Alongside all the water-based activities, the Maire Nui Tropical Gardens are a must-see, as is a visit to Koteka winery.
Warm hospitality is an ancient practice in the nation and visitors are known to remark that the people and community are the highlight of their trip.
“We're excited to be chosen for this award, especially after a global pandemic,” says Karla Eggelton, Director of Global Sales & Marketing at Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.
Can you visit the Cook Islands at the moment?
Cook Islands’ borders are currently closed for entry, to ensure that they remain a COVID-free zone.
In a country with only 22 doctors and two ventilators for a population of 17,500, they have had to be extremely careful that the virus didn’t enter the island.
The government has indicated that re-opening the border with New Zealand, for quarantine-free travel, will not happen until they are fully confident that there is no community transmission of COVID-19 in New Zealand.
While it is still closed, local people have shifted their focus to green initiatives and programmes to ensure its tourism industry is ready to welcome international visitors back after the hiatus.
“We see the award as a great launching pad for when travel opens again in 2022,” says Eggelton.
“[We] look forward to welcoming visitors back to our little piece of paradise and a time when we can once again share our authentic culture and pristine environment,” adds Halatoa Fua, Cook Islands Tourism Corporations Chief Executive Officer.
For more information on the Cook Islands, click here.