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Cook Islands churchgoers protest Sunday flights, 2008-2010
For approximately two years, beginning in June 2008 and ending in 2010, churchgoers in the Cook Islands protested airplane flights taking place on Sundays. The protesters viewed Sunday as the day of rest but many local businesses retorted, saying that Sunday flights were crucial for the economy. The protesters’ ultimate goal was to ban all flights from taking off and landing (specifically on the island of Aitutaki) on Sundays. The churchgoers gained the attention and support of a new political party on the island. The leaders of the campaign were Reverend Tuvaine Glassie (Cook Islands Christian Church), Tunui Mati (an airport worker), and other anonymous citizens. The opposition was mainly politicians, including Theresa Manarangi Trott (Cook Island Chamber of Commerce President), Sir Terepai Maoate (Cook Island finance minister), Tai Herman (Mayor of Aitutaki), and Tangata Vavia (cabinet minister), amongst others.
Flights commenced on Sunday due to a drop in tourist numbers, and therefore a downturn in the Cook Island economy. The government proposed a 6-month trial period for Sunday flights, which would end with a referendum voting on its permanency.
On Sunday June 22, 2008, an airplane flew to the island of Aitutaki for the first time on a Sunday since 1995. Churchgoers protested at the Aitutaki airport, carrying and planting various signs in opposition of Sunday flights. Additionally, approximately 900 people signed a petition against flights held on Sundays on the island. In anticipation of the protests, police and airport security staff arrived in Aitutaki (from the main island of Rarotonga) for safety purposes. The police arrested two protesters after they attempted to run onto the runway in protest.
By March 2009, the government had still not ordered a referendum. Citizens continued to protest at the airport most Sundays and demanded a referendum.
In October 2009, protests persisted, and the opposition verbally denounced the protesters on multiple occasions. The finance minister, Terepai Maoate, admitted that the protests were affecting flights in and out of the island: many people refused to travel on Sundays following the constant protests. Additionally, the government refused to hold a referendum, saying that it was too expensive.
In December 2009, about 1,300 people signed the petition against flights in Aitutaki. People continued protesting as well, holding signs that read “No Sunday Flights: Government Ignores Peoples’ Voice”. The airport employers fired one of the protest leaders, Tunui Mati (who had worked at the airport up until this point).
The protests gained the attention of the political party Te Kura O Te Au, putting the protesters’ demands into a legitimate political voice. Te Kura O Te Au’s agenda included immediately suspending all Sunday flights and holding a referendum regarding the matter. Te Kura O Te Au did not, however, win the 2010 elections. The Cook Islands Party (one of the main parties) won the election instead. After the elections, the protests appeared to dwindle down, although it is unclear how many protests occurred after the elections.
Today, only one flight with Air Rarotonga (the Cook Islands’ airport service) lands in Aitutaki on Sundays. Flights to Rarotonga (the main island) from other airlines (especially Air New Zealand) still occur on Sundays. The protests occurred solely in Aitutaki, however, and did not target flights landing in Rarotonga.