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Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands© Daniel Fisher - Cook Islands Tourism
Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands

Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands

© Daniel Fisher – Cook Islands Tourism

Is the Cook Islands a Country?

With a lot of ties to New Zealand between both cultures being called “Maori” and much of the Cook Islands population living in New Zealand, there’s a lot of confusion over what exactly the Cook Islands is! Aside from being a string of beautiful tropical islands and atolls in the South Pacific, the Cook Islands is a country. Not like your typical country, however, it is self-governing in free association with New Zealand. But what exactly does that mean? We go through the answers to this question in this guide on who owns the Cook Islands.

Fast Facts About the Cook Islands

  • Location: South Pacific, west of French Polynesia and east of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Niue.
  • Population: 17,600 in Niue, 80,550 in New Zealand
  • LanguageCook Islands Maori
  • Landmass: 240 km2 (93 sq mi)
  • CurrencyNew Zealand Dollar
  • Time ZoneUTC/GMT-10

For more information about the Cook Islands, see Who are the People of the Cook Islands? and How to Plan a Trip to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.

Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands© CookIslandsPocketGuide.com

What is “Self-Governing in Free Association”?

The Cook Islands is a country in free association within the Realm of New Zealand, but what exactly does that mean?

In short, New Zealand carries out the Cook Islands’ defence and foreign affairs on their behalf if requested by the Cook Islands. In the meantime, the Cook Islands handles its own foreign affairs. The two nations also coordinate on the “expansion of commercial, economic and investment relations between the private sectors”, “encourage frequent contacts at the political, official, commercial and community levels” and more. The details on how the Governments of the Cook Islands and New Zealand cooperate are outlined further in the Joint Centenary Declaration 2001.

Additionally, being in free association within the Realm of New Zealand means that the Cook Islands’ nationals are automatically given New Zealand citizenship and share New Zealand’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.

The Cook Islands has been operating as a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand since 4 August 1965.

Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands© CookIslandsPocketGuide.com

The Cook Islands Parliament

The Cook Islands has a parliamentary style of government similar to that of New Zealand and England. The Parliament is made up of 24 members, known as “Members of Parliament” (MPs) who are directly elected by universal suffrage from single-seat constituencies. Members are elected for a limited term and hold office for a maximum of four years. The Cook Islands Parliament meets in Avarua, the capital of the Cook Islands, on Rarotonga. The Cook Islands has two main political parties and some smaller parties.

A traditional aspect of the Cook Islands Parliament worth mentioning is the “House of Ariki”, functioning similar to the “House of Lords” in England. Ariki means “high chief”, which historically used to lead various clans across the Cook Islands. Their role today, however, is that they may submit questions concerning the “welfare of the people” on which they make recommendations.

Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands© Lara Hotz - Cook Islands Tourism

So, Who Owns the Cook Islands?

With its own government and ability to request assistance from New Zealand, rather than being controlled by New Zealand, the Cook Islands is its own country.

In terms of owning the land physically, most freehold land in the Cook Islands is owned by hundreds of Cook Islands families. When a parent landowner dies, their children are entitled to the land. Rights to land can sometimes be exchanged for fixed-term leases of usually 60 years, particularly on Rarotonga.

Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands© Dylan Harrison - Cook Islands Tourism

Is Rarotonga a Country?

Finally, just to rid the confusion to the question about whether Rarotonga is a country. No, Rarotonga is not a country but just one of the 15 islands of the country of the Cook Islands. Rarotonga is often mistaken for being a country, as it is by far the most populated and developed of the Cook Islands.

Learn more about visiting Rarotonga in The Complete Travel Guide to Rarotonga, as well as about the other islands in What are the 15 Islands in the Cook Islands?

More About Who Owns the Cook Islands

That’s it for our complete guide on who owns the Cook Islands and whether the Cook Islands is a country. It’s a great place to start learning about this fascinating island nation, but a bad place to stop! Take a look at the following guides for more Cook Islands wisdom:

Finally, if you’re visiting the Cook Islands, don’t miss our comprehensive guide, The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide.

Author

Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Cook Islands Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in the South Pacific over 10 years ago with nothing but a backpack and a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to explore a paradise such as the Cook Islands. She knows the islands inside out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience Raro’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also the editor of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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