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Earlier in the day, Marshall Humphreys had taken two other travelers and me into the Rimarau Burial Cave, tucked in the woods on Atiu, one of the 15 islands that make up the Cooks.
Marshall specializes in this dark tour, which leads visitors deep into a cave cluttered with skeletal remains. There are no ropes to partition off the skulls, and people have to simply watch their heads, hands and feet to ensure they don’t bump into stalactites or step on scattered bones.
Atiu has a population of 450 people (with one queen and two kings), a number that has dwindled from 1,200 in 18 years. As kids graduate from college, they often leave the island because there just aren’t any jobs available at home. There are no stoplights in the entire country and only one small market store on Atiu. The island hasn’t had its own dentist for five years, and islanders must fly to Rarotonga, the most populated of the Cook Islands, for any serious dental work that a hygienist can’t handle on her own.
And yet, Marshall tells me as we drive down the dark road toward his home, Atiu is putting a valiant effort into drawing tourists. In addition to his burial cave tour, he runs another cave tour and an island tour. The island can sleep 70 guests, and the largest accommodation has six entire rooms devoted to lodging, but there have never been 70 people visiting the island at any given time.
Even with all of the islanders plus a full load of visitors, the new church would barely be half full.
I’m staying at Atiu Homestay B&B, which is simply an extra bedroom in Marshall’s home. When his last child moved out in 2005, Marshall and his wife, Jéanne, opened up their home to visitors. Jéanne, a professional artist, is currently in New Zealand, so Marshall is the only other person in the house with me.
I’m staying in his daughters’ old bedroom. It has two twin beds and a small shelf with Dan Brown books and family photos on it. The window is slightly opened and a light breeze blows through the room all night. In the morning, I’m awoken by a rooster.
For breakfast, Marshall cuts up papaya and offers me cereal and milk. We sit at the kitchen table, chatting about Atiu. Marshall is but one of a handful of tour operators on the island. With only 1,200 visitors a year, I imagine they all do what they can to draw the tourists’ money toward their personal ventures given the fact that it’s the largest source of income on Atiu.
Between sips of coffee (made from beans harvested on the island), I ask Marshall what Atiu’s tourism model is.
“People cringe at the words ‘golf’ and ‘resort,’ he says. “It would be horrible to have a resort here.” And yet, Marshall says as he looks out the window at the green foliage growing in his yard, the island has huge potential that just can’t be realized. Some of the island’s walkways need to be upgraded and amenities that many people expect—like speedy internet service—just don’t exist. In an awkward juxtaposition of reality, islanders have to balance the fact that tourism is the largest industry (followed by taro and coffee production) with the fact that they just don’t get that many tourists.
It is incredibly difficult to reconcile investments in tourism infrastructure, and yet, would upgraded amenities and a larger variety of entertainment options attract more people?
I chewed on a piece of toast, thinking about the question. With more investment in tourism, would I even be sitting in Marshall’s kitchen, debating the nuances of a delicate balance on a small island in the South Pacific? I find comfort in knowing that, at any given time there may be three or four outsiders on this island.
My experience isn’t canned; it’s molded into what I make it because I’m not one of dozens or even hundreds of other people who come and go with little thought about what their presence does and means to a place. For two days, Marshall has driven me around in his truck, laughing about losing his keys because he took them out of the ignition for the first time in years and helping me pick out a new soda to try from the market’s refrigerator.
My job as a travel writer looms before me. I want people to experience Atiu and its genuine authenticity. I want someone else to sit in the kitchen chair I’m sitting in, listening to the rooster that Marshall says isn’t his but it won’t go away. I want visitors to come to Atiu to crawl through the caves and drink homebrew, but I don’t want there to be a ticket booth outside the burial cave or VIP lines outside the bush pub. I don’t want the road to be widened, stoplights put up and two-car traffic jams to become the norm.
And yet, Marshall and the islanders deserve a livelihood they can count on. They open their doors, make meals and turn their island into a true experience for those who take the time to visit. As I pack my bags and prepare to head back to Rarotonga I decide that, just once, I’d like to see all 70 beds on Atiu filled.