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Sexual harassment widespread in the Cook Islands hospitality


27th March 2018

Sexual harassment widespread in the Cook Islands hospitality

Sexual harassment by customers in the Cook Islands hospitality industry is a problem, according to a study conducted by Auckland University of Technology (AUT) lecturer and Cook Islander, Lisa Sadaraka.

Sadaraka, who has worked in the tourism industry in the Cook Islands, says despite extensive research on workplace sexual harassment, studies have focused predominately on the US, UK and Europe, and there was a lack of knowledge on sexual harassment in the Pacific region. This gap and Lisa’s own experiences inspired her to undertake the research. Conducted in the Cook Islands, the study investigated the prevalence of sexual harassment by customers in the hospitality industry.

The study involved in-depth interviews with Cook Islands hospitality employees and employers to gain insight into their experiences and perceptions of sexual harassment. Both male and female participants were recruited to identify gender differences in attitudes and perceptions of sexual harassment.

Consistent with international studies, alcohol consumption was considered a primary cause of customer harassment. Employees were also of the view that visitors behaved inappropriately because they were away from home and had a sense of anonymity (referred to in the study as a ‘moral holiday’). The aesthetic labour (physical appearance) of employees was also considered a contributing factor to sexual harassment by customers.

A significant outcome of the study, were new themes that emerged on ‘cause’, that were unique to the study and its location (i.e.; Cook Islands). These included:

· The commodification of Cook Islands culture, in particular, the sexualisation of Cook Islands dance and costumes. The contemporary style, technique and movements of the traditional dance, described as “seductive and provocative” were perceived to have an inadvertent influence on visitor behaviour.

· A perception that some Cook Islands cultural norms were misunderstood by visitors. For example, it is customary to aravei (greet) someone by kissing them on the cheek. Participants perceived that a lack of awareness by some visitors around cultural practices triggered inappropriate sexual behaviour.

· Cook Islanders are renowned for being warm, friendly, hospitable people and they enjoy high social interaction. The study revealed that the friendly, outgoing personalities of Cook Islanders were perceived as attracting sexual attention customers.


· Destination marketing, which plays on themes of ‘sun, sand and sex’ and exploits the stereotypical images of the ‘dusky maiden’ also emerged as a contributing factor of sexual harassment. The use of provocative images, sexual innuendos and undertones in some of the destinations’ marketing collateral was perceived to have an inadvertent impact on visitor behaviour.

The most common sexual behaviours that employees experienced by customers included unwanted physical contact (e.g. pinching buttocks, touching breasts), sexual gestures (e.g. staring), propositioning and sexual remarks (e.g. comments on physical appearance).

Overall, the study identified a significant lack of awareness on sexual harassment in the Cook Islands tourism industry and Sadaraka suspects this is likely to be a common theme across the Pacific region.

“Sex is a taboo or forbidden subject in many of our Pacific communities. We need to break down the barriers and bring this issue to the fore, because it’s impacting our people and the sustainability of our industry.”

Of concern, the study found that Cook Islanders were leaving the tourism industry because of sexual harassment. Sadaraka emphasises a crucial need to address the issue in Pacific communities and makes several recommendations on increasing awareness through training and implementing workplace policies and procedures. A need to raise awareness through ‘work ready’ programmes in secondary schools and across the community was also identified.

At the invitation of Cook Islands Tourism, Sadaraka recently presented her findings at the ‘Tourism Industry Global Update’ held in Rarotonga. This was the first study of its kind to be conducted in the Cook Islands and the forum received good attendance from industry, government officials and the general public. The presentation was well received and positive discussions have subsequently occurred with some key stakeholders. Sadaraka has also recently presented her research at the inaugural ‘Critical Tourism Studies Asia-Pacific Conference’ held in Indonesia.

Lisa says she is extremely grateful for participants’ willingness to come forward and share their experiences given the sensitive nature of the subject. “Their experiences have enabled me to make a meaningful contribution to the knowledge on sexual harassment in our Pacific community. Our people and our culture are our greatest tourism assets. We need to protect them so we can ensure a sustainable tourism industry.”


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