Interview: Christopher Cocker

South Pacific Tourism
Chef Chris Cocker

Interview with Chris Cocker, Chief Executive Officer, South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO)

The South Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO) SPTO is an Intergovernmental body for tourism marketing and development in the region with the vision Vision: “Inspire Sustainable Growth and Empower Pacific People. Its mandate is to “Market and Develop Tourism in the South Pacific”. SPTO has 17 Pacific Island government members and a non-Pacific Island member, which is the People’s Republic of China. SPTO’s members are American Samoa, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. In addition, SPTO has Private Sector Members and development partners/strategic alliances such as the European Union (EU), Council of Regional Organisations in the Pacific (CROP), Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasia, Pacific Trade & Invest (PT&I), Sustainable Travel International (STI), National Tourism Offices (NTOs).

Mr. Christopher Cocker is a Tongan national and is the CEO of the South Pacific Tourism Organisation. He has over 20 years’ experience and expertise in Pacific trade, investment global tourism marketing and promotion. Before joining SPTO in June 2016, he was a short term consultant with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) based in Suva, Fiji, the Project Manager for the EU-funded Pacific Regional Tourism Capacity Building Programme (PRTCBP) administered by the SPTO (2013-2015)and prior to SPTO, he was the Marketing Officer for the EU-funded Increasing Commodity Agriculture Trade (IACT) project administered by SPC.  His previous work posts based in Auckland, New Zealand, include Trade Commissioner of Pacific Trade & Invest (PT&I) and Senior Programme Manager, Pacific Cooperation Foundation (PCF). Earlier in his career he was the Marketing & Memberships Services Manager at SPTO promoting regional tourism in global markets.

SPTO represents the tourism sector in the region and therefore enhance its branding. Could you tell us more about the work you do in linking agriculture and tourism and promote the local food fresh and processed goods?

Tourism plays a significant role in the economies of South Pacific island states in terms of generating employment, income and foreign exchange earnings. An estimated total of over 61,400 people are directly employed in the South Pacific countries in the tourism characteristic sector identified. Our work in linking agriculture and tourism has mostly been in capacity building, provided through a series of training workshops. SPTO has conducted 2 regional and 3 in-country Pacific Culinary Training Workshops and a total of 11 PIC’s was represented, i.e. Cooks Is, Samoa, Niue, Tonga, Solomon Is, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Fiji, PNG, Palau and Tuvalu. SPTO has conducted the following Pacific Culinary Training Workshops:

  • 2 regional workshops in Fiji
    • 2 in country workshops in Samoa
    • 1 in country workshop in Tonga

The overall objective of this project was to enhance the sustainability of the country’s tourism sector through greater use of local produce and less reliance on foreign imports.

How do you assess the strengths of the Pacific region in agri-tourism and what are the parts to improve/strengthen?

The Pacific region is endowed with natural resources, producing high quality fresh fruits, vegetables, root crops and produce that is healthy and organic. That is certainly a key strength and a major success factor for agri-tourism, given that these produce are grown locally and need not be imported. There are certainly areas for improvement, such as the following:

i. Destinations need to pride themselves on selling/serving quality local food to the Tourist.
ii. Entire value chain needs to be on a certain standard, quality and concept that can be adopted by PICs.
iii. Branding needs to compliment ‘sand, sea, and sun’ with ‘high quality locally grown food/local cuisine’
iv. SPTO and NTOs must work together to promote the region as a quality food destination

SPTO has been very active and efficient in organising chefs’ trainings and build the capacity of a new generation of local chefs who can be promoters of food and tourism. What is your assessment of progress and your next steps in branding the region as a quality food destination?

SPTO’s development programme for chefs has been quite successful in that it has not only attracted many local chefs but SPTO has received positive feedback and accolades about the usefulness and value of the programme, particularly its emphasis on the use of local ingredients in dishes. Menus have also evolved to include local cuisine, using ingredients from the hotel garden or other local sources. In order to maintain progress, we emphasise the following:

i. Agri-business is a potential ‘niche’ product and ‘money maker’ for the tourism industry, therefore we must capitalize on the complementarities between agriculture and tourism to maximize gains
ii. Pacific tourism needs to maintain a higher competitive performance against other regions and offering high quality authentic local cuisine is one way we can achieve this
iii. Crucial for all players in the value chain to realise the importance of agri-business and its potential to contribute to the tourism industry
iv. Branding the region as a quality food destination must start at home – Pacific destinations must embrace the uniqueness of their local cuisine and the importance of growing fresh fruits, vegetables and produce of high quality. Once we have things right, we can brand the region as a quality good destination knowing that the frameworks, foundation and value chains are well established in our respective island destinations.

You work with a wide range of partners and actors to enhance their capacity to understand and contribute to sustainable tourism. Do you have any best practice to share?

In terms of ‘best practices’, establishing partnerships and using such relationships is key to sharing knowledge, information and building capacity. Partners and actors, like SPTO and NTOs must work together to promote the region as a quality food destination and contribute to sustainable tourism. Utilizing the strengths of key partners is also important as organisations cannot work in isolation and each has different mandates, roles, areas of focus, etc. Working with key stakeholders and partners in the same space (i.e agribusiness/agri-tourism) and collaborating in joint activities such as training workshops, seminars, forums, etc, guarantees an inclusive and holistic capacity- building programme.