TRAVEL NOTES

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The Independent Culture
GETTING THERE: Rarotonga is the only Cook Island with an international airport. Air New Zealand (0181-741 2299) flights from London via Los Angles cost from pounds 850 in spring to pounds 1,400 over the Christmas period.

STAYING THERE: Although visas are not required for British visitors to Rarotonga every visitor arriving there must have accommodation booked for at least the first night. This is partly intended to discourage people from camping on the beach, which is highly illegal and will lead to immediate deportation.

FRENCH NUCLEAR TESTS

At one point the distance between French Polynesia and the Cook Islands is only 138 miles - which in Pacific terms is almost breathing down one another's necks. But that is what separates the two closest islands in territories made up of 135 islands. The Cook Islands cover 93 square miles, French Polynesia 1,360 square miles. The distance between the Mururoa atoll test site and Rarotonga is about 1,200 miles - too far for any radiation from the 110 or so underground tests conducted so far to have any effect. Scientists are, however, divided about the likelihood of radioactive isotopes eventually leaching out into the ocean current.

But before 1976 France conducted 44 atmospheric nuclear tests in this area. It is almost impossible to verify - or discount - the claims that these have caused a wide array of cancers and birth defects, since the French authorities are anything but candid with their health statistics.

None the less the islanders, even those 1,200 miles away, are worried and tend to blame any new illnesses or signs of environmental deterioration on the nuclear programme. At the same time much of their income is derived from tourism and they are terrified of losing that revenue by publicising their fears. About 50,000 visitors arrive each year: roughly the number who visit the Tower of London in a week but enough to keep the country solvent. So the islanders are torn two ways by the spectre France has brought into their lives.

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