Cook Islands country profile

  • Published
map of the Cook islands

The 15 volcanic islands and coral atolls of the Cook Islands are scattered over 770,000 square miles of the South Pacific, between American Samoa to the west and French Polynesia to the east.

A former British protectorate which became self-governing in 1965. Its economy centres on tourism; the territory's natural assets include fine beaches and volcanic mountains.

Named after Captain Cook, who explored them in 1773, the islands were once autonomous, home to tribes of mixed Polynesian ancestry.

In March 2019, it was reported there were plans to remove the reference to Captain James Cook in favour of a new Maori name for the islands. No decision has yet been taken.

Governments still seek advice on matters of culture, custom and land ownership from a council of hereditary leaders known as the House of Ariki.

More than twice as many native Cook Islanders live in New Zealand than live in the islands themselves. Most of them have left in search of a brighter economic future. As New Zealand citizens they can also live in Australia.

Black pearls are the chief export. Agriculture, the sale of fishing licences to foreign fleets and offshore finance are also key revenue earners.

In September 2022, US President Joe Biden recognized the Cook Islands and Niue as "sovereign states" in line with a new Pacific plan that will pump $1.4bn into the region.

Both Pacific Islands are part of the realm of New Zealand - they are self-governing but Wellington provides them with aid and assistance and New Zealand citizenship for their people. Both also have established independent diplomatic relations with China.


  • Capital: Avarua
  • Area: 236.7 sq km
  • Population: 17,450
  • Languages: English, Cook Islands Maori, Pukapukan
  • Life expectancy: 72 years (men) 78 years (women)


Head of state: King Charles III, represented by a King's representative

Prime Minister: Mark Brown

Image source, Phil Walter/Getty Images

Mark Brown was re-elected Prime Minister in the August 2022 general elections. He had become prime minister on the retirement of Henry Puna in October 2020, having served as finance minister since 2010.


The main radio and TV stations are operated by the privately-owned Pitt Media Group, which also publishes weekly newspapers.

Radio Australia broadcasts on FM on Rarotonga.


Some key dates in the history of the Cook Islands:

1596 - Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana is the first European to sight the islands.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands

1773 - Captain James Cook explores the islands and names them the Hervey Islands. Fifty years later they are renamed after him.

1821 - English and Tahitian missionaries arrive, become the first non-native settlers.

1888 - Cook Islands are proclaimed a British protectorate and a single federal parliament is established.

1901 - Islands are annexed to New Zealand.

1946 - Legislative Council is established. For the first time since 1912, the territory has direct representation.

1965 - Islands become a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand.

Image source, AFP/Getty Images
Image caption,
Cook Islands dancers in traditional dress

1985 - Agreement on creating a South Pacific nuclear-free zone - the Rarotonga Treaty - is opened for signing on the main island.

2017 - The Cook Islands creates the world's largest marine reserve - covering one million sq km of the Pacific Ocean.

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