What the latest census says about the Cook Islands and its people

Photo: Creators Hype

On 1 December, 2021, a snapshot of the Cook Islands and its people was taken through a once-every-five-years census. It's not an easy task because of the wide geographical spread of the Islands, but it gives a unique insight into life and it's an essential tool to help the government plan how and where to spend money.

These are the highlights of the latest results published by the Cook Islands Statistics Office. Population figures throughout this website are derived from the 2021 census. Some figures here are rounded so don't add up to 100%

The resident population of the Islands on census day was 14,987  
There were 7,618 females and 7,369 males


The resident population of the Islands has been declining since the 1970s. Rarotonga has seen the biggest fall this time round - from 13,007 in 2016 to 10,898 at this census. The resident population of Aitutaki also declined significantly - down from 1,941 to 1,782. And remote and tiny Palmerston saw the number of permanent residents more than halve from 58 to just 25. The latest estimate from the government (June 2023) puts the resident population at 14,800.
The statisticians says Covid has been a major factor in the latest population decline with local residents seeking work overseas and a large number of migrant workers losing their jobs (mostly in tourism) and returning to their own countries 


Modern Rarotonga home Kikau hut home Roundabout on Atiu

RAROTONGA 10,898: 72% of the total population
OTHER SOUTHERN GROUP ISLANDS  3,033: 20% of the total population
NORTHERN GROUP 1,091: 7% of the total population
Aitutaki has the second largest population (1,782) 
Palmerston has the sm​allest (25) 
Pukapuka is the most densely populated
There are 4,681 private households across the Islands
Percentage figures are rounded


This is a comparison of the latest figures with those from the previous census in 2016

Rarotonga 10,899  down 2,109 (-16%)
Aitutaki 1,782, down 159 (-9%)
Mangaia 471, down 28 (-6%)
Atiu 383, down 51 (-12%)
Mauke 249, down 48 (-16%)
Mitiaro 155, unchanged

Manihiki 215, up 3 (+1%)
Penrhyn 233, up 7 (+3%)
Rakahanga 81, down 2 (-2%)
Pukapuka 456, up 12 (+3%)
Nassau 92, up 14 (+18%)
Palmerston* 25, down 33 (-57%)

Takutea and Manuae are deserted islands, so don't feature in the census. Also not included here is Suwarrow where there is no permanent resident population...just two caretakers from April to October who are counted elsewhere
*Palmerston is part of the Southern group geographically but counted in the Northern group for census purposes


Nearly half the population (6,656/44%)  is under 30
14% are under 15
58% are aged 15 to 59
16.85% are 60+
10-14 year olds make up the largest single age group
Rarotonga has by far the largest number of people aged 80 or over (214)
The median age of the population is 34.6


Education is free, inclusive and compulsory for children aged 5 to 16. There are 31 schools, 23 of which are government owned, 5 are church schools and 3 are private. 95.9% of 5 to 16 year olds were enrolled (100% of 5 to 13 year olds). About 65% of over 5s said secondary was their highest level of education but only 20% reported it as completed. 0.7% of the population over five cannot read and 0.9% cannot write


Almost everyone associates themselves with a faith. The Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) remains dominant with nearly half the resident population (7,225 people) naming it as their religious denomination. Roman Catholicism was the next largest group with 2,574 members. 1,249 people say they’re Seventh Day Adventists and 609 belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints. Other denominations include Assemblies of God, the Apostolic Church and Jehova's Witness


Computers or laptops, iPads and tablets have overtaken TV as the most popular form of entertainment device. 4,732 households have one or more them. 788 have video game consoles. 4,078 households said they had a TV set and 1,476 have a DVD player. A radio/stereo is still in nearly 2,700 homes, but the days of making your own entertainment round a piano or keyboard seem to be declining. Just 336 homes have them.


Internet access is gaining popularity with 59.7 per cent of households now having internet or wi-fi access compared to 41 per cent in 2016. Mobile (cell) phones are the most popular means of communication with over 90 per cent of households saying they have access to their own devices. Just over 80% of users access the internet every day and nearly 90% of users over 15 consume some form of social media. 15-19 year olds use social media the most


68.1% of those aged 15 or older are in employment. Nearly half of those (44.7%) said they were 'Service and Sales workers'. whose jobs included shop assistant, housekeeping and caregiving for children and the elderly.  The public sector is the largest employer (17.8% of workers) followed closely by the wholesale and retail trade. ​The restaurant and accommodation sector saw a 15% drop in employees (from 20.9%) due to the  border lockdown during Covid.

The median annual  income on Rarotonga was NZ$18,000 and in the outer islands (Te Pa Enua)  it was NZ$11,000. The annual average income for males over 15  was NZ$20,209 and for women 15+ it was NZ$18,348.  Nearly 10% had no income at all, while 9.4% earned more than NZ$40,000 a year


Geting round Rarotonga on a moped

The motorcyle/moped is the main form of transport with nearly 81% of households owning at least one. In the Southern Group islands that rises to 92.1%. Over half of homes on Rarotonga own a car, but in the Northern group just 0.4% have a car,van or truck (which the statisticians say makes sense considering the size of the islands in that group)


With dance the unofficial national "sport" of the Islands, it's not surprising that 24.3% of  people described themselves as performers, most aged 15 to 34. 13.3% said they were involved in making costumes However, 40% of over 15s said they didn't participate in any cultural activities.


Smoking was declining when the 2016 census was taken, but the latest results show it's increased slightly. 23.3% of males over 15 said they smoked regularly (20.4% in 2016) and 14.6% of females (13.6% in 2016). 24% of males and 33.8% of females over 15 said they never drink while 12.4% of males and 4.2% of females drink regularly.  For both sexes, that's significantly down on 2016


Most countries hold a census, but I don't know any others who ask about coconut consumption. Over 70 per cent of all households reported using coconuts mainly for eating, drinking and for making coconut oil. Over 21,000 coconuts were used for this purpose averaging up to 6 coconuts per household per week. About 32 per cent of all households also use coconut for animal feed.