The Cook Islands has a severe trade imbalance, with imports outweighing exports by a wide margin. Food imports alone cost many times the value of all exports. New Zealand benefits greatly from this situation by supplying the bulk of the Cook Islands' imports. Some money comes back in the form of New Zealand aid to health, education, and special projects. In recent years the Chinese government has become a major donor, building a new courthouse in Avarua in 2004 and a police station in 2006. Money remitted by Cook Islanders resident in New Zealand helps pay the country's import bill, and quite often durable goods included in the import figures are actually gifts sent home by family members abroad. Tourism plays a vital role in correcting the balance of payments.
The largest exports are cultured pearls, fruits and vegetables, clothing, and fish and seafood in that order. Cultured pearls alone account for most of the country's exports and the percentage continues to grow. Fresh fruit production is hindered by the small volume, uneven quality, inadequate shipping, poor marketing, and the unreliability of island producers. Most food is imported and the local produce markets are usually empty.
The economy's small size is illustrated by the importance of the post office's Philatelic Bureau. A number of small clothing factories in Avarua supply tropical beachware to the local and tourist markets. Subsistence fishing and agriculture are important on the outer islands.
Future wealth may come from the mining of undersea deposits of cobalt, copper, and nickel inside the exclusive economic zone. In 1997 the Cook Islands signed a deal theoretically worth US$600 million with the American mining giant Bechtel Corporation. After a careful study in 2001, mining experts from Norway found that current world cobalt prices made exploiting these reserves unviable. They did note that if cobalt prices were to double, a profit on investment was possible.
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