October 07, 2013

The Cursed Hotel the never opened

GOATS and other animals now graze on what should be tennis courts and pools. (Roderick Eime)

WILLIAM Wigmore's plantation was once lush like this
– after the curse of MetuaMore it, and subsequent other
ventures on its grounds, all failed. (FreeCopy.com)
PICTURESQUE from the air, Rarotonga still
has its haunting memories. (Cook Islands Tourism)
David Ellis

WITCH-DOCTORS and sorcerers have long cast their magic and spells over the islands of the South Pacific, but none with more devastating affect than Metua More in the Cook Islands in 1913, and her grandson More Rua 77 years on in 1990…

Because many firmly believe their spells have been responsible for business venture after business venture failing, companies collapsing, the Cook Islands government literally brought to its knees financially, and what was to have been a 200-room luxury Sheraton resort laying incomplete and trashed for the past 20 years.

And hauntingly, the long tentacles of the Mafia and associated con-men, spivs and other charlatans reaching all the way from Italy to bleed dry the Sheraton project, something that should have been a simple, straight-forward business venture.

The genesis of such an extraordinary saga in black magic was the lease of a block of land by a Cook Islander, More Uriatua to New Zealander, William John Wigmore for a copra plantation in 1891, and which half-way through in 1911, More wanted torn-up and his land back.

In an argument that ensued, More was shot dead. Wigmore claimed the shooting was unintentional but was convicted of manslaughter, given six months gaol and ordered on release to leave the Cook Islands or face deportation.

He left, but two years later successfully applied to return to "his" plantation. It was then that Metua More, the daughter of the dead land-owner, invoked a spell on Wigmore's plantation, beseeching that no business activity on the land succeed until that land was returned to its rightful island owners.

Bizarrely the curse appeared to have immediate affect: William Wigmore's until-then highly-profitable plantation suddenly ran into problem after problem, before ultimately folding. Wigmore walked away, and when the property was re-leased to other business operators, every one of their new ventures also failed – despite being run by some of the most astute entrepreneurs from New Zealand.

These included between the 1950s and 1980s an attempt at a commercial citrus orchard that ended in abject failure, a short-lived pineapple plantation that also went belly-up, and a nursery for growing tropical herbs and spices that met a similar fate after incurring astronomical losses.

But worst of all was the late-1980s Sheraton Rarotonga Resort venture on the old plantation land, and into which some $60m-plus had been invested – over $50m of this guaranteed by the Cook Islands government, and which has now blown out with interest and other charges to more than $120m being owed without a single guest having slept a night in the resort.

The Sheraton project was born in 1987 when a flamboyant Italian travelling salesman visiting the Cook Islands lauded to the government the value of the little nation having its very-own 5-star resort hotel. When the government agreed, an Italian Government-owned bank and a major insurance company readily put up the money for the job, an Italian construction company appeared on the site, and work commenced.

But at the project's official launch, Metua More's grandson, More Rua turned up dressed as a high priest in warlike regalia, and intoning the resurrection of his grandmother's curse.

He ended by slamming his spear into a rock onto which a plaque had just been unveiled by the-then Prime Minister, marking the beginning of the Sheraton project. When the rock split to ground level, islanders saw it as signifying the project's failure.

And within months millions of dollars of resort money unaccountably disappeared from bank accounts, new contractors with Mafia-connections appeared on the resort site demanding – and receiving – payment for work never, or only partly done, and the principal building company walked away broke.

Then in 1993 with 80% of the resort completed, work ceased altogether; squatters moved into the abandoned property, doors and windows, light fittings and kitchen equipment were stripped by thieves, and cattle, horses and goats wandered in to graze on what should today be tennis courts and swimming pools.

All attempts to date to revive the project have failed – the principal problem is that no-one quite knows who owns what's already been built. And until that is resolved, and the curses of Metua More and More Rua are lifted, the Cook Islands' grand Sheraton Rarotonga Resort simply continues to gather dust, and faster-still, bank interest…

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