Cook Islands profile

Map of 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, the territory is a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand.

Its economy centres on tourism; the territory's natural assets include fine beaches and volcanic mountains.

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.

Rugby player puts in a tackle

Rugby is the Cook Islands most popular sport

Country profiles compiled by BBC Monitoring

The government has encouraged islanders to return. Businesses have been involved in the drive. But the population level has continued to fall.

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

The Cook Islands are prone to tropical storms; Hurricane Martin devastated the northern islands in 1997 causing substantial losses for the black pearl industry.

Named after Captain Cook, who explored them in 1773, the islands were once autonomous, home to tribes of mixed Polynesian ancestry. Governments still seek advice on matters of culture, custom and land ownership from a council of hereditary leaders known as the House of Ariki.

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