Heartbreak Hotel A failed resort has been a hard-and expensive-lesson for Cook Islanders

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A dozen vast and trunkless legs of concrete stand in a boggy field. A few cows are chomping a lush late lunch, while a forlorn nag lazes away the afternoon. There is a buzz among the chickens, for a visitor has ignored the keep off sign and is trampling the manure to inspect the partly built pavilions of what was to be a 200-room Sheraton hotel. The Rarotonga sky darkens and the resort's solar panels start cooling. In the 3,000 sunny days they've soaked up, not one guest has turned on a tap; no bus boy has washed a champagne flute. As a Polynesian Ozymandias might declare: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Before the site was abandoned eight years ago, the resort at Vaimaanga was to be the Cook Islands' largest hotel-and the first bearing a luxury brand name. In 1987, a flamboyant Italian traveling salesman got the ball rolling on the project. An Italian construction firm was engaged to build it with financing from an Italian government-owned bank and insurance company, while the Cook Islands government, amid some secrecy, agreed to guarantee the loan. Says one interested local: "There was never a proper due diligence process or survey to ascertain the true cost of construction. The builder made payment claims for work that was not done and went bust, then another Italian construction company was employed."

Within a few years, the lion's share of $60 million disappeared down a black hole carved out by the Mafia and other crooks; the project was 80% complete when the insurance firm cut off funding to the builders. Since then, Rarotongans have seen a steady flow of foreign receivers, consultants, con men, lawyers, bankers and developers trying to figure out what to do with the site. The country's finances were crippled as the government's liability ballooned to $122 million, and taxpayers are still saddled with the interest bill. The issue of who owns the hotel has been stuck in the courts for years.

While citizens and legislators may harbor mixed feelings about the impact a large resort could have on sleepy "Raro," they have never stopped picking at this wound. Why wasn't independent financial advice sought, they ask. Should the government ever be a property developer? Last month an exasperated Prime Minister Terepai Maoate, whose Democratic Alliance Party inked the deal, told Parliament: "I would just like the Opposition and government to stop talking about the Sheraton project, because the more we talk about it, the less there is to be done about it." Successive governments have managed to renegotiate the nation's debt with a string of foreign countries and agencies. Still, people wonder whether this saga of greed, ignorance and incompetence could be repeated. "I hope the politicians have learnt their lesson," says an official who asked not to be named.

For a tiny country (pop. 14,600) which earns half of its income from tourism, completing the project is vital. According to Chris Wong, head of the national Tourism Corporation, the Cook Islands need an international hotel in the 4-to-5-star category that has conference facilities. Most hotels and holiday apartments are so small, says Wong, that they can offer local residents only lowly jobs as gardeners, housemaids and front office staff. "Larger hotels offer broader career prospects," he says. Landowner Pa Ariki, who is also president of the Cooks' house of hereditary chiefs, has won control of the Vaimaanga site and its buildings. According to her lawyer Tim Arnold, she is now negotiating with a high-profile New Zealand investor to complete the hotel. A new deal may be only weeks away, Arnold says. On this idyllic isle, hope, like the lone and level Pacific, stretches far away.