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.
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.
* Territory: Cook Islands
* Status: Self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand.
* Population: 18,000 (UN, 2004)
* Capital: Avarua, on Rarotonga
* Area: 237 sq km (91 sq miles)
* Major language: English and Cook Islands Maori
* Major religions: Christianity
* Life expectancy: 70 (men), 76 (women) (UN)
* Monetary unit: 1 New Zealand dollar ($NZ) = 100 cents
* Main exports: Black pearls
* Internet domain: .ck
* International dialling code: +682
Head of state: Queen Elizabeth II, represented by a governor
Prime Minister: Henry Puna
Lawyer and pearl farmer Henry Puna took office in December 2010 after his Cook Islands Party won a comfortable majority in elections.
The Cook Islands Party unseated the Democratic Party which had dominated politics on the islands for the past decade.
Mr Puna's party won a two-thirds majority of the 24 seats in parliament.
Before the elections he was quoted as saying he planned to pay a $770 "baby bonus" to the mother of each child born in the Cook Islands to try reverse a steady decline in population caused by migration to New Zealand.
Mr Puna studied law in Auckland University and the University of Tasmania before returning to practice law in the Cook Islands.
From : BBC News