Papua New Guinea’s Untouched Paradise

It’s also been the unruly and troublesome neighbour with more than its fair share of bad press. Yet, with all the incredible diversity on offer, why can’t Papua New Guinea attract more visitors?

Despite the over-used term paradise applied to many of its tourism products, PNG can claim to hold a wealth of untapped tourism potential, ranging from unexploited surfing reefs, unspoilt dive sites, genuine eco-tourism experiences and pristine white sandy beaches in spades.

But conduct a straw poll among your travelling friends and see who has been to PNG. Current data suggests that would be fewer than one in 10 and more like one in 20.

Ask why not and the most likely answer will be concerns about safety and security.

True, travel warnings from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urge visitors to exercise a high degree of caution in PNG because of the high levels of serious crime. That’s enough to put most people off.

DFAT’s own report from 2004, The Road Ahead, also criticises PNG’s poor attention to transport infrastructure, with roads, ports and airlines all listed under could do better. Consequently, PNG features somewhere between Vanuatu and the Cook Islands in Pacific Island visitor arrivals, with totals well under 100,000 annually.

Fiji leads the charge here, with numbers typically over 400,000 each year. And Australia business travellers to PNG outnumber tourists three to one.

Government seems fixated on agriculture, forestry and natural resources as PNG’s path to economic salvation. However, attempts to exploit these riches have led to decades of corruption, mismanagement and misery.

Ok Tedi, Bougainville and the attendant cargo cults will always serve as salient reminders of our awkward relationship. Tourism, on the other hand, can deliver important foreign capital without digging, destroying and plundering.

As vast and wild as it is, travel between the major centres is almost exclusively by air. The impassable gorges of the Owen Stanley Range, which kept back the Japanese invaders of World War II, continue to isolate and separate provinces and townships today.

This enforced withdrawal, it could be argued, has enhanced the primal attraction of these regions and helped keep influences of the modern world at bay.

Nevertheless, the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority has made renewed efforts to revitalise itself and its product.

PNG can now be seen at major travel expos and positive stories are turning up in the consumer press. We’re reminded about PNG’s great surfing, fishing, diving and trekking and our resurgent interest in wartime history can also draw our attention north.

The taglines: Like every place you’ve never been and PNG: where tourism is not an industry contain enticing hooks.

In a 2006 report, the PNGTPA suggests it can double leisure visitor numbers and the current level of leisure spending from $90 million annually every five years.

One genre of adventure travel seems to be making a real fist of it: cruising. At last count, there were at least four Australian companies and several international operators either featuring PNG as a destination or including it in a substantial regional or world itinerary. It is the one tourism sector on a rocket.

Tourism is good for PNG, asserts Dr Nancy Sullivan, a Madang-based anthropologist with an abiding affection for Papua New Guineans. It brings much-needed funds to these remote communities, encourages them to maintain a traditional lifestyle and prevents the young men, in particular, from having to seek work in the cities where they are subject to many dangerous influences.

Cruising, especially in smaller vessels with passenger numbers around 100 or less, is an ideal method for tackling the tricky territory of PNG. Very little infrastructure is needed for these smaller ships, which bring their own food and accommodation.

In some cases, passengers transit straight through Port Moresby, the only international airport, to meet their vessel at ports such as Alotau or Rabaul, where security is a relatively minor issue.

After spending the best part of a month travelling the remote islands and archipelagos of the Bismarck, Solomon and Coral Seas, it became clear that not only were the islanders blissfully unaffected by the anxieties of their more urbanised countrymen, they retained a genuine warmth, hospitality and exuberance found only in the character of the uncorrupted.

With little or no exposure to the influences of western culture, the villagers on islands like Dobu in the D’Entrecasteaux group, Witu all on its own in the Bismarck Sea, and Kiriwina in the legendary Trobriands, immerse the visitor in a reciprocal cultural interaction that is mutually beneficial.

So it is not far from the truth to say that Papua New Guinea, in particular its remote island communities, delivers what travel marketeers froth at the mouth about.

The new breed of adventure traveller seeks, if you believe the research, an experiential and transformational journey.

Sit and listen as an island children’s choir sings the PNG national anthem, watch the bewitching yam harvest dance on the Trobriands or just spend a few serene moments with the village folk as they prepare a traditional meal – you won’t find a more authentic experience anywhere.