Caroline Evari tells: ‘Nanu Sina’ came from deepest emotions
The hard task of striking a balance in our views of PNG

Kokoda tour operators: Please improve your game

Lynn Morrison
Charlie Lynn with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison. Lynn was an MP in Morrison's home state of NSW

CHARLIE LYNN | Adventure Kokoda Blog | Edited extracts

SYDNEY – I’ve had documents forwarded to me that include some remarks made to a recent Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) forum in Port Moresby.

KTOA was established to look after the interests of a small but vocal group of Australian based operators of eco-tours in Papua New Guinea.

According to the documents passed to me, Association president Sue Fitcher told the forum:

“It is time to call out those who would choose to damage and destroy the industry for whatever warped vested interests they have – who would know.

“We have talked about some of the claims and accusations that have been made earlier; it is interesting to note that [these] are rarely, if ever, made in person but through others or from the safety of sitting behind a computer and ranting through social media.

“It does appear to confirm the adage that bullies are always cowards.

“It would be easy to dismiss the negative comments and accusations thrown around as the bitter ramblings of someone, struggling with their declining relevance. 

“However, that would be to ignore the damage and destruction being caused to our businesses, our industry and the country we love.”

This is obviously an unfair smear against the 22 trek operators licensed by the PNG Kokoda Track Authority who do not belong to this small association which has just eight active members.

I was somewhat relieved to think that this statement could not have possibly been about me because I put my name to everything I publish.

However I do acknowledge that some of my blogs have been critical of KTOA because of the level of exploitation it tolerates in regard to Papua New Guinean guides and carriers– and the fake research used to justify it.

I appreciate that there was a remote possibility that the statement could have been referring to me, so I hope this blog post will clarify concerns.

The Kokoda trekking industry has come a long way since I first trekked the Trail 28 years ago.

In those days the combined annual income of subsistence villagers along the trail was estimated to be $30,000 a year. The surge of public interest in the Trail since I found the original battle sites at Brigade Hill and Isurava in 1992 and 1996 has seen the development of a $15 million industry.

Unfortunately not everybody has shared in the benefits, and this has led to a considerable degree of angst amongst the subsistence villagers who live along the Trail.

The dysfunctional management system put in place by Australian environment officials has robbed them of the opportunity to realise their potential in providing services to the passing parade of trekkers.

But of more concern to me is that, in my observations, members of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association so brazenly exploit the people who live along the Trail.

It is inexcusable that KTOA members refuse to issue a sleeping bag, mat and full trek uniform with their company’s logo. It is inexcusable that KTOA members refuse to subscribe to the weight limit of 18 kg which was imposed by the Regimental Medical Officers along the trail in 1942.

It is inexcusable that KTOA members don’t pay a $100 allowance for guides and carriers to either buy an air ticket or walk back to their villages after the trek. It is inexcusable that some KTOA members engage guides and carriers from locations away from the Trail in view of the tragedy that occurred on the Black Cat Track a few years ago.

Such exploitation would not be permissible in Australia and it shouldn’t be tolerated in PNG. Unfortunately a lack of governance in the system established by Australian officials has created significant loopholes which are being shamelessly exploited.

The Australian-based Kokoda Tour Operators Association will have little credibility until it publishes an unambiguous statement advising that its members will unconditionally subscribe to a code that includes the following welfare protection for the guides and carriers it engages:

Maximum backpack weight to be carried of 18 kg

Each PNG guide and carrier issued with zippered sleeping bag, foam sleeping mat and full trek uniform comprising a cap, t-shirt with company logo and shorts

Each PNG guide and carrier paid a minimum of $30 a day

Each PNG guide and carrier paid a ‘walk home allowance’ of $100

Until then the Kokoda Tour Operators Association will be regarded as failing to meet acceptable labour hire standards.


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Ian Ritchie

So a question has to be raised, why have the Kokoda Tour Operators Association?

If they represent only about a quarter of the operators, fail to abide by their own code and fail to maintain minimum standards for their staff (as it appears has been alleged), surely association with such an entity is akin to labeling oneself a sham business?

Given the close relations forged between Australia and PNG (with a not insignificant focus on WWII), it seems perfectly plausible for Australian Tour Operators to be involved in the Buna-Kokoda-Moresby track tourism, however it is my observation that some of those tour operators may be too acutely skewed toward profit than they are for the betterment of the communities on whom they rely.

I used the term "Buna-Kokoda-Moresby track" in my paragraph above quite deliberately. I noted that Mr Lynn stated that, "It is inexcusable that some KTOA members engage guides and carriers from locations away from the Trail".

I would be keen to hear who determines"the Trail" boundaries and where those boundaries lie?

It is evident that some of the leading trekking companies use masters, carriers, leads and cooks from Buna (and it is even said that Buna men were instrumental in opening "the Trail" for tourism way back when) so from my perspective, making generalised but critical and perhaps even antagonistic comments without genuine context is unhelpful and possibly dangerous to trekkers and carriers alike and should be done so with extreme caution.

It could also be argued that the KTOA is skewed toward Australian tour operators and deliberately locking out local PNG tour operators with requirements like AUD10 million public liability insurance. The KTA requires PGK2 million.

A request for PGK23.5 million public liability with PNG underwriters is nearly impossible and all the Australian tour operators have extensive disclaimers in any case. It would be interesting to view the statistics on how many claims against those AUD10 million policies have been lodged and successful.

Having said that, I agree with much of what Mr Lynn has said and maybe it is a time for the KTOA to be disbanded and a new entity with a new and fair but enforceable code of practice being adopted, with a view to being truly representative of all operators and less of an "ol' boys club" that appears to have gained a reputation (even among its own members) of failing to adequately recognise and reward their PNG partner interests.

I will also add that my comments do not apply to all the KTOA members. Some I know to be rude, arrogant and self indulgent, whereas others are very genuine and engage in many and varied benefit programs.

I also believe Mr Lynn's welfare protections don't go far enough.

The small tour operator that I am associated with, indeed already pays a minimum rate higher then that suggested, supplies all uniforms, but unlike the suggestion also includes the most important item, being trekking boots, limits the carrier weights to 18kg, pays a return home rate approximately double that suggested (which is paid/banked regardless of whether a return trek is offered) and additionally, pays superannuation and workers compensation, yet remains profitable and comparable with other tour operators.

Rashmii Bell

Without going into complexities of the issues Charlie Lynn has detailed here, I make the following comments:

1. As a close observer of the Kokoda Trail trek tourism industry, and its place within the larger landscape of Kokoda activity, the promotion of blinding factionalism that persists is, in my opinion, the key reason why the voices of Trail communities - Papua New Guineans - continues to be muffled.

2. I have been subjected to atrocious verbal attacks and misogyny, publicly and privately, for expressing my views about the operations and direction pursued by Trail management and having them published.

Therefore, I am in support of Charlie Lynn addressing such statements made by KTOA in an open letter for public knowledge.

3. To the unfair claims of absences from KTA forums, I will comment that, prior to the recent May 2019 forum, Adventure Kokoda (in an email from Charlie Lynn) did inform the KTA Interim CEO Julius Warigal of its intended absence, and provided reasons.

If Interim CEO Warigal did not circulate this information to forum participants, including Sue Fitcher, that is not Charlie Lynn or Adventure Kokoda's fault.

I am aware of this information as I was continually in contact with Charlie Lynn in the lead up to the forum - advocating for the welfare of carriers and guides, and seeking an update on what progress had been made by KTA. I specifically asked Charlie to have my concerns proposed for the Forum Agenda - as invited by KTA.

4. At the invitation of Adventure Kokoda, I was in attendance at the previous KTA forum held in Brisbane in late 2018. KTOA, including Sue Fitcher, was present at this forum. At no time did anyone, including Sue Fitcher, ask me any questions or clarify any concerns they may have had about my 'Trail of Woe' series.

It is hardly fair to insinuate bullying etc when I had been courteous in initially raising my concerns (via email) with the PNG agencies which manage the Trail prior to publishing my articles.

If none chose to use the opportunity of the 2018 forum to speak to me, that is not my problem - nor Charlie Lynn's or Adventure Kokoda's.

I would expect the PNG leadership of Kokoda Trail management to publicly respond to Charlie Lynn's letter, and address Sue Fitcher for her unfair criticism.

This kind of conduct is hardly true to, nor upholding of, the Spirit of Kokoda. And especially at this time (school holidays) when trek tour operators (including KTOA members) are travelling with Australian students to PNG to trek the Trail on the four values so readily cited in their marketing and promotional materials.

Let us practice what we preach.

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