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.