PORT MORESBY - The proclamation of Papua New Guinea as the “last paradise on earth” by the country’s prime minister had the ring of an early 20th century adventure novel and it is a tagline that perhaps appropriately reflects the country’s place as a frontier travel destination.
There are good reasons that the nation of just over eight million people has been long touted as having great potential for tourism. It has all the natural ingredients for an idyllic tropical beach getaway and much more.
For many years adventurous fishermen, snorkelers and divers have known about the wealth of sea life pulsing beneath the surface of PNG’s turquoise waters.
At times the pelagic fish seem to hook themselves and the fact that the first and second (and only) fish I’ve caught were a marlin and a wahoo speaks to the embarrassment of marine riches.
The consistent swell that pumps through the Pacific from November to April is also ideal for surfers, who are known for their willingness to travel to avoid crowds and notoriously vague when it comes to divulging information about locations.
There are several resorts that provide instant access to good waves and a charter cruise operator that offers a true Endless Summer experience – top notch barrelling reef breaks surrounded only by majestic atolls, tiny villages and a few friends.
A national association implements a management plan to limit the numbers of surfers at each destination at any one time, a system equally good for surf tourists, the aquatic environment and the communities which depend on both.
One could also sink in to a hammock to attempt the challenge of simultaneously reading a book and drinking a coconut (or a South Pacific lager) – a noble pursuit that offers the opportunity to reach nirvana-levels of relaxation.
By landmass PNG is by far the largest Pacific island nation and its mountainous inland regions offer stunning contrasts to the island-life archetype.
The highlands have a cooler climate and are rife with opportunities for trekking, mountain climbing and generally going in to the wild.
The Kokoda track is the most famous option but Mount Wilhelm, the highest peak in Oceania, and the trek to Loloru, a sacred volcano-caldera lake, are arguably more scenic and less well-trodden routes.
In addition to the natural diversity. Papua New Guinea also has hundreds of distinct and ancient cultures that most local people are keen to share with visitors.
The country’s dramatic geography and relatively late entry in to the globalised world has meant that more than 800 distinct cultures are still active today, each with unique customary dress, dances and handmade artefacts.
Cultural shows held throughout the country give tourists the opportunity to be immersed in the spirituality and power of these practices, and also provides an incentive for traditions to be kept alive.
The frontier nature of travel in PNG, though part of its allure, is a hindrance to the development of the industry.
In 2017 tourism accounted for less than one percent of Papua New Guinea’s gross domestic product and five times less than was managed by nearby Fiji in US dollar terms.
The international airport is in Port Moresby – a city that frequents least liveable lists and doesn’t offer much for tourists.
As a result of its remote its many islands and a mainland that is only sporadically connected by roads, PNG is only truly accessible by air and internal flight prices are prohibitive.
Inflated travel costs have flow-on effects for prices of goods and the general cost of doing business for resorts – expenses which are ultimately borne by the traveller.
Business costs are also affected by law and order issues, which are more severe in some locations than others, but on the rise overall.
Tourists are seldom involved in incidents, but are occasionally targeted by opportunistic criminals looking to make quick cash.
Last year 20 tourists were held up at gunpoint at one of PNG’s top resorts, which is known for spectacular diving, fishing and – increasingly – robberies.
Prospective foreign visitors may also be deterred by the re-emergence of near forgotten diseases, like polio and leprosy, and the lack of access to health care is another cause for concern, particularly in remote areas.
When my daughter developed high-fevers while travelling in the New Guinea islands, we were instructed by an international health provider go the nearby hospital to see a doctor.
The hospital had no doctor or nurse, only a flea-ridden dog and a community health worker. She conducted a malaria test (the health worker, not the dog) and, having quickly ruled it out, offered only a shrug of the shoulders.
Unsurprisingly many would prefer to travel to Bali, Fiji or Hawaii.
Those still up for bearing the financial cost are often choosing to travel on cruise ships, which offer higher quality accommodation and largely negate the health and safety risks, all for less money than travelling and staying in PNG.
It is a situation that limits travel to the coastal areas, gives visitors a more detached experience and injects less money in to the economy.
These lost opportunities are caused by fundamental issues related to health care, education, infrastructure, law and order, and other things that are much larger than tourism.
The upside to this situation is potential – a sleeping giant waiting to be woken.
If this potential is to ever be reached, the story of tourism in Papua New Guinea – the last paradise on earth – needs to read like a light summer romance rather than the heir to Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’.