The Papua New Guinea government has a number of ongoing programmes to promote and encourage the development of tourism that have proven successful. Visitor arrivals have almost quadrupled since 2002, and many destinations have been opened and improved. Yet the country remains primarily of interest to higher-end tourists. Travel is difficult and expensive so PNG is less a place for budget travellers and spontaneous travel and more one for expeditions and adventurers seeking out the rare and unique.
The country is starting to turn its attention towards encouraging tourism on a larger scale. Efforts now under way could transform the sector. They could alter the way people see and experience PNG and also establish significant and sustainable infrastructure that ensures more mass-market growth in the future. One important new element is the promotion of cruise ship visits. The country is undertaking a full review of cruise ship protocols and cruise infrastructure and working to update both. By improving ships’ access to the country, more of it will be reachable by mainstream tourists and more of PNG will be exposed to tourism and receive tourism dollars.
A wide range of practical upgrades and overhauls are being contemplated and undertaken for the sector. Work is being done to allow ships to enter the country through undeclared ports, so that landings can be made in remote areas that lack Customs and immigration posts, and to offer pilotage fee discounts to cruise ships making landings at declared ports. To improve navigation, the National Maritime Services Authority is providing new charts for Cape Nelson, Dawson Strait and Oro Bay. On the immigration side, PNG would like to waive all visa fees for visitors arriving by cruise ship. Education programmes are also being considered, for cruise-related tour guides and customer service workers. In terms of infrastructure, the Alotau port and wharf underwent PGK45m ($18.3m) worth of refurbishing in 2013, with 293 metres of berthing space being added, while a jetty at Kaibola was built at the cost of PGK1m ($406,500) and one at Kitava was built at the cost of PGK600,000 ($243,900).
Larger endeavours are being contemplated for tourism development. In 2013 Prime Minister Peter O’Neill designated Kokopo as a tourism hub. The announcement came as the prime minister identified four key areas of economic focus in the country. In addition to the tourist hub, he also declared Port Moresby as the administrative and commercial centre, Lae as the manufacturing centre and Mount Hagen as the agricultural centre. “What it does mean is that our two major cities, together with Mount Hagen and Kokopo, will get special attention when it comes to key economic and social infrastructure,” the prime minister said in a speech given in late 2013. “Over the next 10 years, the focus will be on ensuring the economies of these centres can grow substantially through attracting new industries and supporting existing industries and businesses to expand.”
Kokopo is the capital of East New Britain Province near Rabaul, having become the capital after Rabaul was almost completely covered by ash and lava during the eruption of two nearby volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan. The area is already a major destination for tourism. It has many sites from the Second World War, including Japanese tunnels and bunkers, wrecks and a war cemetery, a botanical garden, good hiking (including the two volcanoes) and diving. Kokopo and its environs also have a number of festivals and shows including the Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture, the National Mask and Warwagira Festival, and the Frangipani Festival. Most tourists coming to East New Britain are foreigners working in PNG looking to get away, Japanese visiting old war sites, independent travellers and young Australians with a colonial-era connection to the region. The majority of people visiting the city are there on business, but the hope is to shift the balance so that tourists make up more of the total.
At present, Air Niugini flies directly to Rabaul’s Tokua Airport and from Lae to Rabaul via Hoskins. From Rabaul, the airline flies to Buka, Lihir, Kavieng and Lorengau, making it a hub for the remote islands. Airlines PNG has direct flights from Lae, Port Moresby and Kimbe, and also flies on to Buka and Kavieng. Air Niugini and Qantas together offer a twice-a-week service from Cairns. While the recent ban on visas on arrival for Australian citizens could be a problem for the creation of a Kokopo/Rabaul tourist hub, PNG re-established its consulate in Cairns in early 2014, making the new rule less burdensome.
There are some concerns that the plan might not work. According to Business Advantage magazine, the government of Michael Somare tried to develop Madang as a tourist hub, but the efforts were not sustained and the visitor volumes did not hold up. Local business leaders in Kokopo say that significant sums will have to be spent to get the traffic needed for the Kokopo plan to work. Tour operators interviewed by Business Advantage said that a number of specific areas require attention if the region is to become a hub: the airport must be upgraded; the visa-on-arrival ban needs to be lifted; roads must be improved; the power supply needs to be made consistent and cheap; telecommunications must be upgraded; and the water and sanitation systems must be improved.
Better air connections would also make Kokopo more attractive to visitors. The current schedule is inconvenient and the tickets are expensive. Most foreign travellers need to transit via Port Moresby, sometimes requiring an overnight stay. The 1.5-hour flight to Rabaul costs $365 round trip. The nonstop from Cairns, which flies Mondays and Fridays, costs about $650 (the indirect flight via Port Moresby is almost $1000). If more and better-timed flights could be scheduled and if prices were to be lowered, tourist traffic would greatly increase, according to tour operators.
Taken together the cities currently have about a dozen hotels, resorts and motels. While a wide range of accommodation is available – from backpacker to resort level – rates for an international-quality room are around $200 a night. This is reasonable for PNG, but more hotel infrastructure will be needed to make the region a centre for tourism. The cities not only need more beds, but also more variety and cheaper prices.
East New Britain has always been considered safe, and visitors find it very different from the country’s major urban centres. They can walk about freely and can visit markets and attractions without worrying too much about security. The key, say industry professionals, is that potential international tourists need to know this, that the region is different from the more dangerous parts of the country. The industry professionals add that investment needs to be made to ensure that the area remains safe and clean even when visitor numbers increase.
Bypassing the capital would help considerably not only in terms of time and cost but also in terms of improving the overall experience. More tourists might be inclined to travel to Kokopo and Rabaul if they could do so directly. The model is Bali. Tourists can go to the island without having to transit through Jakarta, allowing them to avoid the capital’s crowds and traffic.
Marketing will be essential in making the region a preferred destination for international travellers. Competitors, like Thailand and Indonesia, already promote their tourist hubs heavily in publications, on TV and at conventions, and their efforts have resulted in significant gains in traffic. To make its tourist hub work, PNG is going to have to do the same, according to sector professionals. And if the country can manage to give the Kokopo region a brand distinct from that of the capital, it may well become a popular tourist centre.
Considerable support is being provided by the government to help make this happen. The 2014 budget commits funds to the transition. Kokopo is receiving a total of PGK58m ($23.6m), with PGK2m ($813,000) going to water and sewerage upgrades, PGK15m ($6.1m) going to airport upgrades and PGK3m ($1.2m) going to a tourism master plan. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said in his speech that he is committed to making investments in the hubs so that they, and the entire country, can effectively compete with other economies.
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