Interview: Richard Knight

To what extent are issues of law and order keeping tourists from visiting Papua New Guinea? What can be done to improve the country’s image abroad?

RICHARD KNIGHT: Anybody who has visited PNG for a period of time knows that the issue of law and order has often been blown out of proportion over the years. Of course crime does exist, just as in any other country, but most of these incidents occur miles away from potential tourist destinations and they are mainly concentrated in major cities where rapid urbanisation is precipitating serious social challenges. With enough common sense and knowledge of which areas to avoid, especially at night, a city like Port Moresby is actually a relatively safe place when compared to other metropolises around the world. Inevitably, this negative perception has affected the growth of tourism in PNG, and sadly we have not done enough to change it in the eyes of the international community.

To what extent is the private sector helping to promote the industry abroad? Or should this be the mandate of the government alone?

KNIGHT: The private sector puts its heart and soul into promoting PNG because it is in its interest to do so, but I am not entirely sure that the government thinks along the same lines. Tourism is a labour-intensive industry that already creates plenty of jobs in PNG, a country in which there is currently rapid population growth. There are millions of young Papua New Guineans entering the job market every year, and the tourism industry can provide great opportunities for them.

By investing in the tourism industry, the government would be investing in the future of the nation. A small to medium-sized resort in PNG generally employs about 40 people, but if you account for the local social custom of wantok(community loyalty), roughly 4000 people benefit indirectly from it. Resorts buy fresh fruit, vegetables and other food products from nearby villages, as well as create direct employment opportunities. For too long this country has concentrated on the extractive industries, and we all know this is not a sustainable approach in the long run.

Because of the lack of infrastructure, the costs of running a business continue to be very high, and this cost is inevitably passed on to the consumer. In this regard, the private sector could lobby the government more concertedly for the introduction of structural reforms and incentives to encourage foreign investment.

What does PNG have to offer as a tourist destination? What is unique about the country in comparison to others in the region?

KNIGHT: Not many places on Earth still boast areas of untouched natural beauty, and luckily PNG is one of them. Not only are its forests, beaches and coral reefs intact, but the same can be said for its unique and varied cultural landscape. However, perhaps what defines PNG as a destination is its diversity: there at least five popular niche markets, including cultural tourism, diving, surfing, birdwatching and trekking. PNG offers an exceptional package to travellers who are willing to go beyond the myths and truly discover this country.

For instance, diving in PNG offers excellent conditions nearly all year round and a marine environment as diverse as any in the world. Birdwatchers can find a plethora of tropical birds, including the world-famous birds of paradise. Surfing is another activity that is quickly gathering momentum, with uncrowded waves that are impossible to find in more popular destinations like Bali. Geographically, PNG is far from many places, but its remoteness can actually be a boon for those willing to go the extra mile to discover the place.

With its relative proximity to Australia and New Zealand, there is much potential for future growth. PNG may never turn into a mass market, but it can be a niche market of great appeal to more affluent Asian countries like Japan, Korea and Singapore, not to mention China, where 98m people took holidays abroad in 2013 alone. Capturing even a fraction of these markets would make a huge difference to tourism in PNG.