A rise in historical battlefield tourism across a variety of international destinations has shone a spotlight on a key niche market with potential for Papua New Guinea, as the country begins preparations for a series of events commemorating the 75th anniversary of strategic battles fought during the Second World War.
The country’s unspoilt wildernesses and close proximity to key regional markets are also likely give the tourism industry an added boost in the coming years, though its total contribution to the national economy will remain relatively modest, at around 2% of GDP.
PNG’s tourism industry is expected to expand by 6.7% this year, with annual growth averaging 5.3% through to 2025, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, placing it in the top 10% of the 184 countries surveyed in terms of forecast growth.
Some 172,000 international visitors are expected to visit by year’s end, climbing to 238,000 per annum by 2025, the council noted.
The Kokoda effect
The governments of PNG and Australia are planning a series of commemorative events in 2017 and 2018 to mark the 75th anniversary of the battles that took place in PNG between the Allies and the Japanese during the Second World War.
The planned activities will focus on and around an area known as the Kokoda Track, a winding trail in the centre of the country that marks the spot where Allied troops, mainly Australians and Papuans, halted the Japanese offensive on Port Moresby and drove back invading forces in a series of battles in 1942-43.
The events are expected to yield benefits for the country’s tourism industry, with increased visitor numbers, as well as contingents of official guests, likely to be attracted, as has been the case for previous memorial celebrations.
More formal recognition of the sites could also boost their tourism appeal. In mid-August the governments of PNG and Australia announced plans to jointly seek UNESCO World Heritage status for the Kokoda Track and other sites in the Owen Stanley Range in a bid to preserve the natural and historic fabric of the region, and ensure it retains its appeal to visitors.
According to British historian and battlefield tour leader Peter Hart, the recent spate of high-profile anniversaries marking the centenary of the First World War in locations on the Western Front and at the sites of the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey generated a surge in niche tourism. Host countries, he told OBG, witnessed a sharp rise in visitor numbers, with the benefits for the tourism industry producing a significant impact on the local economies.
“A similar spike of interest can be expected to attend the commemorative events planned to mark the battles along the Kokoda Trail and across PNG,” he told OBG, with greater interest likely to be generated by commemorative books and television programming.
Hart said the trail was already gaining popularity with Australian visitors, with the trek across rough terrain regarded as a challenge for adventure travellers. Estimates suggest that up to 5000 foreign visitors — mainly Australians — currently walk the 96-km route each year.
The expected increase in trekkers in the coming years could provide opportunities for investment in lodgings and services along the track. According to the PNG government, “trekker accommodation”, a new category of tourist lodging, is being piloted in the 2016 trekking season to cater to this growing segment.
Kayleen Allen, a project manager with the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, told participants at a seminar in late September that PNG should place a greater emphasis on attracting adventure travellers.
“PNG as a tourism destination… is for someone that’s coming here for a specific type of niche, whether it’s diving or trekking to experience the cultural life, and that’s what we need to be able to package and deliver,” Allen said.
The country’s relative proximity to Australia and New Zealand could be another key driver of future growth, according to Richard Knight, the owner of the Loloata Island Resort, particularly for niche travellers.
“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,” he told OBG earlier this year, “not to mention China, where 98m people took holidays abroad in 2013 alone.”
Officials have suggested that PNG could better harness the economic potential of its tourism industry. Despite being the largest nation in the Pacific region, PNG accounts for just 10% of regional tourism, according to Loi Bakani, governor of the Bank of PNG, compared to 41% for Fiji. “It creates jobs, foreign exchange, encourages entrepreneurships and has significant spill-over effect in commerce and transport,” he said, speaking at a tourism convention in late October.
Signalling the government’s commitment to boosting tourism revenues, the 2016 budget, released in early November, included a PGK50m ($17m) increase in investment in the sector – one of the largest increases in a decade and up more than three-fold over the PGK11.6m ($3.9m) allocated last year.
The government hopes such a capital injection will give the industry an added boost and offer another avenue for economic diversification. “We cannot depend on our gas and gold forever,” Prime Minister Peter O’Neill said in early November. “We want to sell some of the other wonderful aspects of the country – the environment, the culture.”