With a largely untouched environment and rich biodiversity, alongside a rich, varied tribal heritage, Papua New Guinea is a perfect fit for community-based ecotourism. Under the auspices of the 2006 Tourism Master Plan (TMP), budgeted for full implementation in 2013, protection and sustainable management of these cultural resources is enshrined as the bedrock of PNG’s evolving tourism industry. Yet despite the example of several leading firms in piloting community-based ecotourism (CBET) initiatives, developers and investors have faced a myriad of obstacles – notably, opaque legal and regulatory frameworks. In lieu of pending legislative reforms, the Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA) has sought to address this issue in part by using existing frameworks enacted by tourism associations.

OPEN DOORS: This was boosted in 2012 with the promulgation of the Integrated Lands Group Act (ILGA), which provides a legal framework for investors and developers to negotiate the sale, lease and use of land, as well as the equal distribution of benefits from and to PNG’s traditional landowners. Such legislation has been integral to the industry’s future development as potential tourism destinations largely lie within lands held under customary tenure, which account for the equivalent of 97% of PNG’s territory. Moreover, with insufficient state backing, the government acknowledged in its 2006 TMP that development of these destinations would be dependent on private initiatives.

The ILGA opens the door for such initiatives, but faced with a paucity of basic national infrastructure, strong community relations with reciprocal economic benefits will be key to future successful developments.

The collaboration of local communities and businesses has already proven to be successful in cultural festivals, which are now attractive events for local communities, and additionally provide the most iconic images of the country. While the TPA has called for the engagement of local chambers of commerce and provincial authorities to help develop CBET initiatives, PNG has already undertaken several influential projects that have achieved international recognition and may serve as a template for future developments in the sector.

CULTIVATING GOOD RELATIONSHIPS: A surprise success has been the “reverse spiral model”, developed by the Surf Association of PNG’s (SAPNG) president and founder, Andrew Abel, 25 years ago. It gained recognition from the World Bank in 2008 for building a mutual relationship between local communities, government and business bodies. A subsequent state endorsement has led to the proposal of an act of parliament, known as the SAPNG Surf Management and Development Act, that will provide a legal framework for the sustainable development of all associated surfing entities and communities. This has even gained international traction, with Abel conducting university lectures and consulting for other Pacific nations.

Elsewhere, engagement of local communities by Tufi Dive Resort, in Oro Province, has involved the integration of its dive operations, a cultural festival, educational school tours and events with the local population.

This has helped to put the area on the itineraries of five cruise liners, with knock-on effects for local markets.

THE MAIN EVENT: The Kokoda Track, which now fields 83 tour operators and is expecting a record 8000 visitors in 2012, is PNG’s most developed and regulated attraction. Restructuring the Kokoda Track Authority in 2008 has ensured approximately 50% of all track permit receipts (PGK150-350, $71-167, per person), now go to 14 ward committees along the track for development projects and track maintenance agreements.

Such initiatives remain integral to tourism operations given the traditional Melanesian landownership customs in PNG. Moreover, arbitrary and opportunistic demands for compensation by local landowners are not uncommon and have served to undermine investor confidence. While the IGLA is the first step in ensuring a fair market environment, ahead of further centralised legislative reform, education and engagement by local tour operators, often in remote destinations, are not insomuch market strategies as vital business models.