As one of the world’s last frontier destinations, but with limited national transport infrastructure and a challenging geography, much of Papua New Guinea is inaccessible except by sea. This has played to the cruise industry’s advantage, given the modern, self-contained transport, accommodation and catering facilities offered by this style of holiday travel.

ON A GROWTH PATH: Cruise calls have witnessed strong growth, from six in 2004 to 126 in 2010, and PNG is looking to further exploit its market potential. Published in 2009, its national blueprint, the Cruise Ship Development Strategy, is already under implementation and 2013 will mark the advent of an aggressive push into small expedition vessels, upscale midsize ships and large mass-market cruise lines.

Milne Bay, offering a mix of adventure and cultural pursuits, including tribal festivals, has become PNG’s principal promotional cruise destination due to the numerous nearby attractions and Alotau’s port infrastructure. Moreover, its proximity to major Australian cruise ports has earmarked Milne Bay as a gateway destination to PNG. In addition, the ports of Alotau, Rabaul, Madang and the coastline of Sepik have been identified as potential tourist destinations which are convenient for cruise ships coming from Asia.

FACILITIES UPGRADE: Growth is facilitated by an abundance of nationwide maritime berths, thanks to the transport sector’s dependence on maritime capacities to meet demand. Working in support of expanding cruise ship visits, the PNG port authority, PNG Ports, is helping to repair jetties, construct new facilities and represent PNG at key international trade fairs.

Cruise providers have already proven responsive to PNG’s overtures. This was reinforced in 2011 with one of the world’s largest cruise lines, Carnival Cruises, adding Alotau in Milne Bay Province and Tufi in Northern Province to its 2013 itinerary after a familiarisation trip arranged by the Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA).

While TPA support has been integral to raising PNG’s profile, cruise lines have also proven very receptive to independent, private initiatives, setting a precedent for the future. Tufi Dive Resort, north of Milne Bay, has been able to attract cruise lines such as Orion, True North, Coral Sea Princess Cruises and Aurora Expeditions based on its adventure and cultural activities, according to its owner, Linda Honey.

Increased tourist interest on the Kokoda Track may also see a new jetty opened at Buna, just north of the trail’s end in Popondetta, which would be able to help accommodate ships from Rabaul.

Although cruise ship passengers only stay for a short while, averaging just one night, they remain a critical source of foreign exchange. Just three vessels carried more than 1000 passengers into PNG ports in February 2012. The TPA estimates cruise ships are responsible for 90% of revenue for coastal tour operators and an estimated 60% of local craft merchants’ earnings.

CHALLENGES: However, PNG still faces some serious challenges. Investment is required to develop passenger facilities and tourism products. Moreover, the desultory state of PNG’s roads, as well as the shortage of suitable vehicles, has restricted visitor access to coastal destinations and broader itineraries. Furthermore, a ban on the import of bunker fuel, used by larger vessels, has raised costs for operators.

Yet interest and demand perseveres. Attending the inaugural Cruise Shipping Asia Trade Show and Conference in Singapore in 2011, the TPA reportedly was able to confirm the visit of an 800-passenger Russian vessel for 2012, although associated visa issues have yet to be resolved. This will join a number of other ships scheduled to visit over the course of 2012.

PNG is certain to remain a frontier destination for the next decade at least, but PNG Ports is committed to bringing the country into mainline shipping routes.

An uptick in cruise calls, though with different demands, will help deliver necessary revenue for expansion efforts.

Despite rising fuel prices and ahead of necessary terrestrial infrastructure investments and upgrades, indications are that the cruise segment is set for growth.