A country with great tourism potential, Papua New Guinea has significant attractions in terms of culture, history and nature, and is recognised globally as one of the more exotic and undiscovered destinations. The nation appeals to everyone from adventure travellers to beach lovers, and is unique in that it offers a level of diversity found in few if any other countries. Significant challenges for the sector do exist, however, and have held back the growth of tourism. Costs are high, transportation infrastructure is poorly developed, security issues remain, government support is not as strong as it could be and coordination among various ministries on tourism-related matters is weak. Nevertheless, the situation is improving. Investments are being made in infrastructure, and costs are beginning to fall as competition increases and as the government works to address relevant issues.
Private investment is coming into the sector as well, and that will help increase options for visitors. PNG is quickly reaching a point where it will be more accessible to more people.
PNG has a long history of tourism. Travellers were visiting by ship in the late 19th century to what was then a British protectorate. A rough airport was built in Lae in 1927 because gold was discovered in nearby Wau. The first airport in Port Moresby was built by Australia in 1933 and it was located at 3 Mile in what is now Waigani. Various hotels and lodges were developed across the country prior to independence.
However, tourism has remained largely underdeveloped for most of its history, and the sector is a small part of the economy. PNG has one of the lowest ratios of tourist revenue to GDP in the world. The flipside is that it remains largely undiscovered, and this suggests that it will remain attractive to tourists seeking less-visited destinations.
Flora, Fauna & Beaches
PNG is a biodiversity hotspot, with a range of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. This includes not only various birds of paradise, but also the Huon tree kangaroo, the Papuan forest wallaby, the New Guinea big-eared bat, the world’s largest pigeon (the Victoria crowned pigeon) and the world’s largest butterfly (Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing). In terms of plant life, the WWF reports that the country has 15, 000-20,000 species, including 2000 species of orchids and some 2000 species of ferns. An estimated 80% of plants in the country are unique to it.
PNG has a sizeable trail network. As it has few roads in the rural areas and many people live in isolated communities, tracks are abundant. One of the most popular is the Kokoda trail, which runs 96 km north of Port Moresby and takes hikers through a wide variety of climates and topographies. Also popular is Mount Wilhelm, which rises 4509 metres and is accessible from Goroka. As a result of its natural assets, PNG is of great interest to birdwatchers, hikers and those who love the outdoors.
The country also has considerable underwater and coastal attractions. The diving is said to be some of the best in the world, and as on land the country offers significant diversity in its seas. According to the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (PNGTPA), the waters have five times the marine species when compared with the Caribbean. PNG also has coral reefs, atolls and wrecks. Rabaul is said to be the diving capital of the country, with 64 Japanese wrecks from the Second World War. Milne Bay and Kimbe Bay have Second World War aircraft wrecks. The water is always warm, allowing for year-round diving. The beaches, meanwhile, are unspoiled, clean and uncrowded. They were rated as some of the 10 best in the world by Lonely Planet. In many areas, the waves are strong and of interest for surfers looking for untested waters.
Most of all, it is culture that draws visitors. The country of more than 600 islands has more 800 languages. Some of the tribes remained uncontacted until the 20th century, and some still have limited contact with the outside world (though none on the PNG side of the main island remain officially uncontacted). Many of the local languages are spoken by a few hundred people and are in danger of becoming extinct. Festivals are held throughout the year to bring these unique cultures together and share them with visitors. The Morobe Show is held in November and highlights the practices and traditions of the Highlands, Momase and the island regions. The Mount Hagan Cultural Show, running since 1961, features the singing, dancing and music of the Highlands, and it is followed by the Goroka Show, which was started in 1957 by Australian police to bring tribes together. While these shows attract considerable interest from outsiders, they have always been designed for locals. They have been organised as a way for the groups to gather peacefully and put their tribal differences aside for a time. For that reason, they are said to remain fairly authentic.
PNG has a significant amount of tourism infrastructure despite its difficult terrain. In terms of hotels, the country offers a wide range of options for visitors. Port Moresby has the Airways Hotel, the Lamana Hotel, the Grand Papua (a Coral Sea – Steamships Trading Company – hotel completed in 2011), the Ela Beach Hotel (also a Coral Sea property) and the Gateway Hotel (Coral Sea as well). The Intercontinental Hotel Group also has a significant and growing presence in town: the Holiday Inn Express (still under construction), with 199 rooms; the Holiday Inn, with 154 rooms; and the Crowne Plaza, with 157 rooms. More hotels are being built in Port Moresby. The RH group broke ground on the PGK375m ($152.4m) Raintree Hotel and Suites by Vision City in March 2013. The facility, with 439 rooms (99 of which will be flats) and a 1700-sq-metre ballroom planned, will be finished in 2015.
Outside of Port Moresby, Coral Sea Hotels has a number of properties, in Lae (the Melanesian Hotel), Mount Hagan (the Highlander Hotel), Goroka (the Bird of Paradise Hotel) and Madang (the Coast Watchers Hotel). Lae also has the Lae International Hotel, which was named PNG’s leading hotel in the 2013 World Travel Awards and has a new conference centre, and the Lae City Hotel. Other notable establishments include the Walindi Plantation Resort and the Rapopo Plantation Resort on New Britain Island; Alotaou Island’s Tawali Resort; the Loloata Island Hotel, which is near Port Moresby; the Madang Resort Hotel, which dates back to the German colonial period; and the Nuli Sapi resort at Milne Bay, which was opened in 2012 and has already been ranked as one of the top 10 ecotourism destinations in the world by Lonely Planet. The Nuli Sapi was built using local materials, runs off solar energy and gets its water from a local dam. Meanwhile, some hotels are undergoing revitalisation due to a change in the economy and the rise in tourist numbers. The Crossroads Transit Hotel in Lae was originally built in 2013 and targeted miners. Set on 25 ha, the 46-room establishment lies between the airport and city’s business district. In 2014 the hotel underwent a thorough refurbishment to make it more appealing to business travellers and tourists. An international restaurant was added, as was a gym and a pool.
Airlines & Airports
The country has an elaborate flight network, and this is vital in a place where so many of the attractions are remote and difficult to reach. In total, there are 77 airfield and aerodromes in operation in PNG. They are serviced by both scheduled airlines and charter services. Airlines PNG runs 14 Dash 8s and eight Twin Otters to 20 destinations within the country, including Tabubil, Losuia and Buka. Flag carrier Air Niugini also serves 20 airports, including Lihir, Rabaul and Kundiawa. Mission Aviation Fellowship, which has been operating locally for over 50 years, flies to some of the more remote regions of the country. Asia Pacific Airways flies from Tabubil with Dash 8s to about a dozen destinations domestically, and to one international destination (Cairns), while Regional Air flies out of Madang. The main international carrier is Air Niugini, which at present flies to 11 destinations overseas, including Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney. In August 2013 Air Niugini added a Bali route. The company is upgrading the cabins of all its Boeing aircraft, and by early 2014, three of the five jets had been overhauled. The country is also served by QantasLink, with connections from Port Moresby to Cairns.
Airports are also being upgraded. The road from Lae to Nadzab Airport is being improved, in a project that began in the middle of 2013 and is expected to take three years to complete (at the cost of PGK370m, or $150.4m). Other works are also being planned. The airport was built in the 1970s and is rundown and poorly maintained. It is also too small to meet future needs.
In early 2014 the Japan International Cooperation Agency met with officials from the National Airports Corporation (NAC), PNG Air Services, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and others to discuss an overhaul of the facility. The envisioned redevelopment will take seven years and could result in Lae becoming a second gateway to the country.
Jacksons International Airport, the country’s gateway at Port Moresby, meanwhile, is already undergoing significant renovation. The main terminal is being extended in anticipation of the 2015 South Pacific Games. According to comments from Joseph Tupiri, acting managing director of the National Airports Corporation (quoted in Business Advantage magazine), the next step will be to add more parking space for aircraft and two aero bridges. Ahead of the 2018 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, the plan is to link the two terminal buildings with a 35,000-sq-metre, three-level structure. Longer term, a new international terminal could be built.
The NAC is currently developing a plan to transform the airport and is considering a public-private partnership structure to achieve its goals. In addition to building capacity and trying to make the experience in the airport as seamless as possible, it would also like to see Jacksons take on a more regional role as a transit hub for flights from Hong Kong to Sydney, for example, or Nadi to Bali. It wants to make Jacksons more like other airports in the region, which not only serve their home markets but also capture traffic headed elsewhere.
Tupiri said that the NAC is looking for the right model for the 21 other airports outside Port Moresby. The possibility exists to link more of the regional airports to international destinations, bypassing the capital. Already, a significant push has been made to get Alotau airport connected directly to Cairns, Australia. It is believed that routes such as this could significantly improve tourism in the near term, as visitors would be able to avoid a difficult and time-consuming journey via Jacksons. Roads are being improved (see Transport chapter), and these will help make some of the more remote destinations more accessible. Planned links and upgrades include the Madang-Ramu-Mount Hagen Highway, the East New Britain-West New Britain Highway and the Lae- Port Moresby Highway.
PNG has a wide range of tour operators arranging trips of every type. Some are specialised in bird watching, trekking, ecotourism, historical tours, fishing or diving. Others provide more general services, especially for people interested in accessing the various festivals. While independent travel is possible, it is recommended that visitors use experienced companies to guide them through the sometimes complex process of getting to and into the shows and providing the necessary security in some regions. Given the difficult terrain and the discoveries to be made, especially in terms of new species, much travel is done expedition-style, which requires professional-level logistics coordination.
Cruises are becoming an increasingly popular way to see the country. P&O Cruises, which only recently started to serve PNG, is planning eight voyages in 2014, taking in Madang, Kavieng and Manus. Noble Caledonia runs a 14-day cruise landing at Tami, Trobriand and the D’Entrecasteaux Islands on the MS Caledonian Sky, which has custom-built zodiac boats allowing for landing on difficult to reach beaches. The Silverseas’ Worldcruise 2014 stops in Alotau and Madang. Other ships making calls include the MS Columbus 2, Silver Whisper, Black Watch, The World, Europa, MV Hanseatic, Paul Gauguin, Silver Explorer and the Silver Discoverer. Cruising is considered to be a good way to see the country. Some areas lack sufficient infrastructure and accommodations, and ships allow tourists to visit these areas while still staying in comfortable cabins onboard and eating in the shipboard restaurants.
Tourism is a growing sector in PNG. Since hitting a recent low of 53,670 in 2002, visitor numbers increased to more than 164,000 in 2011, according to PNGTPA. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates that visitor numbers will hit 187,000 in 2014 and forecasts that the country will attract 239,000 visitors by 2024. The government has been working to promote tourism as well. In 1993 it created the PNGTPA, a body tasked with giving advice on tourism policy, promoting the development of tourism products and infrastructure, assisting investors interested in the sector, disseminating data on tourism and improving tourism awareness. The organisation has had considerable success in that respect. In 2013 it won the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s Gold Award for its “What Tribe Are You?” advertising campaign. The campaign asked website viewers questions and would return a suggestion as to which of the countries many sub-cultures they would belong. The viewers were also invited to upload a photo, and the site would return the photo complete with the traditional headdress of that tribe.
The PNGTPA has several initiatives designed to help the sector. The Accommodation Accreditation Scheme (ACS), for example, was rolled out in 2013. Under the programme, a rating system has been developed in which establishments are judged based on their facilities and their service. Guesthouses, lodges, hotels and motels that pass are able to display a logo which indicates to guests that they meet certain standards.
Accredited establishments will also be featured in PNGTPA promotional materials and publications. The hope is that the ACS will give visitors more confidence in choosing places to stay and that it will help build PNG’s reputation internationally.
The PNGTPA is also working to improve cruise ship access. It is cooperating with a number of other authorities – the PNG Ports Corporation, National Agriculture Quarantine Inspection Authority, National Maritime Safety Authority, PNG Customs Service, PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service Authority, Department of Transport and the Department of Health – to encourage cruise ships to land and allow ships to access the country at undeclared ports. Other efforts by the PNGTPA include a PGK38,500 ($15,650) grant for a Port Moresby nature park, a workshop for Kundiawa Tourism Police cadets explaining the benefits of tourism and need for security for tourists, and the hosting (in association with the PNG Tourism Industry Association) of Lukim PNG Nau 2014, a travel mart.
Tourism is a priority area for PNG. It is seen as a way of providing employment and supporting the economy. In general, tourism is helpful for commodity-based countries due to its potential to provide clean, counter-cyclical earnings if and when commodity prices drop. Like manufacturing, tourism does not deplete. Several formal plans have been published. The PNG Tourism Sector Review and Master Plan (2007-17) calls for the doubling of tourists every five years and the development of sustainable tourism that will benefit the people and the environment. The plan said this could be accomplished through better marketing, product development, the improvement of transport infrastructure, the development of human resources and the establishment of appropriate institutions and partnerships.
The government’s longer-term plans (Vision 2050 and Medium Term Development Plan 2011-15) state that tourism is important to economic growth. Incentives for the sector include double deductions of certain expenses and faster depreciation for some tourism-related investments.
Special tax rates are also available for larger tourism investments (a 20% tax rate for 10 years from the first year of profit and a possible tax credit).
Costs & Complications
The tourism sector, however, faces many challenges. While the country has natural beauty and cultural points of interest, the attractions are not always easy to access. The airports are overcrowded despite efforts to improve them and the road system is inadequate and poorly maintained. PNG still lacks a direct land connection between Port Moresby and Lae, for example. And while the country has air connections between even the remotest of cities, services are still not where they should be to attract international tourists. According to the CAPA Centre for Aviation, runways are poorly maintained, terminals are not up to standard, on-time performance is low and the flag carrier is in poor financial shape. While competition has been introduced domestically, international competition is hampered by protectionist measures, according to CAPA. Airlines from the Philippines and the Solomon Islands would both like to get in.
As a result of the infrastructural issues and the lack of competition in some services, costs can be high. The US Department of State places the per diem for its employees at $504 in Port Moresby and $323 outside the capital. That compares with $219 in Suva, Fiji, $110 in the Solomon Islands, $362 in Jakarta, $408 in Tokyo and $237 in Manila. The EU per diem is €407. The Lonely Planet says that backpackers on a tight budget can get by on $60 a day at best. Better hotels in Port Moresby run between $200 and $300 a night and establishments in some of the more remote cities can be more expensive. Airfares are also quite high. The Singapore-Port Moresby route is only covered by Air Niugini and runs more than $1600 roundtrip for the 6.5-hour flight. Domestic routes are also expensive. Port Moresby to Lae, a 45-minute flight, costs PGK667 ($271) round trip. Port Moresby to Mount Hagen costs PGK825 ($336), while Port Moresby to Buka is PGK1156 ($470).
Security adds to the costs. The UK Foreign Office cautions visitors to Lae, Mount Hagen and Port Moresby and says the main concerns are carjacking, assaults, bag snatchings and robberies. Recent incidents have put the sector and tourists in general on edge about PNG. In September 2013 eight foreign hikers on the Black Cat Trail in Morobe Province were robbed and attacked and three of their local porters were killed. In 2011 a foreign couple was attacked in the North Fly District. While these incidents were seen as isolated and extreme, they have taken a toll on tourism and the image of the country.
Because of the risks, prices tend to be higher than in other developing countries. Travellers are warned not to try to organise their own trips, and it is strongly recommended that they go with reputable tour operators. The festivals are also better attended with the help of a professional guide. And the prices of the tours are quite high given the need for security and secure, timely transportation. A Kokoda Trail 10-day tour, for example, can cost $3500. An eight-day trip with another company was quoted at more than $3600. A 10-day trip to the Highlands and the Sepik River was quoted at $6922, while a 19-day bird watching trip cost about $10,000. While the country is considered a unique destination, with sights found in no other places, it is competing for tourist dollars with countries that are cheaper and on average safer. Pacific islands, such as Tahiti, and Asian developing economies, such as Indonesia and Thailand, are able to offer lower costs and do not come with the same sort of security issues found in PNG.
In 2013 tourism accounted for 1% of the GDP, and it ranked 182 out of 184 in terms of the relative size of its tourism industry by the WTTC. Other countries in the region derive much more from tourism: Indonesia gets 3.1% of its GDP from tourism; Fiji, 13.8%; Thailand, 9.0%; Solomon Islands, 4.5%; Vanuatu, 23.2%; and Tonga, 5.6%.
While PNG certainly has room to grow and the sector is indeed growing rapidly, tourism is not always seen as a priority and at times does not get the same level of resources and political support as other sectors. The visa policy demonstrates this complex mix of priorities. While tourism competitors, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Fiji, allow most visitors to enter visa-free, PNG uses a visa-on-arrival system. A visa on arrival is fairly straightforward in theory, but it can be less transparent, confusing and sometimes a bit intimidating – a printed onward ticket and a fee are sometimes required. While this is a fairly low barrier, all else being equal, travellers with many options may choose a destination with The visa situation became more of a problem when in early 2014 when Australians were removed from the list of nationalities eligible for a visa on arrival. This was because the Australian government refused to allow reciprocal visas on arrival for Papua New Guineans. The ban alone could affect the tourism sector. Australians are the leading visitors to the country in terms of sheer numbers – making up approximately half of the total at the end of 2013 – and the simple inconvenience of going to an embassy to get a visa could turn travellers off.
Efforts & Investment
But PNG is quickly becoming a more attractive destination. As the early stages of the PNG liquefied natural gas project wind down and as resource prices cool, the costs of travel to the country are falling. Competition for hotel rooms and aeroplane seats has decreased. At the same time, other factors have helped take the edge off prices. More hotel rooms in Port Moresby have been a factor, and the fall of the kina allows foreign visitors to get more for their money. While due to security issues, the backpacker end of the spectrum remains more expensive than in places such as Thailand, the mid and upper range of the market is starting to become competitive with other destinations. In addition, competition in the market is starting to take the edge off indirect costs. Telecommunications prices, for example, have plummeted over the past few years, to the point where travellers are no longer having to budget for these expenses. Competition has been especially evident in air travel. Ticket prices are falling in line with international benchmarks and discounting is beginning to become a feature within the market. Air Niugini, for example, introduced 40% discount fares in 2013 for a limited period and did so again in 2014.
Foreign investment will likely help the sector. The Conflict Islands are a good example. In 2003 the 21-island group in Milne Bay was purchased by Ian Gowrie-Smith, an Australian entrepreneur. He is offering pieces of the group now for sale or development, and is looking for wealthy individuals who want island properties or investors interested in developing some of the islands in an eco-friendly manner. The islands are difficult to access, but have a private airstrip or can be reached by boat (2.5 hours from Alotau). More developments like this could help bring much-needed international-standard capacity to the market and could attract more visitors. While government investment in infrastructure is vital for the sector, private investment is what is ultimately needed to bring tourism in the country to competitive levels.
PNG has all the right elements to make it a major tourist destination. It has everything its competitors have – beaches, diving, nature and history – only in many cases it has more of it and what it has is better. In some ways, the relative lack of development has left the country in a good position, with more nature intact and untouched. It has a reputation that no one else in the world can match in terms of adventure and discovery. One possible strategy for the country is to take advantage of its lack of mass tourism and to promote itself as more of a selective, high-end destination. This is not only cheaper in terms of infrastructure development and related costs, but it is also less taxing on the environment and ultimately more sustainable. It comes with higher margins and is potentially more profitable too.
Other tourism segments are also being developed. “I can foresee a future when the gaming industry will expand as part of the tourism and entertainment offer in PNG. As the social fabric of the country diversifies, gaming could play a bigger role for its social and recreational component,” Imelda Agon, the director of corporate affairs at the National Gaming Control Board, told OBG.
Still, PNG will face many challenges. Given its terrain and environment, it will find it difficult to beat Thailand or Indonesia in terms of sheer numbers. But given the right, selective investments and the right policies, the country could find itself in a few years with a strong and growing local tourism industry.