Changing times in Papua New Guinea

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Halftime show during the men’s basketball finals (Fiji vs. Guam) at the 2015 Pacific Games.
Halftime show during the men’s basketball finals (Fiji vs. Guam) at the 2015 Pacific Games. Photo Credit: Skye Mayring

Few places in the world exist where visitors can trek active volcanoes, snorkel past coral gardens and purple starfish, explore World War II tunnels, relax in a geothermal hot spring and break bread with local tribespeople, all in one day. Authentic experiences like these await in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Persuading your clients to go there, however, is no easy task.

First of all, PNG is located some 8,600 miles and about four flights away from New York. And it's no secret that it is among the most dangerous countries in the world. The capital of Port Moresby ranks 138th of 140 cities worldwide in the Economist Intelligence Unit's livability index, and despite the country's flourishing economy — a $19 billion ExxonMobil natural gas project began production last year — an estimated 40% of residents live in poverty.

The ExxonMobil project has the potential to double the size of PNG's economy, according to research released by the Human Rights Watch. Other factors contributing to PNG's growth, particularly in the tourism sector, are the 2015 Pacific Games, which welcomed athletes from 24 Pacific nations in July, and the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. In preparation for these large-scale events, PNG's hospitality industry has skyrocketed from 600 room nights to 6,000 room nights within the past four years.

Additional hotels are in development, including the 433-room Raintree Hotel and a Hilton property, both to be built in the Waigani Precinct, one of six precincts in Port Moresby that are being developed specifically for the APEC Summit. The Waigani Convention Centre is also set for completion by 2018.

Irrespective of the country's reputation for instability in a period of rapid development, visitors who exercise common sense and act appropriately have little to worry about, even in high-risk areas like Port Moresby. The U.S. Department of State advises traveling in small groups or with guides and avoiding public transportation and blatant displays of wealth — standard conduct for the cautious traveler.

A rugby match during the Pacific Games.
A rugby match during the Pacific Games. Photo Credit: Skye Mayring

"Have I had my wallet stolen in Italy? Yes. I even caught a beggar's hand in my pocket last month while in Switzerland," said Joshua Smith, associate director of private travel for Travcoa, the first tour operator to offer guided tours to PNG, some 30 years ago. "Both happened while I was traveling on my own. The value of using a tour operator experienced in PNG is avoiding the risk of the perceived, and at times substantiated, crime in the destination."

When promoting PNG in other countries, Peter Vincent, CEO of the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, confronts the issue head-on.

"We are going through a period where there is so much development taking place in PNG, and where that happens, you see these social issues occur, as well," he said. "Places like Lae, Port Moresby and Mount Hagen are the only areas that have security and safety issues."

As a way to route visitors away from Port Moresby and straight to the islands, the Tourism Promotion Authority is placing more of an emphasis on cruising. Princess Cruises, Cunard Line, Seabourn and P&O Cruises include PNG in their itineraries, and the authority hopes to attract more expedition cruises, with 150 passengers or less, which can dock in more remote areas.

"There's a lot more benefit to the local communities that way," Vincent said. "Plus, small ships will help us build our capacity and grow at a sustainable rate."

Milne Bay Province, which includes Alotau, Kiriwina, Kitava and Doini, is PNG's major cruise hub and will welcome 57 calls in 2016. The authority's focus in the next five to 10 years, said Vincent, will be turning Rabaul into a more accessible cruise destination.

Cruising has also been a solution to the high cost of airfare to get from the U.S. to PNG. Typically, U.S. travelers fly through Australia with Virgin Australia or Qantas, with roundtrip fares from Los Angeles running $2,500 per person in the high season. Beginning Oct. 25, however, Philippine Airlines will offer a more cost-effective solution with connections through Manila. The carrier's twice-weekly service from Manila to Port Moresby will start at $720 per person, roundtrip.

PNG currently attracts 200,000 visitors per year, but with increased airlift, new meetings facilities and more hotel options than ever before, arrival numbers are projected to trend upward in the coming years.

"People should visit PNG now because it is on the cusp of change," said Fiona Tanner, general manager of Rabaul's Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort. "There is adventure and freedom here. Our people are authentic. And nothing is staged."

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