Tourism in Papua New Guinea

last updated: January 2018

The Independent State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and more than 600 adjacent islands and is situated less than 200 km north of Australia. It is a developing nation with a population of approximately 7 million people with a gross national income in 2014 of US$1716.00. The nation’s economy continues to depend on extractive industries based on minerals, oil and gas and timber. Mineral deposits account for roughly 70% of export earnings with most of the remaining export earnings deriving from agriculture and forestry. However, given the nation’s current significant economic difficulties, brought about in part because of a collapse in commodity prices, the national government is beginning to pay more attention to the potential of the tourism industry as a means of improving the economy and the well-being of its people.

At face value, PNG should have considerable appeal as an internationally recognised wildlife tourism destination. The island of New Guinea is recognised as a biodiversity ‘hotspot’ comprising over 5% of the world’s total biodiversity. The combination of tropical climate, biogeographical history and geology has produced a diversity of extant habitats including tropical lowland and montane rainforest, savannah, freshwater wetlands, mangrove forest and coral reef which in turn have given rise to a very large number of plant and animal taxa. At least 240 species of mammals and nearly 800 species of birds are currently recognised and the level of endemism is also very high with approximately 84 genera of animals being endemic, including around 80 species of birds and 75 species of mammals. The invertebrate fauna is also remarkably rich with perhaps as many as 200,000–300,000 species of insects, many of which are not yet scientifically described and the nation boasts the largest and second largest insects (both birdwing butterflies) and the world’s largest stick insect. A number of ‘charismatic’ or iconic species which have considerable appeal occur including species of tree kangaroo, cuscus, dugong, cassowary, birds of paradise, palm cockatoo, hornbill, estuarine crocodile, leatherback turtle and birdwing butterflies. The tropical coral reefs are rich in biodiversity with approximately 3000–4000 species of fish recorded for the nation overall as well as between 350 and 600 species of corals and perhaps up to 10,000 species of molluscs. Based on this summary description, it is easy to imagine PNG as a wildlife tourist’s paradise.

However, this is not the case and inbound tourism to the country remains at a very low level. International tourist arrivals in 2016 were 197,632 with just 56,744 (28%) categorised as ‘holiday’ tourists. This very low number of leisure tourists is significant for the nascent tourism industry as many operators simply do not attract sufficient numbers of tourists to remain financially viable. Consequently, village communities that construct ‘ecolodges’ or who run small-scale local tours find themselves with a product or service but frequently insufficient tourist numbers to sustain a viable business.

There are a number of reasons why leisure tourism generally in PNG is so low. Probably the most important is the generally held perception that PNG is a very unsafe destination to travel to as a leisure tourist. The Australian media (Australia is currently PNG’s main source market for all types of tourists) tends mainly to report negative stories about PNG which can be categorised into stories about corrupt and inefficient government and stories about violence directed at Papua New Guineans and to foreigners. As the Lonely planet guide to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (St Louis, Carillet and Starnes, 2012, p. 191) states:

It’s very difficult to get the balance right about the dangers of travelling in PNG. If you believe the hype, you’ll never go… While urban drift has undoubtedly caused ‘law and order’ issues, it’s not like the Wild West where gun-law rules and stepping outside is to put your life in danger.

Second, PNG is a costly destination to travel within. The high costs are partly because so much of the tourism industry, especially in the major cities such as Port Moresby, Lae and Mt Hagen is driven by business travel, which in turn inflates the cost of accommodation to ‘business rates’. It is also partly because air travel (which is the chief form of travelling longer distances in PNG) is also expensive. Cost of living factors associated with PNG being an island nation also contribute to the expense of travel.

Third, while tourism has been on government economic agendas for some decades, governments have been much more interested in developing extractive industries and on the whole, PNG has not been very effective at overcoming the negative perceptions or the high costs associated with travel through its destination marketing strategies and campaigns.

Nevertheless, given its proximity to Australia (and other prospective markets such as New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and China) and PNG’s reputation as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, it is
perhaps surprising then that PNG has not developed as a wildlife tourism destination. Indeed, PNG could be to Australia what Costa Rica and Belize are to the USA – proximate and successful sustainable tourist destinations that attract specialised (and high yield) tourists drawn to the extraordinary diversity of ecosystems and the wildlife that inhabits them. Such tourism could become a significant earner of foreign exchange as well as acting as an important mechanism for conserving biodiversity and facilitating local and regional sustainable social and economic development.

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