GETTING OFF NORFOLK ISLAND

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MELBOURNE, Australia (July 11, 2001 – Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat)---On the American television show "Survivor," the castaways could leave the island by being voted off. If only it were that simple and inexpensive for tourists on the Australian territory of Norfolk Island.

Pacific Beat's Bruce Hill has the story.

The island, in the middle of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, has joined the ever-growing list of Pacific countries and territories experiencing problems with air links to the rest of the world.

And although tourists don’t face the problems of earlier inhabitants, being locked up in manacles in what one historian has described as "the Auschwitz of the Pacific," they are finding that leaving is not easy.

The problems began with the collapse of an Australian airline, FlightWest, which had been servicing Norfolk.

A small local air operation, Norfolk Island Jet Express, had offered to step into the breach and run more services using Air Nauru’s sole 737 jet, but that arrangement now appears to be in trouble.

Plane Stranded

The plane is currently stranded in Melbourne, while the authorities demand payment from Air Nauru for previous maintenance work and fuel.

The editor of the local newspaper, the Norfolk Islander, Tom Lloyd, says Qantas have been able to come to Norfolk Island’s rescue to some extent.

"They have been able to reschedule some of their 737s to operate the service, but. . . the planes are arriving at any time of the day or night, and sometimes they’re cancelled with very few hours notice."

"And of course you have a whole swag of very irate passengers turning up at the airport to find the plane has been delayed for 12 hours. . . or it can’t run tomorrow because it’s scheduled for somewhere else."

Tourism Industry Hit

Naturally, this is not exactly doing wonders for the economically vital tourist industry, which attracts 23,000 visitors a year, making it the island’s main industry.

Already there have been 500 bookings over the next two months cancelled.

The Norfolk Islands Legislative Assembly has formed an emergency committee to tackle the problem, but no answers have emerged yet.

June, July and August are slow months for tourism anyway, but Tom Lloyd says the trend is a real worry.

"Don’t Go To Norfolk" Warning

He says islanders have learned that travel agents on the Australian mainland are advising their clients not to even think of coming to Norfolk Island, as there is no guarantee they will get there.

But more importantly there’s no guarantee they’re going to get off either.

"Air New Zealand comes up twice a week from Auckland, and yesterday’s flight going back to Auckland had quite a number passengers who had been stranded here, and they were quite prepared to pay the extra A$ 1,600 (US$ 815) for the trip to Auckland and home to Sydney."

"And you can well imagine what effect this is going to have on the tourist industry."

Norfolk Then And Now

In 1856 the penal colony on Norfolk Island was closed following a protest campaign against brutal conditions.

Today, visitors aren’t kept in chains, and tourist bungalows have soft beds and clean sheets instead of rats and damp prison walls.

But it’s still not easy to leave Norfolk Island.

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