The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (April 8) – Tourism Minister Nick Kuman made a good point in criticizing a United Nations Development Program report on tourism development in PNG, which basically looked at the prospects for that sector in Bougainville.

The issue at hand is one of those chicken and egg problems of which comes first. Do we have to solve the law and order problem before tourists decide to come here? Or is it possible that the arrival of significant numbers of tourists will cause the law and order situation to improve markedly?

Great stuff for a debating team, but one can argue till we go blue in the face and there would be no correct answer, just a variety of opinions. So where do we start if we want to make this a more attractive tourist destination?

Among the pluses are the pristine beauty of the countryside, the mountain ranges and tropical beaches. And we should not forget the 30,000-year-old cultures that remain a daily reality for so many people, the vibrancy of some 800-plus languages and the colorful tribal singsings and traditions.

These things are there and from time to time they get an airing on top rating international channels even though many such offerings may have a historical or anthropological flavor. This is publicity that is priceless.

The minuses we all know about because they are talked about all the time. Top of the list are law and order issues that have left many Australians, in particular, fearful of visiting this country.

But whether many people like to admit it or not, this is very much also an issue of three decades of underdevelopment and the halving of per capita incomes during the 1990s. From another angle this is a reflection of the inability of governments since independence to capitalize on the God-given bounty of the land and its wealth of resources and fine agricultural lands or even its tourist wonders. Another thread running through this tapestry is the insidious story of corruption.

There has been some glimmer on hope on the tourism front in recent years. Of particular interest was the introduction of direct flights to Japan by Air Niugini and the relatively short-lived efforts by that airline to promote tourist packages from Sydney and Brisbane to Rabaul and Madang.

Minister Kuman yesterday provided a further ray of hope with news that three airports will soon be able to take in direct flights from overseas, starting with Mt Hagen later this year. Relevant infrastructure has to be one of the major issues facing the sector, another chicken and egg problem.

The chief executive of the Tourist Promotion Authority, Peter Vincent, recently expressed his view that the main deterrent to greater tourism was not law and order but high costs, particularly the high international airfares facing potential visitors to this country.

We are inclined to agree on this score. Just this week one Korean resident pointed out that people in Seoul, a city of 10 million people, paid less for their 10-hour flight to Brisbane than they did for the less than four-hour journey from Brisbane to Port Moresby.

There are many explanations why this may be so - the level of passenger traffic between different destinations, average load factors on different routes and even the possible level of interline competition.

It would be much harder for the TPA or the Minister to accept why Air Niugini is able to charge passengers a significantly lower fare if they fly from Brisbane to Singapore or Manila via Port Moresby than if they flew directly to Port Moresby. 

Possibly this can be explained on similar grounds to the above-mentioned issues such as load factors, but how can one explain punitive increases in these fares if an individual passenger decided to stay overnight or even a couple of weeks in Papua New Guinea before heading on to Singapore or Manila.

As a government-owned airline these are issues that only the government can resolve if it has the will to do so.

But to get back to Mr. Kuman's criticism of UNDP's first foray into promotion of tourism in PNG. There must be at least 20 locations that are as attractive as Bougainville to international tourists, judging for example by the steady flow of Americans visiting our shores to enjoy world-ranking scuba diving opportunities.

Promotion of Bougainville as a destination without due regard for the rest of the country will just not work and a good marketing strategy is probably a very good starting point. This is where the government seems to be heading at the moment with its plan to beef up three regional airports and to boost its tourism promotional capabilities. 

UNDP and the World Tourism Organization would have better served their interests and ours by working in with this strategy than going off on their own tangent, a message that the Minister has got across quite well.

April 8, 2004

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