Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ecotourism in Papua New Guinea

Picture above shows ecotourists from Lithuania visiting a village near Woitape in Central Province.

Ecotourism involves visitors coming to interact with the natural and cultural attractions of a place rather than visiting man-made attractions like resorts, fun parks, museums, and so forth.
In some countries ecotourism is also taken to mean tourism that has very little impact on the natural environment, even to the extent of implementing measures like composting toilets, raised walkways and solar power to make ecotourism facilities environmentally friendly.
Australian Aaron Hayes, who runs Ecotourism Melanesia, a Port Moresby-based inbound tour company which specialises in sending tourists into the rural areas of Papua New Guinea, is one those who takes a special interest.
“Here in PNG, we use the word ‘ecotourism’ more generally to mean ‘nature and culture based tourism’,” Hayes expounds.
“Other catchphrases these days are ‘responsible tourism’ and ‘community-based tourism’.
“Responsible tourism denotes tourism that cares for both the environment and the local people by ensuring that the tourism activity treads softly on the environment and also has decent benefits for local communities.
“These days many tourists browsing holiday pamphlets and websites tend to ask tour operators for information about how their tours benefit local communities.
“Community-based tourism involves tourism ventures that are actually owned and operated by people who live in the community area where the tourism activity takes place.
“For example village guest houses and village tours.
“Over at Tufi the Dive Resort takes groups of tourists to see a demonstration of sago-making in a local village beginning with cutting the sago stands and ending with cooking and eating the sago in somebody's home and this is an excellent example of community-based tourism.
“Some community-based tourism ventures like village guest houses are run by individuals and families whereas larger ventures like a Wildlife Management Area or village singsing experience might involve the whole village.
“Community-based tourism enterprises owned by whole villages are generally not sustainable here in PNG because there are too many hands out for a share and the income from the enterprise is generally too low to satisfy every shareholder's expectations.
“Many politicians and donors have given money to kick-start village-based lodges and eco-resorts but how many of them are still operating today?
“Not many.
“Generally they collapse due to poor management, lack of marketing, and disputes which arise when shareholders are not satisfied with the amount of money they are receiving compared to the effort they are giving.
“One sad case is the Kamiali Guest House in Morobe which is owned by the Lababia Village community and situated in a magnificent Wildlife Management Area.
“This place could be the biggest ecotourism attraction in PNG but it is poorly marketed and poorly managed.
“My company refuses to send any more tourists there after a number of our clients reported disappointment with the accommodation and tour activities there.”
These days many tourism destinations in our region have focused on mass tourism that caters for the Australian holiday market, what we call "beach-and-palm-tree tourism".
These tourists don't mind if they go to Fiji or Bali, whichever one is cheaper, as long as there's a beach with palm trees and a nice resort with a swimming pool.
If you look at the pamphlets and advertisements put out by tourism operators in Malaysia, Bali, Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Samoa and even the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland, you'll see that they are all advertising the same thing: a resort holiday by the beach where tourists can relax and enjoy themselves.
“If PNG tries to compete in the beach-and-palm-tree mass tourism market we are doomed,” Hayes warns.
“PNG doesn't have enough postcard-perfect white beaches in accessible locations where resorts can be built, and even if we did there are too many turn-offs in PNG that resort developers will shy away from including the urban crime problem, a generally violent society nationwide, health risks like malaria and TB and the mess created by betel nut everywhere.
“If beach-and-palm tree tourists have a choice between a resort in PNG and a resort in Vanuatu or Queensland, they won't pick PNG because in many ways PNG is less visually attractive and coming here involves higher risk for the traveler.
“Last year my company made arrangements for a wealthy resort developer from Brazil to fly down to an uninhabited island in Milne Bay where he wanted to build a luxury getaway resort.
“But when he arrived in Port Moresby he took one look at Jackson's Airport terminal and said ‘cancel the trip to the island, there's no way I can bring my guests through this grubby looking airport with people spitting red stuff everywhere’.
“And he turned around and left on the next flight out.
“I wasn't worried because I don't think luxury resorts offer much for Papua New Guineans anyway ... most of the money just goes into some millionaire's pocket and the only benefits for local people are those few who get jobs in the resort which are mostly low-paid jobs anyway.”
If the Papua New Guinea tourism industry is smart it will not try to compete in the mass tourism market but will focus on offering "niche" (specialised) tourism products that appeal to travellers with specific interests, including scuba diving, surfing, fishing and even unusual interests like volcano climbing and collecting beetles.
Travellers with special interests tend to stay longer and spend more.
“For example, my tour company Ecotourism Melanesia gets a steady stream of cultural tourists interested in ‘primitive’ cultures,” Hayes says.
“Many of them live in Europe and North America, they are often very wealthy and they spend two or three months every year travelling the world visiting different cultures.
“They read National Geographic magazine and International Travel News and they subscribe to websites like .
“They have visited many countries already and are looking for somewhere new and different to experience so they come to PNG.
“These visitors often stay three to four weeks in the country and visit four or five different destinations and do outdoor activities like hiking from village to village to meet the people and really experience the country.
“They often spend K10,000 to K15,000 per head on the ground while in the country and a lot of this money goes straight into the pockets of local people that my company pays to provide guest house accommodation, village tours, village singsing entertainment, dinghy and road transport, access to special sites and trekking guide services.
“These ‘high-yield’ tourists also spend a lot on local souvenirs like tapa cloth, carvings, shells and paintings that they like to take home with them.
“Compare this with the average beach-and-palm-tree tourist from Australia who goes to Fiji or Vanuatu for five nights.
“This tourist on average spends less than K5000 in the country, and most of that goes into the resort owner's pocket with only a little filtering through to the salaries of the local staff working there.
“There is almost no direct benefit to people living out in the villages.”
Although the overall economic benefit from ecotourism is not as high as mass tourism, local communities get a greater proportion of the money that is spent by ecotourists compared to resort tourists.
If Papua New Guinea could be marketed world-wide as an ecotourism destination offering the best ecotourism experiences in the world such as village-to-village trekking, bird watching and encounters with traditional cultures, we could attract more of these high-yield ecotourists which would better satisfy the needs of all the empty village guest houses all over PNG.
Over the past 10 years, hundreds and hundreds of village guest houses have popped up all over Papua New Guinea but most of them have not had any guests yet, or have only had a few.
“Every week my company receives letters and faxes from village guest house owners asking us to send tourists to their guest houses,” Hayes says.
“As we are only one small company we cannot possibly supply enough tourists to meet the demand from all of PNG's village guest houses.
“This demand will only be met when the number of ecotourists visiting PNG increases and when more tour companies start selling ecotourism as a tour product.
“The main impediment to the growth of ecotourism is the lack of targeted marketing.
“We need to reach the type of travellers interested in ecotourism experiences in ‘frontier’ countries like PNG.
“We need to advertise PNG in places where these types of travellers are likely to see the advertising such in nature magazines and on travel-related websites.
“Ecotourists tend to do a lot of research on the internet when planning their trips but PNG is not advertised on the internet enough, we are still spending too much money on sending tourism officials to travel agent trade shows overseas instead of advertising on the internet where we can get 1000 times the exposure for a fraction of the price.
“I think some tourism officials are hooked on overseas trips and that is why they are resistant to refocusing on web-based marketing.
“At the moment only a couple of private tourism operators are spending money advertising PNG on major information sites like Google and Yahoo! while the government is spending nothing.
“Even the main PNG tourism website is not helping us very much; the site needs a complete make-over to make it more attractive and user-friendly.
“At the moment the first thing you see when you log on to the PNG tourism web portal is a guy with teeth stained black by betel nut... what a turn-off, somebody is not thinking right.
“The lack of marketing is also a problem in village tourism training workshops which are held around the country.
“These workshops focus on how to build and operate a guest house but do not provide enough training in how to market it and manage it profitably.
“Village people get excited and run back to their village and build a guest house and then sit in their empty guest house waiting for tourists to appear by magic.
“Tourism officials keep saying we have to do the awareness and the training before we can do the marketing otherwise if tourists come and we are not prepared for them they will not have a good time and they will never come back.
“That's all poppycock.
“I've never met an ecotourist who didn't have a good time in PNG, no matter what goes wrong ecotourists are always thrilled with the experience of visiting this country and always very forgiving for any problems because they understand PNG is a frontier country with a less-developed tourism industry.
“They like it like that... if everything in PNG were developed it wouldn't be attractive to ecotourists any more.
“Too much tourism training is done by officers from NGOs and government organisations that don't actually run tourism businesses themselves, they are all theorists.
“And when they do cover marketing it's all theoretical gobbledygook without any hands-on skills training on how to design a pamphlet or how to work out the price to charge for a day trip for a group of visitors, or whatever.
“Tourism trainers keep referring to village-based tourism as ‘projects’ - they're not projects, they are business ventures and they have to be marketed and operated so that they will make a profit, that's what it's all about.
“Village people need money to buy supplies and pay school fees; they are not setting up village guest houses for the fun of it.”


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