One of the first questions that pops into the mind of most Westerners arriving in Papua New Guinea is inevitably, “What am I doing here?” Truth be told, this is not a destination of palatial, all-inclusive spa-resorts with Lalique goblets overflowing with Dom Perignon champagne in Michelin-rated restaurants.
In fact, this is a country so far off the traveled path that most first-timers are hit with a sense of having crossed into a time warp, a seeming illusion where the reality of its nearly stone age culture makes this destination a luxury in itself.
But be waned, by and large, top-of-the-line tourist amenities are lacking; its cities are mirror images of sweaty, swarthy hubs in places like Ghana or Mozambique; roads are difficult; at their best, restaurants are for the most part pedestrian and lackadaisical.
So a second question arises: Why come?
After only a few hours’ immersion in this wonderland with a hodgepodge of cultures bordering on the bizarre, the answer becomes clear: because Papua New Guinea is a rugged, two-fisted land that came out of the Stone Age only a few generations ago and may be the last unspoiled place on earth to experience what exotic travel must have been like those same generations ago.
Papua New Guinea is where your clients will experience pleasantly jolting but real adventures that will develop into deep-seated memories. They will also have the singular, self-satisfying luxury of having visited a novel land while still at its undeveloped best.
This destination is as close to time travel as it’s possible in this second decade of the 21st century—a country where the humidity, native cultures and intimidating aura make you feel like you’ve stepped into the pages of your grandfather’s old National Geographics.
And what a country it is.
Papua New Guinea is a scattering of more than 600 islands strewn around the world’s second largest island, New Guinea, a piece of real estate it shares with the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, much like Haiti and the Dominican Republic share Hispaniola.
Its population is roughly four million, but it’s incredibly divided into more than 800 ethnic groups that are poles apart in customs as varied as their languages. In fact, so many dialects and tongues are spoken here that linguists claim more than one-sixth of the world’s languages can be heard here—although Tok Pisin, a pidgin patois, is generally accepted as the country’s lingua franca.
The main island’s rugged topography presents a redoubtable obstacle for modern development. As a result, Western-style influences have come not by land, but by air. That’s why Papua New Guinea has more airstrips per capita than any country in the world.
The beaches are mostly deserted majestic ribbons unfurling around warm seas. Farther inland, primeval jungles and rainforests are so thick that one can almost feel their photosynthesis at work. The highlands cloud forests are made for nature lovers who will find Papua New Guineans to be friendly and shy, often appearing to observe visitors with the same instinctive curiosity that visitors display in observing them.
Visitors will find that this is a “lost world” in the literal sense of the words, and the present may be the best time to visit before the astounding treasures within it are developed and changed forever—as it’s bound to happen.
This is a change that most knowledgeable people believe is inevitable, but will be slow in coming.
Bob Bates, owner and managing director of Trans Niugini Tours, the country’s premier tourism entity, is convinced of that. “You see,” he explains, “the tourism infrastructure just isn’t here. That’s why PNG won’t be a popular destination in the foreseeable future. In many ways we’re like an underdeveloped African country right in the middle of the Equatorial Pacific, with weather to match. Like many African destinations we have only three major attractions to offer: culture, nature and water activities and our tourism generally focuses on those. I think that in the long term we’ll be a nature destination, not a beach or resort destination like Bali.”
Bates is an Australian engineer who first came here 46 years ago to build bridges and roads for what he thought would be a 2-year stint. Like many others, he was spellbound by the magic of Papua New Guinea. “I never looked back,” he says. “I consider myself a native now, a highlands man, and would not think about living anywhere else.”