LLast June, I spent four days snorkeling in crystal clear water, swimming with dolphins and learning to cook freshly caught fish on heated rocks. I was not in Fiji, Vanuatu or New Caledonia – some of Australia’s favorite Pacific holiday destinations – but in Nyapio, a small island in Papua New Guinea.
I have been incredibly lucky to live in PNG for the past two years. Traveling for business and pleasure, I visited 15 of the country’s 22 provinces. There’s hardly a vacation you can’t do in PNG.
For the more adventurous there are active volcanoes to climb, kayaking trips through tropical fjords and scuba diving with manta rays and walking sharks. For history buffs, there are still World War II ruins to discover, and there are over 800 languages and 1,000 ethnic groups.
Nature lovers will also be delighted. PNG is one of 17 “mega-diverse” countries in the world. It contains the third largest rainforest in the world, over 700 species of birds and 45,000 km of coral reefs.
But in 2019, fewer than 80,000 people visited PNG, compared to almost a million visitors to neighboring Fiji.
Given that Port Moresby is less than an hour and a half flight from mainland Australia, it’s not the distance that keeps people away. It is undeniable that PNG faces a number of development challenges. However, local tourism can be one of the most effective ways to combat these limitations and put the money directly into the hands of the people who would benefit the most.
There are examples of enterprising individuals looking to earn a little extra money to support their families and communities across the country. Back in Nyapio, the villagers have recently built guesthouses to encourage tourism and raise funds to build a new school. The men can take you fishing for your dinner, then the local women can teach you how to make a mumutraditional cuisine based on heated stones.
With Australia’s travel advisory level for PNG set at “exercise a high degree of caution”, security concerns are an often-cited reason for people not wanting to visit. But Indonesia and the UK, which ranked second and third most popular overseas destinations for Australians in 2022, share the same rating. There are precautions you can take: don’t drive or walk alone in Port Moresby, for example. Using local guides, an increasing number of which are now available online, will not only allow you to follow kastombut also provide an additional layer of security.
As with all overseas adventures, travel insurance is essential. Remote or particularly strenuous journeys, such as the ascent of the 4,500-meter Mount Wilhelm – more than twice the height of Mount Kosciuszko – require additional preparation. You may need water purification tablets, antimalarials and good physical condition. Surprisingly, a warm sweater is an essential pack for any trip to the Highlands.
If you’re not sure where to visit, the PNG Tourism website is a great place to start. Roughly divided into four regions – Momase, South, Highlands and Islands – it is advisable to choose only one destination for your first trip. Without a good road network, domestic flights are expensive and delays are not uncommon. However, with patience and a sense of humor, you’ll likely end up making friends in the airport queues and leaving with fond memories of rearranged plans revealing unexpected delights.
I recommend traveling with a local guide, who will be able to provide unique information that big tour companies or cruise lines lack.
This could include a motorized canoe trip on the Sepik River, with tamran houses (spirit houses) full of artwork and sculpture; a visit to the now closed Panguna mine in the autonomous region of Bougainville, at the heart of the decade-long conflict; or a catch-and-release fishing trip or a birding experience at an eco-lodge.
There’s no better time than the present to visit PNG. Like the rest of the Pacific, PNG is on the front lines of climate change. Stark reminders of rising sea levels are evident in coastal villages, with houses and crops flooded at high tide and once-beautiful trees dead along the shores. Land, languages and cultural practices are inextricably linked and some of PNG’s incredible diversity is already disappearing. But it is still a beautiful country, which travelers will fall in love with.
During his first visit to PNG as Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese issued a call to action for Australians. He wanted us to get to know our closest neighbors; visit, learn and share the richness of the culture. Those who wish to visit PNG will reap the rewards – remarkable scenery, few tourists and more opportunities than you could dream of.