Tourism in Papua New Guinea: waiting for the tide to turn


The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a damaging blow to Papua New Guinea’s tourism industry, but companies are using the downtime to rethink their operations. Robert Upe reports.

Tufi village welcome. Credit: Hudson Lavari/PNGTPA via Facebook

PNG’s visitor numbers were trending up in the years before COVID-19 struck in early 2020. The nation was on a roll with its natural assets and adventure options of surfing, diving, birdwatching and trekking, particularly along the Kokoda Trail.

It had also seen the opening of new properties in recent years, including PNG’s first Hilton Hotel and the Loloata Private Island Resort.

COVID-19 turned that on its head. Hotels emptied, tracks were deserted and eco-lodges fell quiet.

‘PNG remains one of the last frontiers in everything – if you look at our flora and fauna, our people and culture – we have it all.’

A PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (PNGTPA) report states that visitor numbers fell by 82 per cent in 2020 to 38,940, and cruise visitation declined by 100 per cent.

As international arrivals slowed, PNG’s tourism and hospitality sectors have turned to domestic travellers, when COVID-19 restrictions have allowed.

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When will travellers return?

ela beach

Ela Beach Hotel. Credit: Coral Sea Hotels Group

According to some sources, a rebound may start in the second half of 2021 and gain momentum in 2022. The cruise industry is reporting extraordinary forward bookings for 2022–2023.

It’s anticipated that, as people are vaccinated against COVID, they will feel confident and safe to travel again for business and leisure.

Rupert Bray, Managing Director of the Steamships Trading Company, which owns PNG’s largest hotel chain, Coral Sea Hotels, says many first world countries should have rolled out their vaccination programs by the third quarter of 2021.

‘There will be a gradual easing [of travel restrictions] from mid-2021 onwards,’ Bray anticipates.

But, as Bray points out, the wildcard for travel and hospitality is quarantine.

‘There will have to be a trade-off between travel restrictions ending [due to widespread vaccination] and quarantine ending before the business rebuilds. We fear a large valley between the former and latter.’

Reinvigorating PNG’s tourism industry

The General Manager of Port Moresby’s award-winning Airways Hotel, Sunilkumar Panda, says there have been some learnings to the downtime.

‘We learned to use the downtime to re-evaluate our business, train our employees and try new and flexible ways to improve,’ he says. ‘We started early with precautionary [COVID-19] measures and introduced innovative technologies to ensure the safety of our guests and staff.

Meanwhile, the PNGTPA is working on plans to maximise visitor numbers.

Eric Mossman, the PNGTPA’s CEO, says his organisation is looking into the potential of the domestic tourism market by developing tourism in remote communities.

‘PNG remains one of the last frontiers in everything – if you look at our flora and fauna, our people and culture – we have it all; it has not been explored fully,’ he says.

Mossman says the TPA is also working on a cruise ship strategy and is partnering with the Kokoda Track Authority to maintain the track and to ensure custodians receive the benefits they are entitled to.

If travel experts are correct in their thinking that there will be a trend towards small-group outdoor travel over big flop-and-drop resorts, then PNG could be well placed for an early recovery.

Robert Upe is the Editor of PNG Now, PNG’s leading lifestyle magazine.

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