How does a remote island hold on to its identity as technology continues to spread? Mary Jane Murray, Papua New Guinea travel specialist, explains how an island destination can balance both development and authenticity.
You can’t impose an outsider’s expectations on someone else’s country
First, can you tell us how you went from Canada to working in the highlands of Papua New Guinea?
I was working on the university side in Canada and took a job in Southern Belize. It was the early days of ecotourism and I was taking people on inland tours, mostly looking for jaguars. In 2001, I had a miserable day in Canada and saw an ad in the paper describing this job with Trans Niugini Tours in Papua New Guinea. I said, let’s throw our names in the hat and see what happens.
How were you involved in the early days of ecotourism in Belize?
In those days, Southern Belize was kind of like Papua New Guinea: People didn’t know where it was or how to pronounce it. This small area was transitioning from being a fishing community to earning income from tourism, so we were looking at ways to do things differently. It was a very exciting time.
How did your role developing ecotourism in Belize translate into managing wilderness lodges in PNG?
There were a lot of things that translated well and a lot of wonderful surprises. Outsiders from Canada, Australia and the United States were helping locals develop their tourism business. That was the exciting part. But we had to understand that you can’t impose an outsider’s expectations on someone else’s country.
Is it a matter of outsiders trying to pose their way of life on these small communities?
It can go both ways. When I lived in Belize, people joined together to buy a television, and I said I didn’t want it. Someone explained to me, they had never had this piece of technology and it’s what they wanted. You have to respect what’s happening in other places and you can’t expect things to remain the same. Development has to happen.
What struck you about PNG when you moved there?
It’s a country of diversity. It developed differently because it’s hard to move from one area to another, there are different languages, different mythologies. Artistically it’s very diverse: in the highlands, a lot of cultural energy is inspired by the birds of paradise that grow in high altitudes. In the lowlands, the energy is often inspired by the mythology of the crocodile.
How do you even begin to lead travelers through a nation of such diversity?
It often comes from visitors themselves, if they have something they want to see. We talk to them about weddings or battles or initiation ceremonies. There’s a storytelling tradition that’s almost easy to experience as you go from village to village. It’s organized, but it’s not contrived. Also, many of those villages have established relationships with the lodges.
It seems that to develop tourism successfully, everyone needs to be involved: government, private enterprise and locals.
In my experience with PNG, it’s really the people and the tour operators who have developed the product. The ingenuity is that it’s not very developed, so you have to be self-sufficient in terms of infrastructure. For example, Trans Niugini Tours has been around for 40 years and has its own aircraft and vehicles.
That’s probably one of the reasons there hasn’t been a lot of tourism development on the mainland because it’s hard to do. If you’re purchasing your own aircraft, you’re in it for the long haul, which can be a good thing for sustainability.
How did you deal with managing remote lodges in the early days when technology wasn’t as prevalent?
When I went to PNG in 2001, there was a phone but it didn’t work. We communicated with head office by radio. If we had to tell a village we were coming or wanted to order fresh banana leaves, we had to send a note.
How have you seen technology change the travel experience in PNG?
Some of the first farmers lived in the highlands of PNG 10,000 years ago, and they didn’t even need the wheel. Today, they have cell phones. I was once escorting a group and yelled at the driver to stop the bus. Not because anything was wrong, but because I spotted a man in traditional clothes talking on his cell phone. I had never seen that before.
Like the TV in Belize, does that take the traveler a little outside of the experience to see technology become commonplace?
We trained the guides not to talk on their phones on the bus or during meals. Contact has made things easier, but we want to keep some of the magic.
How has technology helped travelers in terms of planning their trips?
It’s important to share information so that people can determine whether this is really the trip for them. But being such a small destination, it’s also important that we build relationships through face-to-face interaction, both with the people who sell our products and the people who visit.
What does the future of PNG tourism look like? Find out in our exclusive interview with Peter Vincent, CEO of the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority.
Who is the typical traveler who comes to PNG?
These are people who have done a lot and who have seen a lot. Because of the price, most visitors tend to be older. They’re very well traveled, having been to Antarctica, Africa, all over Asia and the Pacific. Many like to attend festivals and birding is a hugely growing trend. It’s a photogenic destination so they tend to take a lot of photos.
The camera is another piece of technology that is tied to travel. How does that impact the PNG experience?
People get wonderful photographs, but sometimes we tell people to put their cameras down sometimes because we want them to be in the moment. They feel a responsibility to capture every moment on their cameras instead of every memory. Usually after a couple of days, there’s a lot less clicking.
Do you think PNG can hold on to its individuality as tourism numbers grow?
I think it has to come from the villagers and the people. Sometimes locals feel like their places have to have certain colors and certain plumbing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to paint the inside of a thatched house. What you’re doing is just fine.
Will PNG be able to sustain the growing number of visitors in the coming years?
It’s hard for the infrastructure to grow any faster and I think it’ll continue to be an expensive destination, so tourism itself will grow in a sustainable way. I also think tourists will continue to want that kind of destination. As long as everyone understands that, it bodes well for PNG.
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/tkacchuk