Falling Off the Map

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Papua new guinea came late to the atlases. its coastline wasn't traced until 1897; half a century later, its interior was a series of question marks. In the 1960s, Australian-led patrols were still encountering people who had never seen a white man-people who, for all the world knew of them, might have lived on the moon. Today, P.N.G. is a few hours by jet from Sydney or Tokyo. Yet to the world of tourism, the country is almost as obscure as it was to early explorers. The names they gave it would make apt titles for travel brochures: The Last Unknown, The Undiscovered Country, The Land that Time Forgot.

P.N.G. does have visitors, of course. There are enough mining engineers, salesmen, aid workers and fisheries experts to keep the hotel doors open and the porters running. But tourists-people who've come to see wild and crazy cultures, trek through cloud-wreathed rainforests or snooze on palm-fringed beaches-are as scarce as bird-of-paradise teeth. In 1973, two years before independence, New Guinea had about 24,000 tourists; last year only 14,000 arrived. (Fiji, by contrast, had 300,000 tourists; Bali a million.)

Those who venture to New Guinea tend to be well traveled: it's often the last place they've never been. But once they glimpse the dizzying diversity of the country's cultures and landscapes, "many clients tell us P.N.G. has been the highlight of their lifetime's travel," says David McTaggart, of Trans Niugini Tours. The visitors may have dived on World War II shipwrecks or climbed into dormant volcanoes. They may have sailed with the shark callers of New Ireland or seen smoked corpses in former cannibal country. But what strikes them most is their own prominence. Hotel staff and tour guides are regularly asked, "Why aren't there more tourists here?"

The answers are many, but they boil down to one word: publicity. "The tourism world doesn't know what P.N.G. is," says Jim Yomapisi, a manager at the Tourism Promotion Authority. "And what it knows is only negative things." International newspapers seldom mention the country; in Australia, its colonial-era godparent, they focus on mining, boat people and trouble: riots put p.n.g. on knife edge; tribal warfare kills 8; p.n.g. looks in danger of spiraling into chaos.

The headlines aren't wrong: the fractious young nation faces huge problems. Crime is one of them, and tourists are occasionally attacked, robbed or raped. But headlines aren't the whole story. Most of the country is tranquil and its people friendly. Risks can be minimized by using common sense: travel with others; don't wander the streets at night; don't flash wads of cash; avoid high-crime areas like the capital, Port Moresby. "Bad things happen to tourists in other countries," says Opina Tuku, a bellboy at the city's Holiday Inn. "People still go to those places. But they're afraid to come here."

Nothing much happens on Samarai island, at the eastern tip of P.N.G. But last month, a week before it was due to anchor there, the American cruise liner Silver Shadow canceled, citing "reports ... that the unstable political situation in P.N.G. is causing local unrest." Local residents were dumbfounded: the biggest event in their year is a cruise ship's arrival. Sir Peter Barter, owner of the Madang Resort Hotel and the riverboat Melanesian Discoverer (now up for sale "because there aren't enough bookings"), says tourism is being strangled by scare stories: in 35 years, his company has handled 42,000 visitors, "and we've never had an offense against any of them."

Like beef and the Australian Democrats, P.N.G. needs a new image. "We'd like to be more like Fiji," says the tourism authority's Yomapisi. "After the coup they moved very quickly to correct the damage." With effective marketing and a credible effort against crime, says Theo Levantis, a Canberra economist who is writing a book on New Guinea tourism, the country "has the potential to attract a million tourists a year." But marketing costs money, and the tourism authority hasn't any. It has ideas-setting up a damage control committee to counter bad news, deploying tourist police, designating "tourist-safe" areas, upgrading airports so visitors can bypass Port Moresby-but it can't implement them. Its working budget is $500,000 a year (Fiji spends $7 million).

P.N.G. is poor, but its politicians have no trouble finding money for dubious quick-profit schemes or voter handouts at election time. When it comes to supporting tourism, though, they waver. Why should they spend precious funds promoting the image of the nation when their jobs depend on advancing the interests of their clan? Why make plans that will take years to bear fruit when their clansmen are clamoring for help now? Most New Guineans think tourism in their locality would make people better off. But tourism won't happen until the nation is better known. To make it in the global marketplace, you need a desirable image. If you're not a brand-name destination, you're just a blank space on the map.

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