The era of ‘magic pudding’ marketing for the Kokoda Trail is over for PNG!

The concept was based on a delusional belief that there was an endless queue of Australians waiting and wanting to trek across the trail – as a result PNG never saw any urgency to develop a national marketing/management strategy.

The lure of generous aid funding persuaded them to allow their most popular tourism destination to be managed as a World Heritage asset under the influence of Australian environmental officials who assumed control of the trail in 2009.

Since then it has become a magnet for aid-funded consultants, advisors and officials pursuing social and environmental agendas unrelated to tourism, our shared wartime history, or the betterment of subsistence villagers. 

As a result trekker numbers have declined by 46 percent with the resultant loss of work and income for villagers. No government jobs in Port Moresby were impacted by the decline!

Until a couple of weeks ago it was unthinkable that a bat-soup virus from China would expose the fallacy of their agenda?

The rapid evacuation of Australian officials in response to Covid-19 provides an opportunity for PNG to independently assess the outcomes of the K100 million DFAT-Kokoda Initiative over the past 10 years.

We know that not one of the 5 Key Strategies or 33 Objectives contained in the ‘KTA Strategic Plan: 2012-2015’ (developed in isolation by Port Moresby based Australian officials) was achieved.

We also know they didn’t implement a single management protocol for the Kokoda trekking industry – or invest a single dollar in a heritage memorial anywhere along the trail – or a campsite – or even a toilet!

We know they didn’t introduce a single micro-finance initiative to assist villagers to earn additional income. We know there is no Trail Maintenance Plan; no Trek Itinerary Management Plan; no Campsite Booking System; and no welfare protection for local guides and carriers engaged in trekking.

And we know there has been no accountability for the millions of kina they have collected in trek fees – and now there is virtually nothing left in the bank. But we don’t know how much because they have never produced a financial report!

Whilst Australian officials have been boomeranged back to the safety of their antipodean homes to wait out the Covid-19 crisis, local villagers along the trail have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves!

If anybody thinks trekker numbers will return to their previous levels post Covid-19 they are dreaming!

The management system put in place by Australian officials is now on life-support with the local PNG CEO left holding the baby.

Hygiene paranoia’ will be the new frontier for international tourism.

Destinations that do not have exemplary campsite standards for kitchens, dining areas, ablution facilities, toilets and sleeping quarters will be avoided by individuals and banned outright by corporate and school groups.

PNG has two options to address the new reality of hygiene paranoia.

They can continue to operate as a Third World destination with Third World management systems and Third World campsite facilities – or they can develop a marketing strategy aimed towards becoming a wartime destination of choice for international trekkers from Australia, America and Japan.

If they choose to hibernate until the crisis passes then continue as they have for the past decade – with an aid-dependent Third World management system – trekker numbers will evaporate.

Conversely, if they choose to become a wartime destination of choice for international trekkers they now have a brief window of opportunity to go back to the drawing board to address the new reality for tourism.

They have a unique canvas to work on.

Kokoda’ is almost the complete adventure experience for Australian baby-boomers and young adventurers. It requires physical stamina and mental tenacity. The wartime history evokes strong emotions. The unconditional care and support of local PNG guides and villagers is humbling. The environment is rugged, remote, pristine and picturesque.

Trekker needs are simple and easy to satisfy – they want to be safe, physically challenged, well informed and hygienically protected.

PNG has the capacity and expertise to meet these needs – all it will take is the will to do it -and a plan.

Doing nothing will not be an option in the post Covid-19 world!