Prior to the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign in 1992 tourists rarely trekked across the Kokoda Trail.
There were no trek fees – villagers earned no income.
An Anzac trek led by Major Charlie Lynn on the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign reawakened Australia’s interest and generated some rare positive publicity for Papua New Guinea which was virtually a ‘no-go’ zone for tourists due to serious law and order issues at the time.
Over the next few years Charlie’s Kokoda treks featured positive stories in every major television and media network throughout Australia – this led to a surge of interest in trekking across the Trail.
In 1996 Charlie rediscovered the battlesite of Isurava which led to the opening of a major memorial by Prime Ministers’ Sir Michael Somare and John Howard.
In 2002 Charlie lobbied for the establishment of a trek fee to be introduced to ensure villagers along the Trail received shared benefits from the emerging trekking industry.
In 2003 Charlie’s company, Adventure Kokoda, advanced K25,000 to establish a management authority for the Kokoda Trail due to a lack of support from both Governments at the time.
A Special Purpose Authority for the Trail was then established and managed by the Koiari and Kokoda Local Level Governments.
Publicity generated by Charlie’s Adventure Kokoda treks in the 1990s led to a 423% increase in trekker numbers from 1074 to 5621 – and the creation of a Kokoda trekking industry which has generated more than A$250 million (PNGK600 million) in tourism revenue since then.
In 2008 the Australian Government assumed responsibility for the Trail under a Joint Agreement with Papua New Guinea. This led to a transfer of responsibility to the Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) which has since focused on environmental issues associated with World Heritage. Trekker numbers have decreased by 42% from 5621 to 3237 under their watch which equates to a combined loss of A$2 million (PNGK5 million) in gross income for villagers along the Trail each year since the decline.
In 2015 Major Charlie Lynn was inducted as an Officer of Logohu in the PNG New Year’s Honours and Awards list ‘for service to the bilateral relations between Papua New Guinea and Australia and especially in the development of the Kokoda Trail and its honoured place in the history of both nations’ over the past 25 years’.
According to TripAdvisor the Kokoda Trail is Papua New Guinea’s most popular tourism destination.
In 2005 the Australian Financial Review assessed the Kokoda Trail as the No.1 trekking destination in the World.
In 2008 the Australian Government changed its focus from tourism to environment when they assumed responsibility for the Trail – the wartime significance of the trek experience has been significantly devalued since then.
The 10 Greatest Treks in the World
These facts beg the question: Why is the Kokoda Trail managed as an environmental asset rather than as a tourism asset?
Transition from Tourism to Environment
When Major Charlie Lynn led his first group across the Trail in 1992, they were escorted by armed police with serious shotguns from Owers Corner to Bomana War Cemetery because of the crime situation. As they passed buildings surrounded by razor wire, trekkers, who had felt safe in the jungle during the previous week, were now feeling insecure and intimidated.
The group was accompanied by a reporter from The Bulletin with Newsweek magazine after much hassling to obtain a visa for her. Port Moresby was regarded as one of the World’s most dangerous cities at the time and only ever received negative publicity – they were therefore suspicious of any reporters wanting to visit their country.
They need not have worried. The trek which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Kokoda campaign was such a profound experience it featured as a positive cover story that led to a rekindling of our national interest in the significance of the word ‘Kokoda’ which had almost slipped from our collective memory.
Australians continued to be wary of travelling to PNG however as curfews were imposed in Port Moresby. Each night convoys of trucks rumbled into the CBD to deploy armed guards with savage dogs around razor wire barricades surrounding most buildings. Settlements on the fringes were strictly no-go areas.
But those who ventured beyond the razor wire into remote villages in the Owen Stanley Ranges discovered a different world. Strangers were welcomed as friends and presented with floral garlands by curious villagers. Children gathered and sang as elders watched on proudly from the base of their huts. In the evenings, a procession of women would arrive at campsites with freshly cooked vegetables and warm smiles. Trekkers knew they were in a safe place under the watchful eyes of their guides and carriers.
These experiences, repeated over the next 7-8 days, had a profound impact on our early trek groups. Most were unable to find words that would do justice to their feelings. Marion Frith captured the essence of the experience in a feature article for the Canberra Times in November 1992:
‘It is as if we have arrived. Somewhere, anywhere. Our guides sit with us, their families join us, and the village and its people become imprinted in our hearts. Another woman and I join the evening church service and are entranced as the pastor, his face illuminated by a hurricane lamp, recites the prayers in pidgin and the children’s voices rise in harmony so sweet we never want it to end.
‘We are silent as we get up from the rough-hewn pew. At that moment we have experienced life at its most perfect, superb in its simplicity, and suddenly we realise that the walk was worth it, if only to find this. Peace and joy are tangible, if fleeting, qualities and we know that where we are going to, where we have come from, we will probably never find it again. We want to seal the village in barbed wire and never let the world touch it.’
Until then the Trail had been a dormant jungle shrine for more than 50 years since the end of the War in the Pacific.
In the early 1990s our groups were challenged by a lack of local services and facilities in PNG and along the Trail. Campsites were often carved out of the jungle where groups decided to call it quits for the day. Everything required for the trek had to be imported as there were no trekking provisions in Port Moresby. Sections of the original Trail had to be reconnoitred and cleared with machetes.
The Trail itself was rugged, remote and pristine. The people were humble and hospitable. Stories of mateship, courage, and sacrifice were haunting and inspirational. Public reactions to television documentaries and newspaper stories indicated a high level of interest in Australian tourists from all walks of life wanting to retrace the footsteps of our diggers.
Papua New Guinea’s reputation as a ‘land of the unexpected’ combined with the aura of the Kokoda Trail stirred an inherent call for adventure that resides within many people.
Kokoda soon emerged as the fashionable ‘new black’ in adventure travel and now shares equal status with the World’s most esoteric destinations – Mt Everest, Mt Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, the Amazon and the Milford Track.
A change in emphasis from tourism to environment after the Australian Government assumed responsibility for the Trail in 2009 resulted in a failure to appreciate the fact that adventure tourists do not seek to have an ‘environmental levitation’ or a ‘cultural awakening’ when they commit to a trek across the Trail. They commit because they want to walk in the footsteps of our diggers ‘as they did it’ in 1942!
Whilst the combination of environment and culture provide an unforgettable bonus they are not the reasons tourists commit to a trek across the Kokoda Trail. No amount of environmental propaganda will change this fact.
The change in emphasis from tourism to environment resulted in a colonial management system with more than K150 million being diverted towards aid projects and environmental consultants via the DFAT funded ‘Kokoda Initiative’ rather than providing adequate campsite facilities; establishing memorials at significant battle-sites; providing information on village clans and lifestyles; or the identification of flora, fauna, creeks and major features.
No training or micro-finance initiatives have been introduced to assist villagers to value-add to the experience by providing goods and services to meet the needs of trekkers – local subsistence villagers are now mere spectators to a passing parade of strangers.
‘Colonial’ Management System
Neither the former CEO of the KTA nor the current Acting CEO recruited via the Kokoda Initiative had any previous business/tourism management qualifications or experience. They have therefore been reliant on the ‘advice’ of various DFAT-Kokoda Initiative officials embedded in their office.
This is reminiscent of a ‘Colonial’ system of management control which has been imposed on the KTA via the DFAT-Kokoda Initiative and CEPA.
The outcomes indicate it has not worked as there is not a single management protocol in place for the Kokoda Trail; not a single kina has been invested to meet the needs of trekkers through the development of significant battle-sites or campsites; and nobody has any idea where the K12 million they have collected in trek fees over the years has gone because they have never produced a financial statement or Annual Report.
Covid-19 has exposed the fallacy of the current situation. Australian officials have been evacuated to the safety of their homes in Australia and the security of generous salaries while villagers along the trail have had to revert to subsistence living as no provision was made for their welfare by the DFAT-Kokoda Initiative, CEPA or the KTA – despite an investment of more than A$50 million (PNGK125 million) in aid funding over the past decade.
The suspension of trekking provides a timely opportunity for Papua New Guinea to reclaim ownership of their most popular tourism asset and reset its policy directions accordingly.
Papua New Guinea policymakers should be guided by the fact that the environment across the Trail has been successfully managed by generations of subsistence villagers for thousands of years – income generated from wartime tourism now offers them an opportunity to rise above their subsistence lifestyles and provide for a sustainable economic future based on our shared wartime heritage.
KOKODA TOURISM VALUE FOR PNG:
Some 60,000 Australians have trekked across the Kokoda Trail over the past 18 years – many of their stories have featured in national, state and local media outlets. The marketing value of ‘Kokoda stories’ for PNG Tourism during this period equates to tens of millions of dollars and has led to it being rated as the most popular tourism destination in Papua New Guinea. The trekking industry has generated more than A$250 million (PNGK600 million) in tourism revenue since it emerged in the mid-1990s.
KOKODA ENVIRONMENT VALUE FOR PNG:
The topic of ‘environment’ along the Kokoda Trail has not generated any media interest or local income for villagers – the only known articles are academic studies and the only beneficiaries are Australian environmental consultants – a recent expert report advised that the Kokoda Trail does not meet the criteria for World Heritage.
CLICK on this link – https://www.kokodatreks.com/treks/why-adventure-kokoda/videos/ – to see the range of our national television documentaries featuring the Kokoda Trail and Rabaul.
Following is a selection of national newspaper and magazine articles generated by our Adventure Kokoda treks over the years:
Corporate Captains Shun Kokoda Trail
Early 1992 – This is where it all started. Charlie mailed out 1500 invitations to corporate Australia and Government Departments – 1406 ignored it – 94 wished him well – and just one accepted the offer to trek! As a result of the article ‘Corporate Captains Shun Kokoda Trail’ by Malcolm Brown in the Sydney Morning Herald another 19 joined up. Kokoda had faded from our national consciousness over the previous 50 years. This trek and the following article in The Bulletin with Newsweek reawakened our interest in what had become a forgotten campaign.
Following the Kokoda Footsteps
Bulletin with Newsweek Magazine
Herald Sun TV Extra To Hell and Back
Australian Geographic Magazine
Airlines PNG Magazine King of Kokoda
GWP Magazine Charlie Lynn Kokoda Trail
The Australian Magazine
GEO Australasia Magazine
The Sydney Swans Magazine
Runners World Magazine
Gourmet Traveller Magazine
Club Life Magazine
News Limited Magazine
Womens Day Magazine
Womens Weekly Magazine
Australian Geographic Magazine
South Pacific Magazine
A Journey For Heroes
Aussies Salute Kokoda Track Heroes Who Fell
Stars Rise and Fall on Kokoda
Kokoda Trekkers Mark Diggers Wartime Struggle
The Canberra Times
Defence Bulletin Adventure on the Kokoda Track
Kokoda Fall Tests Fuzzy Wuzzy Tales
Blood and Sweat
How I Survived
Babyboomers Retake Kokoda
Worlds Meanest Tour Guide
Hard Trek to the Corporate Top
Swans Conquer Kokoda
In Grandpa’s Steps
The Unforgettable Adventure of Kokoda
Taking on The Kokoda Trek
Managers Learn Teamwork by Reliving Kokoda Battle
Kokoda Track Victory Against Logging
Loggers Threaten Track
Flag Burner on the Kokoda Track
Tourists Begin Kokoda Trek
Jayne Puttman on Kokoda
Kokoda Kids Learn Law of the Jungle
The Kokoda Kids
Honouring Sacrifices on the Kokoda Trail
On The Beaten Track
Fear and Loathing on the Punishing Kokoda Track
Off Track on the Kokoda
On The Trail of the Fighting Spirit of Australia
On The Trail of Glory
Honour at Last to Kokoda Diggers
Tracks of their Tears
Ex-serviceman has Troops Battle-ready