The business model of the Australian Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) is based on minimising their costs in PNG.
The most contentious issue in this regard is the loading of their porters – the more weight they force them to carry the fewer they will have to employ, and the greater will be their profit margins.
During the Kokoda campaign in 1942 a maximum weight limit of 40 lb (18 kg) for native carriers was imposed by Regimental Medical Officers due to the terrain they had to traverse.
In 2012, the Australian CEO of the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA), who had never trekked across the Trail, imposed a limit of 25 kg on the recommendation of some Australian companies.
This was later reduced by the PNG CEO of the KTA to 22.5 kg after complaints from PNG guides and porters.
A further reduction to the wartime maximum of 18 kg has since been vigorously opposed by the KTOA due to the adverse economic impact it would have on their business model.
The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) is an Australian lobby group established in November 2015 to protect the business interests of its members operating on the Kokoda Trail.
The Association is registered as a Travel Company in Australia – it is not registered as either a Foreign Enterprise or Association with the PNG Investment Promotion Authority (IPA).
The KTOA Mission Statement advises it is ‘a representative member driven collective that unifies operators and upholds the professional standards of the industry”.
The KTOA was initially established with 12 Australian eco-tour operators and claimed to lead 75 percent of trekkers across the Kokoda Trail.
Since then, five have resigned and one has been added. – today they represent just 8 of the 37 Commercial Tour Operators (22 percent) licensed by the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA). The 8 remaining companies are:
- Australian Kokoda Tours
- Escape Trekking Adventures
- Getaway Trekking Adventures
- Kokoda Historical
- Kokoda Spirit
- No Roads Expeditions
- On Track Expeditions
- Wild Trek Tours
According to KTA records for 2016-2018 KTOA members led 30 percent of trekkers across the Trail – a far cry from the 70 percent they claim to have led!
According to PNG Investment Promotion Authority (IPA) records none of the eight (8) members of the KTOA have ever paid any tax on the millions of kina they have generated from their operations across the Kokoda Trail in PNG.
Nor have any complied with the IPA Act in regard to filing Annual Returns as required. They could therefore be deemed to have operated illegally in PNG.[i]
The influence of the KTOA has been facilitated by the weak management structure of the KTA and weak enforcement from the IPA. For example:
- The KTA Board of Directors has not met between 2018 and 2023 and is now defunct.
- The Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change has assumed responsibility for Kokoda tourism through the establishment of a ‘Kokoda Initiative Committee’ (KIC) within his Conservation Environment Protection Authority (CEPA).
- Legal responsibility for the Kokoda Trail rests with the Minister for Inter-Government Relations, Provincial and Local Level Government – KIC is therefore an advisory body with no legal jurisdiction over the Kokoda Trail.
- The responsibility of the Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture has been relegated to membership of the Kokoda Initiative Committee despite the fact that the Kokoda Trail has emerged as PNGs most popular tourism destination.
- The current CEO of the KTA was seconded in an Acting capacity in November 2018 from the Department of Provincial and Local Level Government Affairs (DPLLGA) despite the fact that he had no commercial or tourism qualifications or experience in either field.
- There are no management systems in place for the Kokoda tourism industry – no campsite booking system, no trek itinerary management system, no trail maintenance system, no military history interpretation system, no environmental interpretation system, and no welfare protection system for PNG support crews.
- The KTA has not published an Annual Financial Report since 2009.
- The IPA has neglected to enforce the provisions of its Act despite being made aware of the extent of their non-compliance.
The void created by the weak management structure and lack of enforcement has enabled the KTOA to protect their business model which allows them to minimise costs at the expense of the PNG support crews they engage.
The overloading of their guides and porters is the most abhorrent aspect of their shameless exploitation – some regard it as a modern form of ‘blackbirding‘!
The welfare needs of PNG guides and carriers was first addressed at a KTA forum in Sydney in March 2015[ii]:
“The meeting agreed with the provision of a trek uniform unique to each trek operator however the compulsory provision of a sleeping bag and mat was resisted due to the cost and the difficulty in maintaining control of issued stock.
“Mr Martin Pusinelli, a consultant with the Tourism Promotion Authority, advised that he had spoken with many trek operators, and some had advised of their negative observations regarding the welfare of PNG guides and carriers. This could lead to a negative image for the trekking industry.”
The ‘resistance’ came from a small group of Australian tour operators who later established a lobby group to protect their business interests. It was registered with ASIC as the Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) on 23 November 2015.
At this time the management system imposed on the PNG Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) was in complete disarray.
A four-year standoff between the Australia Strategic Management Advisor in the DFAT Kokoda Initiative and the PNG CEO of the KTA contribution to the dysfunction of the management structure put in place by Australian environment officials. This led to a fall of 46% in trekker numbers and the ‘law of the jungle’ prevailed across the Kokoda Trail as it was not possible to book campsites in advance and there was no trek itinerary management system in place.
This created an opportunity for the KTOA to fill the void by ingratiating themselves with both the DFAT Kokoda Initiative and the KTA while isolating other Australian and PNG tour operators.
8 February 2017
The KTOA strategy of hosting a private function for the PNG delegation the night before KTA forums was revealed in a KTOA Facebook Post on 8 February 2017 where they reported that:
‘Prior to the KTA meeting we were privileged to have The Hon. Tobias Kulang, Minister for Tourism Arts and Culture brief us on the PNG Governments support and growth of tourism for PNG including Kokoda.’
The post advised that Mr Noris Selu, Executive of the Kokoda Porters and Guides Association also attended the KTOA pre-forum meeting and that he:
‘was delighted with the positive reception he received at the forum and will continue to meet with the Tour Operators and KTA to ensure that both organisations continue to foster the special relationship between Australia and PNG and continue to honour the legacy of the descendants of the legendary Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.’
They post also advised:
‘The KTOA will continue to work with Mr Selu to expand on the standards and conditions already in place for operators, including reviewing pay rates, health insurance, education, pack weights, uniforms, sleeping equipment and future opportunities.’
22 June 2017
A KTOA Facebook post on 22 June 2017 advised:
KTOA and the Kokoda Initiative are working hand in hand to help projects for the people of the Kokoda Track. Here we see Tim Bryson from DFAT and Mick O’Malley a KTOA member at the Australian High Commission (with picture).
15 November 2017
The effectiveness of this strategy was revealed at a KTA Tour Operators Forum in Cairns on 15 November 2017.
Prior to this 60 PNG representatives of local trekking companies and government officials attended a KTA forum in Port Moresby on 8 November 2017. They voted unanimously to have the maximum weights of their backpacks reduced to 18 kg and for each guide and porter to be issued with a full trek uniform, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping mat as a minimum.
The catalyst for this motion was the unfortunate death of one of their porters on the Trail on 14 September 2017.
The PNG National newspaper reported that the Governor of Oro Province called for an investigation into the death:
‘Kokoda Trekking Authority (KTA) ranger Mabo Sigi conducted a spot check of a Getaway Trekking tour group at Owers Corner on Sept 14.
‘He found that the weight of Tauno’s backpack was 28kg which is 8kg more than the maximum weight allowed in the KTA Code of Conduct, Juffa said.
“According to Sigi’s report, he redistributed 4kg out of Tauno’s backpack to other Getaway Trekking group porters at Owers Corner,” he said.
“This meant that Tauno’s backpack was still 4kg heavier than the maximum weight recommended.
“Tauno died on the gruelling climb up Ioribaiwa Ridge the next day.
“When the KTA ranger advised the PNG leader for Getaway Trekking to advise the Australian leader to get more porters he was ignored.
“I have also been advised that after the Getaway group moved out of sight of the ranger the weight was transferred back into Tauno’s backpack.
“From all reports, Tauno was physically fit, experienced and very popular with the trekkers he supported during his treks across the Kokoda Track.’
Rather than accepting that there was a problem with the overloading of porters the KTOA went into damage control after they were advised by Adventure Kokoda that the maximum weight allowed for the Papua and New Guinea carriers during the Kokoda campaign in 1942 was 18 kg.
The Australian operator, who was also the President of the KTOA, responded aggressively by accusing the KTA Ranger of altering his records. The KTA yielded to the intimidation and failed to investigate the matter despite the finding by the local Sogeri Police Sergeant that:
‘It is evident that the group on this particular trip . . . engaged by Getaway Trekking . . . were all overloaded in breach to Code of Conduct stipulated under this code’[iii].
The KTA CEO and Operations manager were therefore tasked to take their resolution to a meeting with Australian tour operators in Cairns the following week. The Executive of the Kokoda Porters and Guides Association, Mr. Norris Selu, was also approved to attend the forum to table the unanimous motion.
It was later reported that the issue was informally discussed at a KTOA barbeque for the PNG delegation the night before the forum.
Mr. Selu failed to attend the forum the following day and neither the CEO nor his Operations Manager tabled the motion.
Mr. Norris James Selu, Executive of PNG Guides and Porters Association with KTOA members
18 December 2017
On 18 December 2017 the KTA Operations Manager, Mr. Michael O’Kave advised all Kokoda tour operators:
‘To All Our Valued Tour Operators and Stakeholders,
‘Attached herewith is the Port Moresby Tour Operator Forum Meeting Minutes dated 8th November 2017. The Issue 1 and 2 from the Port Moresby forum was raised at the Cairn Forum for discussion. It was noted that the Issue 1 and 2 will be further deliberated amongst the KTOA members. It is on notice that we will have some discussion outcome from KTOA on those issues.’
19 December 2017
On 19 December 2017 I provided the following response to Michael “O’Kave with copies to Warren Bartlett; Tracie Watson; “Chad Sherrin; Mark Nizette MBE; “Gary Juffa; Henry Amuli; and Robert Agarobe re the 2017 Post-season TOF Meeting minutes – Port Moresby:
‘Tracie Watson has forwarded this email onto me regarding the Port Moresby Forum on 8 November 2017.
‘The issues you mention do not require any further discussion by KTOA members. The vote to reduce the maximum weight of backpacks to 18 kg; to require trek operators to provide a sleeping bag and mat for each guide and carrier they engage; to increase their daily pay to K70 per day; and to pay them a ‘walk-home allowance of K250 each was unanimously agreed by your PNG trek operators.
‘These are the people you are supposed to represent. It is therefore your responsibility to advise all trek operators that the motions approved at your forum will be implemented from 1 January 2018.
‘One of the carriers you are supposed to represent recently died on the Ioribaiwa Ridge – according to your KTA Ranger at Owers Corner he was seriously overloaded! Does his death mean nothing to you? He, and all your PNG guides and carriers are relying on you to protect their interests – that’s the job of the KTA!
‘The Australian KTOA was established to protect the interests of some Australian tour operators – they are not representative on the industry. It is in their interests to keep their costs down by not providing essential welfare support and by overloading/underpaying them. You should not allow them to bully you into having ‘further discussions’ on the issue.
‘I refuse to join the KTOA because they have accepted membership from a tour operator who has shamelessly exploited your people – and others who shamelessly require your subsistence villagers to provide a 50 per cent subsidy to wealthy Australian private school students. Over the past two years these KTOA members have kept K130,000 in their wallets because the KTA lets them get away with it. PNG is the only country in the world that tolerates this disgraceful practice. They obviously know they can bully you and they do it very well.
‘I therefore request that the KTA adopt the motions moved at the PNG Tour Operations Forum on 8 November 2017 and carried unanimously. I also request that all tour operators be advised that these motions will be implemented with effect from 1 January 2018.
The subject was not raised again by the KTA, and no action has been taken to implement the unanimous decision of PNG guides and porters to have the maximum weight reduced to 18 kg. The KTOA has obviously been successful in protecting their business model.
19 January 2018
On the same day the KTOA reported:
‘The association’s four founding principles are;
‘Knowledge, Integrity, Trust, Respect.
‘The founding and current members of the Kokoda Tour Operators Association are as follows.
- Kokoda Treks and Tours
- Getaway Trekking & Adventures
- Australian Kokoda Tours
- Kokoda Spirit
- No Roads
- Back Track Adventures
- Kokoda Trekking
- Kokoda Historical
- Escape Trekking Adventures
- Boomerang Adventures
- On Track Expeditions’
23 January 2018
On 23 January 2018 the KTOA reported:
‘The Kokoda Tour Operators Association have been invited along with their members to participate in a meeting on the 26th January 2018 with Mr John Pundari, Minister for Environment and Conservation, Mr Emil Tamur, Minister for Culture and Tourism, and Mr Kevin Isifu, Minister for Inter-Governmental Relations.’[iv]
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss potential and desired outcomes from the KTA Review and advised that:
‘The Minister is very interested to hear the views of the tour operators as key stakeholders with a special interest in the outcomes of the review, so that he can have more informed and considered views when the review actually commences.’
Neither Adventure Kokoda, whose trek leaders have a combined total of 160 years of professional military service and who have led more than 600 expeditions across the Trail over a 32 years, nor any other Australian tour operators with a military background were invited to meet with these Ministers.
26 January 2018
On 26 January 2018 the KTOA reported:
‘An amazing outcome today on Australia Day with the Honourable Members of the PNG Kokoda Initiative Ministerial Committee meeting and hosting the members of the KTOA in Brisbane.
‘A terrific camaraderie and mateship continues to flourish between Australia and PNG.
‘The joint history and significance of the Kokoda Trail was acknowledged by all present.
‘We are very grateful to the Chair of the committee the Hon. John Pundari and the other Honourable Members who participated in this amazing workshop.
Minister John Pundari, Governor Gary Juffa and other PNG officials with KTOA members
26 February 2018
On 26 February 2018 the KTOA posted an irrational response to this fact on their Facebook page:
‘Kokoda’s Watershed moment.
‘The recent announcement that both the Kokoda Track Authority (KTA) and the Jointly funded Kokoda Initiative (KI) is to be reviewed is the watershed and pivotal moment for the future of the Kokoda Trail.
‘All stakeholders including the PNG and Australian Governments, the villagers, Landowners Association, and the Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) endorse this decision.
‘This is the dawn of a new era for Kokoda with a partisanship and collaboration between all stakeholders ensuring that the Kokoda Track is protected and respected for all future generations.
‘The KTA role is to manage continual improvement processes in the management of the Kokoda Trail. It’s role is to also direct information sharing and direct recommendations to management agencies to assist in continual improvement.
‘To ensure a cohesive working relationship, it is incumbent on all trek operators to work within the framework of the official Authority, the KTA.
‘Any bullying or dictating of policy has no place in today’s advancing Tourism Industry.
‘A detailed and independent review will enable modern and efficient systems to be put in place to ensure continued improvement for all Kokoda Stakeholders.
‘These new recommendations will be difficult for some longer term operators to adjust too, but they are essential to the long term viability of the Kokoda Track Industry.
‘Any operator continuing to use references to conditions and weights carried by carriers on the Kokoda Track in 1942 is still living in the dark colonial days long past. Clearly the welfare of the carriers of the Kokoda campaign was not of primary concern of their colonial masters.
‘Suggestions made recently that the carriers during the war were restricted to carrying 18kgs is a gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked. https://www.awm.gov.au/…/svss_2012_rogerson_paper.pdf.
‘The Kokoda Tour Operators Association endorses the 22.5Kg maximum weight stipulated by the Kokoda Track Authority.
‘Recent reports by one trek operator declared their porters were restricted to 18kg. This however appears to refer to company weight, with a further 8kg personal weight. We believe strongly that 26kg pack weight is excessive and it is clearly outside the guidelines set by the Authority.
‘The KTOA will continue to work closely and diligently with the Kokoda Porters Association, Land Owners (sic) Association, the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority and the KTA to ensure the Porters and Carriers welfare is treated with the highest priority.
‘Standards applied in 1942 have no place in today’s trekking world.’
The reference quoted by the KTOA to justify their exploitation of PNG porters was an unofficial essay written by a junior summer vacation student at the Australian War Memorial!![ii].
The facts are anything but a ‘gross misrepresentation of the brutal conditions in which the carriers worked’ as stated by the KTOA!
The most authentic research on the history of the Kokoda Trail was published by Stuart Hawthorne in 2003[iii]. Hawthorne provides a detailed assessment of the reality of the conditions under which the wartime carriers worked and noted that:
‘One of Dr Vernon’s[iv] first actions was to have the carriers’ maximum load officially reduced from 50 lbs (23 kg), transferred from pre-war days, to 40 lbs (18 kg)’.
The maximum weight of 18 kg for wartime carriers is also referred to in a book titled ‘The Third Force. ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942-46’[v]:
‘They and their native police recruited the carriers, organised loads of 40 lbs (18 kg) per man and sent them on their way’.
The KTOA was not deterred by these facts and responded with more fake research on 10 March 2018. The reference they relied upon for this revelation was the following photographed extract attributed to Major H.D. (‘Blue’) Steward, Regimental Medical Officer, 2/16 Australian Infantry Battalion:
The KTOA gloated:
‘‘In the Kokoda Museum we read that during the war Porters had to carry up to 27kg. So someone must be right and someone must be wrong about what porters carried.
‘One thing is for sure that the KTOA have all agreed to have a maximum total weight of 22.5 kg.’
There is no reference to this statement in ‘The Third Force: ANGAU’s New Guinea War 1942-46’, or in ‘Recollections of a Regimental Medical Officer by Major H.D. Steward.
The quote attributable to Major Steward below the statement is referenced on page 120 of his book ‘Recollections of a Medical Officer’.
A further quote on page 157 puts the issue into in perspective:
‘Medical care for the native people of Papua and New Guinea was usually not a direct responsibility of mine, close though I was to them in their gallant work of carrying out our wounded on the Kokoda Trail. In those days they were grossly overworked and overloaded, as well as being underfed and ill-clothed. It was largely through medical advice – including that of old Dr Vernon – that their lot improved. The carriers had their burdens reduced to a maximum of 40 lbs, hours of work were reduced to something approaching reason, rest days were provided, and blankets and sweaters were issued to protect them in the cold mountains.’ [vi]
Major Steward’s recollections are supported by Australia’s official war historian, Dudley McCarthy, who wrote:
‘General Rowell soon afterwards told General Blamey that, at 29th August, the daily maintenance requirements of Maroubra Force was 15,000 pounds (and that of Kanga Force 5.000 pounds). To meet the Maroubra Force requirements, with native carriers on the basis of a six- to eight-day carry of 40 pounds (18 kilograms) a native, would necessitate the use of at least 3,000 carriers, without allowing for the porterage of their own rations, wastage among them and other possibilities.’[vii]
These historical facts are a matter of record and any attempt by the KTOA to reinterpret them to justify their ongoing exploitation of PNG porters on the Kokoda Trail should not be tolerated.
The KTOA also reverted to selective comparisons with other countries to justify their exploitation in their Facebook post of 10 March 2018:
‘This weight (22.5 kg) is often less but as a maximum this is a weight that is not just set by the KTA but also the International Porters Protection Group IPPG. On Kilimanjaro the limit is 20kg, in Peru it is 25kg and in Nepal it is 30kg.’
This is misleading. Trekking Ethic No 5 of the International Porters Protection Group puts the above reference into perspective:
‘No porter should be asked to carry a load that is too heavy for their physical abilities (maximum: 20 kg on Kilimanjaro, 25 kg in Peru and Pakistan, 30 kg in Nepal). Weight limits may need to be adjusted for altitude, trail and weather conditions; experience[ix] is needed to make this decision. Child porters should not be employed’.[x]
Their defiance in protecting their business model is evident in the final quote on 10 March 2018:
‘One thing is for sure that the KTOA have all agreed to have a maximum total weight of 22.5 kg.’
23 January 2018
A KTOA Facebook post on 23 January 2018 advised:
‘The Kokoda Tour Operators Association have been invited along with their members to participate in a meeting on the 26th January 2018 with Mr John Pundari, Minister for Environment and Conservation, Mr Emil Tamur, Minister for Culture and Tourism, and Mr Kevin Isifu, Minister for Inter-Governmental Relations.
‘The purpose of the meeting is to discuss potential and desired outcomes from the KTA Review. The Minister is very interested to hear the views of the tour operators as key stakeholders with a special interest in the outcomes of the review, so that he can have more informed and considered views when the review actually commences. . . ‘
21 March 2018
A KTOA Facebook post on 21 March 2018 advised:
‘KTOA Members recently met with Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby. We also had meetings with the Australian representative for the Kokoda Initiative who is responsible for implementing the KI programs.
‘It was great to hear that some major reviews and steps will be put in place to further enhance the programs for the benefits of all Kokoda Stakeholders.’
‘Over the coming week we will update more news from the track.’
There is no evidence of any initiatives that have ‘enhanced the programs’ for any village communities across the Trail since that date.
23 March 2018
KTOA Facebook Post of 23 March 2018:
‘Great to have DFAT, CEPA and the local Member of Parliament and KTOA President Sue Fitcher flying into Isurava Memorial this morning to continue discussions on how best to assist the landowners and communities in the Isurava area.
‘It’s fantastic when stakeholders can work together and advocate change and positive outcomes for the communities on the track.’
Charlie Lynn rediscovered the Isurava battlesite in 1996 then lobbied the Australian Government to honour the site with a memorial. His groups have camped at the site since the memorial was completed in 2002 and have paid more than K40,000 in campsite fees.
Pam Christy from PNG Trekking Adventures has also been visiting and camping at the site for almost two decades and has had a contract to maintain it. She has a good empathetic relationship with the landowners.
Sue Fitcher is the owner of a small eco-trekking company. She was President of the KTOA but does not have any military heritage credentials.
It would be interesting to know what selection criteria was used by DFAT and CEPA to select the most appropriate person to accompany them to ‘continue discussions on how best to assist the landowners and communities in the Isurava area.’
29 March 2018
It was becoming apparent that the KTOA was the organisation of choice for the Australian High Commission, the DFAT Kokoda Initiative, CEPA, and the KTA to deal with.
The remaining Australian operators, many of them with military backgrounds, and all PNG tour operators were being ignored.
The following email expressed our concerns in this regards:
From: Charlie Lynn
To: Mark Nizette <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Alan McCagh <Alan.McCagh@pgf.org.pg>; Battams, Tom Tom.Battams@dfat.gov.au
RE: KTA Review
‘Dear Mark, Alan and Tom,
‘I’m not sure of the Chain of Command on this issue so I will address it to each of you.
‘The Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA) have posted the following on their Facebook Page:
‘A reviewer has been selected and it is hoped this company would commence its review at the beginning of May and be able to present its findings and recommendations within a number of weeks.
‘The Kokoda Initiative review will commence at the completion of the KTA review to ensure a more efficient and effective delivery of services.
‘Towards the second half of this year it is envisage that the Kokoda Stakeholders forum will be re-introduced allowing all NGO,s Landowner Associations, Porter Associations, Village Communities, Trekking companies and all interested parties to communicate and discuss opportunities, challenges and priorities for all Stake Holders and communities on the track.
‘Regular forums, workshops and on the ground meetings will ensure all stakeholders can contribute and be heard in the distribution and priority of services across the track.’
‘Given the KTOA only represents 11 of the 36 licensed trek operators why has this information not been distributed to the remaining 25?
‘I am concerned that ‘Kokoda Stakeholder’ forums would even be considered during the review process because I am not aware of a single outcome from any one of these forums since they were introduced by Rod Hillman in 2009 – I have attached a summary of outcomes from the Hillman era of management from 2009-2012.
‘I am also concerned at the apparent corruption of process in regard to the conduct of the most recent tour operator forums in Port Moresby and Cairns. Adventure Kokoda invested approximately $10,000 to attend each of these forums.
‘As you can see from the attached ‘2017 Post-season TOF Meeting minutes’ distributed by the KTA the following motions were unanimously agreed to by the 63 participants at the meeting:
Reduce the maximum weight of backpacks carried by PNG guides and porters to 18 kg;
- Increase the minimum daily rate of pay for PNG guides and porters to K70 per day;
- Every PNG guide and carrier to be paid a ‘walk-home allowance’ of K250 each; and
- Every Kokoda tour operator to provide each PNG guide and carrier with a head-torch, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat and a shirt with the name of the company they are trekking for on it.
‘Something then ‘happened’ at the Cairns Tour Operators Forum which was attended by a number of members from the Kokoda Tour Operators Association because the minutes of the Port Moresby forum were not tabled or discussed. I can only assume that the KTA representatives were either persuaded or bullied into not tabling them. My emails to the KTA requesting clarification on this issue have been ignored.
‘Of more concern however is the fact that the minutes of the meeting were taken by an Australian Government official but have never been distributed. Why?
‘Emails to the KTA regarding the status of the minutes and the outcomes of the Port Moresby forum have also been ignored.
‘As a result we are about to start the 2018 trekking season without a single action being taken to address the dysfunction of the KTA whilst the KTA Review process is being undertaken.
‘I note that the reviewer will ‘commence its review at the beginning of May and be able to present its findings and recommendations within a number of weeks’ as advised by the KTOA. This does not seem to allow much time for consultation with trek operators – particularly the 25 that don’t belong to the KTOA; Local Level and Provincial Government officials; and each landowner group across the trail.
‘My most serious concern is related to the fact that we are about to begin the 2018 trekking season without any management system in place as a result of the complete dysfunction of the KTA. The people we are therefore supposed to protect and empower i.e. the local guides and carriers will continue to be exploited by being overloaded, underpaid and poorly equipped. Local campsite owners will be short-changed and local village communities will continue to be spectators to the passing parade of trekkers.
‘The paying customers we lead across the trail will not have a single hygienic toilet to use and we are not able to ensure that the campsites we have booked will not be occupied when we arrive. Those who trek with PNG companies will not have any Public Liability Insurance cover and we know there are at least nine unlicensed operators leading groups across the trail.
‘The corruption of process within the KTA will continue unabated – no accounting for monies received; no disbursements to local communities; no annual reports; no financial statements; no distribution of information via newsletters; no effective ranger system; etc. etc. etc.
‘This is the system that the Australian Government put in place so surely there is a responsibility from somebody in Government to take some urgent action to provide an interim management system until the KTA review process is complete and a new system – hopefully one that allows the Kokoda trekking industry to be run as a business rather that a government bureaucracy, is implemented.
‘Can you therefore please advise why the motions agreed to at the PNG Tour Operators Forum in Port Moresby were not tabled for discussion at the Cairns Tour Operators Forum the following week and when the minutes of Cairns forum will be distributed to those operators who invested a significant amount of time and money to attend.
‘I would also like an assurance that any information regarding progress of the KTA review is distributed to all licensed trek operators.
No response was received from either the Kokoda Initiative or the Australian High Commission representatives – and no action was taken.
11 September 2018
KTOA Facebook Post of 11 September 2018:
‘The KTOA was invited to attend the high-level Kokoda Initiative Committee meeting held at Parliament House Port Moresby on the 6th September.
‘The meeting discussed the first draft of the review documents on the functions of the Kokoda Track Authority. The outcome being sought by all attendees is a better long-term management plan for this rapidly developing world-class tourist attraction. The Kokoda Track has always been a dedicated site of reverent pilgrimage by increasing numbers of Australians wishing to immerse themselves in the Kokoda story, the rich culture, beautiful scenery and to challenge themselves both physically and mentally. Minister Pundari stated that the Kokoda Track brand was gaining international attention. Good management plans would assure the expanding Kokoda Track Industry would benefit all stakeholders financially and protect the asset for future generations of Track pilgrims.
‘This high-level meeting was chaired by the Minister of Environment and Conservation the Hon. John Pundari and also contributing were the Minister for Tourism, the Hon Emil Tammur and the Governors of Central and Oro provinces the Hon Robert Agarobe and the Hon Garry Juffa.
‘Also contributing was special counsellor from the Australian High Commission, Andrew Egan and Oro and Central area MPs, Henry Amuli and Peter Isoaimo and Dr. Andrew Moutu, Director of the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery. Deputations from Stakeholders all along the Track were in attendance.’
There is no evidence of any outcomes from this ‘high level Kokoda Initiative Committee meeting‘.
No ‘long-term management plan’ has ever been circulated for comment or published – almost five-years on from there is not a single management protocol in place for PNGs most popular tourism destination.
Demise of the KTA Board of Directors
KTOA influence in the management of Kokoda tourism was enhanced with the demise of the KTA Board of Directors and the secondment of an Acting CEO from the Department of Provincial and Local Level Government Affairs (DPLLGA) in November 2018. The Acting CEO did not have any qualifications or experience in business management or pilgrimage tourism, and he had never trekked across the Kokoda Trail.
He was certainly not equipped to handle the demands of 37 commercial tour operators, hundreds of landowners, two National Government bodies (environment and tourism), two Provincial Governments (Oro and Central), two Local Level Governments (Koiari and Kokoda), and 14 Local Level Government Wards.
As a result, he neither had the time nor the resources to produce newsletters, financial reports, or even answer emails.
The Acting CEO has now been engaged in the role for almost five (5) years which seems to be in contravention of the Public Service (Management) Act 2014 which stipulates that ‘acting’ appointments provide for ‘temporary assistance’ to a department ‘for a period not exceeding 12 months’
It is worth noting that NEC Decision 123/2019 of 23 May 2019:
‘noted the expiry of the Kokoda Track Authority Board in 2016 and directed that the Minister for Inter-Government Relations approve an Interim Board pending the establishment of the proposed legislation, consisting of the same positions as detailed in the 2008 Proclamation, but calling for new nominations for the positions of the Koiari and Kokoda Landowner representatives.’
His task was made more difficult by the fact that there were no management systems or protocols in place to manage PNG most popular tourism destination – and no qualified staff to assist him!
The KTOA therefore filled a management vacuum at the time. They convinced the DFAT Kokoda Initiative they were ‘bone fide’ even though none of their members complied with the IPA Act. They also provided the DFAT Kokoda Initiative with an alibi for their aid-funded environment agenda at the expense of military heritage across the Trail.
This is reflected in their choice of two KTOA members to assist them in their ‘research’ of the non-existent ‘Etoa Battlefield’ off the main track near Eora Creek. Neither one had any military history credentials prior to discovering the economic opportunities of leading treks across the Trail.
Accredited military historians who knew of the fallacy of the ‘Lost Battlefield’ and who were known to the DFAT Kokoda Initiative, such as Lieutenant Colonel Rowan Tracey, were ignored.
The KTOA therefore provided a buffer against any criticism levelled at the incompetence of the KTA by other tour operators.
8 May 2019
KTOA Facebook Post of 8 May 2019:
‘KTOA members are meeting in Port Moresby for the biannual Kokoda Track Authority meeting.‘The KTOA has been asked to submit recommendations on behalf of the trekking industry to the KTA. It is great to see so many people working together to make the Kokoda Track an even better experience for everyone involved.’
Adventure Kokoda trek leaders have a combined total of 160 years professional military experience and have led more than 600 expeditions across the Kokoda Trail over the past 32 years.
It is not known why we were not invited to ‘submit recommendations to the KTA’ given that we are pioneered the trekking industry and lead more people across the Trail than any other operator.
28 November 2019
KTOA Facebook Post of 28 November 2019:
‘The Kokoda Track Authority International Tour Operators Forum was held in Brisbane on the 27 November 2019.
‘This forum is open to all Trek Operators and Stakeholders as an opportunity to contribute in a positive and beneficial way to ensure that the Kokoda Trail/Track Corridor is managed in a professional, ethical and sustainable way. ‘The attendees were as follows.
- ‘The Kokoda Track Authority CEO Julius Wargirai,
- Mark Nizette from KI,
- Dr. Andrew Connelly from MMAG,
- Hallam Drury from CEPA, DFAT,
- Holly from Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA),
- Patrick McCloskey from ABT
- and the Kokoda Tour Operators Association (KTOA).
‘We also had 3 Landowners attending they were Norris Selu, Nayden from Abuari and Isaac from Kagi.
‘Trekking companies were Back Track, Kokoda Crossing, Kokoda Historical, Kokoda Trekking, Getaway Trekking, No Roads, Kokoda Spirit, Australian Kokoda Tours, Escape Trekking, Kokoda Treks and Tours.
‘It was fantastic to see all stakeholders working together in a positive and proactive fashion.
‘The major achievements and discussion points were as follows.
- An overview of the KTA activities.
- Tabling and review of the minutes from the previous KTA meeting.
- An update and presentation of the Camp Site and Guest House Owners Association.
- A review and discussion of the Porters and Guides working conditions, including minimum general conditions, insurances, sickness benefits, superannuation, duty of care etc, within PNG Law
- The future of the trekking industry within PNG Law.
- Policy on the fair distribution of fees to Landowners and community.
- An overview of the revamping of the Rangers program.
- An overview and plan of Track Maintenance.
- Management of the environment.
- Protection of Special sites.
- ETOA Battlesite update.
‘The upgraded and revised Code of Conduct for Tour Operators was also presented, discussed with updates and amendments. The new Code of Conduct hopefully will be implemented for the new 2020 trekking season.
‘There was also a healthy discussion with the Landowners to improve commercial opportunities from and with the trekking industry.’
There is no evidence of any initiatives that will ‘improve commercial opportunities from and with the trekking industry’.
11 September 2020
KTOA Facebook Post of 11 September 2020:
‘KTOA president Mick O’Malley was invited to discuss the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda & Northern beaches campaign on behalf of the KTOA members with The Hon Darren Chester MP Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel and The Hon Alex Hawke MP the Minister for International Development and the Pacific.
‘The KTOA look forward to supporting the Australian and PNG Governments and Agencies in improving the Kokoda track and Northern Beaches, their village communities, livelihoods and general tourism for PNG in 2021.
‘KTOA appreciate the ongoing focus by the Australian government on Kokoda and WWII commemorative issues and working with both governments, as well as with landowners and communities, on building a sustainable trekking industry in PNG that benefits everyone.’
22 March 2021
KTOA Facebook Post of 22 March 2021:
‘Our director Mick O’Malley was interviewed for a great documentary that showcases the historical and cultural significance of the Etoa Battlefield near Eora Creek, the site of one of the largest engagements of the Kokoda Campaign. After nearly 80 years, the battlefield remains relatively intact with over 200 unexcavated weapons pits and numerous war graves, making it an important archaeological site for the shared wartime heritage of Papua New Guinea, Australia and Japan. The site also has special cultural and spiritual values for the local people.
‘This documentary depicts the history of the site and its shared significance for former WWII combatants and for local landowners. It highlights the growing cooperation between PNG, Japan, Australia and the USA in managing war history in PNG. It also reveals how traditional landowners work closely with the PNG Government to sustainably manage the special values of the site.
The is no military history reference to an Etoa Battlefield – it is a scam!
31 August 2022
Australian Kokoda Tours Facebook Post of 31 August 2022:
‘I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the past week at the ETOA battlefield just near Alola on the Kokoda track. This battle site has gone unseen by Australians and has only been inhabited by the local PNG people for the past eighty years. It was truly amazing to see and hopefully will be opened up to limited trekkers in 2023.’
ETOA Battlefield has ‘gone unseen’ because it does not exist.
24 April 2023
A KTOA Facebook Post at 1.40 pm on 24 April 2023 advised:
‘It is with a heavy heart that we must report the misconduct of one of the largest Kokoda Tour companies on the Kokoda Track. Adventure Kokoda, who had over 120 trekkers on the Kokoda Track decided to defy PNG Law and take matters into their own hands, refusing to pay trekking permits and as such, started walking the Track illegally and without permits. They did this covertly and when approached by Kokoda Track Authority Rangers, they did it aggressively.
‘Walking the Track without a permit is illegal under PNG Law. Without a permit, you risk the lives of all your trekkers, as insurance companies may deny evacuation facilities to a rogue company.
‘It also denies much-needed money to local villagers. Denying payment of permits has robbed local villagers of more than 40000 kina or nearly $20000 Australian Dollars.
‘It has come to the KTOA’s attention that Adventure Kokoda has had its trekking license revoked (or soon will have) and will soon be fined by the respective authorities. The KTOA fully understands the actions of the Kokoda Track Authority on this matter. The KTOA understands that as operators, we all have an obligation under PNG Law, to abide by that law and to ensure that the people of the Kokoda Track are never robbed of the money they deserve.
‘We will continue to update the industry on this and other important matters as they come to hand!’
Thirty minutes later, at 2.27 pm on the same day, Adventure Kokoda received the following email from Mr. Julius Wargiral, Acting CEO of the KTA:
‘I attach a letter to you signed by the Minister for Environment and Conservation and Chair of Kokoda Initiative Ministerial Committee on the above subject matter.
‘The letter is self explanatory and would require Adventure Kokoda to satisfy a number of requirements for the company to be granted a new trek license by KTA.
‘Please contact me should you require further confirmation.
The attached letter from the Minister for Environment, Conservation and Climate Change, The Hon Simon Kilepa, advised:
‘Please therefore be informed that as of this date, Adventure Kokoda is not licenced to operate any trekking business on the Kokoda Track. Should Adventure Kokoda wish to continue to do business in this country, your company may apply for a new licence to be granted on the following conditions;
- Adventure Kokoda must pay a fine of K100 per trekker to the KTA as required by law.
- Adventure Kokoda must agree in writing that they will abide by all PNG laws, and follow all lawful directions by KTA officers and other PNG officers.
‘Adventure Kokoda must provide assurances that they will not get involved in local PNG politics or to incite local political action.
The fact that the KTOA was advised of the revocation of the Adventure Kokoda Commercial Tour Operators Licence 30 minutes before the company was advised indicates that the KTA had discussed the issue with the KTOA and may have possibly colluded with them.
The attached letter we received from the Minister, which was dated 24 April 2023, which advised:
‘I am writing to you as the Chair of the Kokoda Initiative Committee . . . On Friday 21st April I called a meeting of the Committee to consider reports of four recent treks conducted by your company, Adventure Kokoda.’
The Secretary of the Kokoda Initiative Committee is the DFAT Strategic Management Advisor, Mr Mark Nizette (a foreign official), who has recently initiated a defamation action against me and Adventure Kokoda.
I therefore expect that he would have declared a Conflict of Interest and absented himself from the meeting referred to by the Minister on 21 April 2023.
Mark Nizette is copied in on the email from Julius Wargirai.
The KTOA then published a series of Facebook posts critical of me and Adventure Kokoda. Much of the information was incorrect and defamatory – these are detailed at Attachment A.
The Kokoda Trail, which is now PNGs most popular tourism destination, has the potential to be a world class pilgrimage as a result of its military heritage and the physical challenge it presents.
It also has the potential to provide a sustainable economic future for the village communities who own the land sacred to our shared military heritage.
It is therefore difficult to understand why the Australian government has not invested in a single battlesite since it assumed responsibility for the Trail in 2009.
It is also difficult to understand why they have not invested in any commercial management systems for the Kokoda tourism industry.
Their focus on environmental and social issues since 2009 has seen trekker numbers fall by 46 percent. This has resulted in a cumulative loss of some K49 million in forgone wages for village guides and porters, campsite owners, and local village purchases.
- there has been no investment in the restoration and interpretation of heritage battle sites across the Kokoda Trail;
- there has been no investment in the development of campsites across the Trail to meet the needs of trek groups;
- there has been no investment in the siting and development of hygienic toilets;
- there has been no investment in training subsistence villagers to earn additional income from trekkers;
- there has been no investment in providing for the welfare of village guides and porters and protecting them from exploitation;
- there has been no investment in environmental interpretation across the Trail;
- no annual financial reports have been published – nobody has any idea where the K12 million collected in trek permit fees has gone.
- KTOA: Shameless Australian Lobby Group
- The Battle of Kokoda: Australian Spectator Magazine
- Losing Kokoda: Australian Spectator Magazine
- David Howell: Kokoda Pretender
- Wayne Wetherall: The Man Behind the Myth
- An Open Letter to Sue Fitchser: KTOA President
Overloaded porter taking a break
Poorly equipped porter – no uniform, no sleeping bag, no sleeping mat – no pride
Porter taking a break in the jungle
Overloaded porter on Trail – the only protection he will have against the elements tonight is a thin blanket as he is not supplied with a sleeping bag or mat
PNGs best, must most neglected ambassadors – no protection against exploitation by KTOA members
[i] This is due to a lack of enforcement by PNG authorities including the IPA, the DFAT Kokoda Initiative, and the PNG Kokoda Track Authority.
[ii] No actions agreed upon at the 17-18 March 2015 have ever been implemented.
[iii] Letter from Sergeant Max Maso, Investigator, CID Section, Sogeri, 21 January 2017
[iv] KTOA Facebook Post of 23 January 2018
g the IPA, the DFAT Kokoda Initiative, and the PNG Kokoda Track Authority.
[ii] No actions agreed upon at the 17-18 March 2015 have ever been implemented.
[iii] Letter from Sergeant Max Maso, Investigator, CID Section, Sogeri, 21 January 2017
[iv] KTOA Facebook Post of 23 January 2018