Papua New Guinea, riding a wave of prosperity

Evan Osnos
Chicago Tribune
Carved masks hang outside the Parliament building in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 2006. (Pete Souza/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea--Guarded by an iron fence, the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea occupies the ground floor of Andy Abel's house.

Outside, shirtless children romp on streets without cars. Barefoot men hover around women sitting on the ground selling betel nut, the green seed that is Asia's answer to chewing tobacco and stains teeth the color of oxblood. It's a typical afternoon in this South Pacific capital.

Inside, Abel has the big couches and heavy air conditioning of an American McMansion. In a country where most people live in huts, his house is audaciously out of step.

Abel, head of the Surfing Association and the scion of an influential family, is a brawny father in his late 30s with a shiny shaved head. When he talks, he likes to pummel the surfer stereotype.

"Twenty years ago, people in Papua New Guinea called us surfer bums," he said. "But we are proving to our critics that, as surfers, we can build an industry that is sustainable and creating jobs."

Abel and others here hope that their miles of spectacular coastline could become a playground for surfers tired of sanitized resorts in Bali or Hawaii. If Abel and others have their way, PNG, as it's known, would some day pull off a delicate feat: parlaying its misty allure into a profitable tourism industry that might help usher this remote island nation into the 21st Century.

PNG, it must be said, is not known for tourism; Lonely Planet calls it "one of the least-touristed countries on Earth." If the world is flat, or more connected than ever as writer Thomas Friedman contends, PNG hasn't heard about it. Before my trip, a diplomat from the PNG embassy in Beijing urged me not to believe newspaper stories about violent crime, soaring unemployment and corruption.

"Our law-and-order situation has improved a lot," he said, "and there has been a crackdown on corruption. We're not perfect, but we deserve credit for coming a long way."

Then he told me a story about one of the first Westerners to set foot in his village last century. The villagers ate him. "They boiled his boots for a week," he said, "but they still didn't get it tender enough to eat."

PNG sprawls over a splendidly rugged string of islands north of Australia. It's about the size of California and covered mostly by jungle, glaciers and peaks that soar to 14,800 feet. From above, it's a sea of luminescent white clouds, waterfalls and scattered villages in stretches of green forest. The spectacular terrain is PNG's great blessing - and its extraordinary burden.

Unfold a map of the country on the floor and a few slender squiggles stand out from the green expanse. Those are the roads.

The sheer difficulty of getting around has left it uniquely diverse. PNG shares the island of New Guinea with Indonesia's Papua province, and many tribes and clans straddle the wooded border. Anthropologists have counted nearly 1,000 languages among the island's clans, which still wage war over territory. PNG maintains more than 500 tiny airports for a population of just 5.6 million because most of its roadless highlands would be inaccessible without bush planes.

Ask a Papua New Guinean for contact information, and chances are you will receive a post office box but no phone number. In a new book bemoaning a homogenized world, writer Lawrence Osborne/ visited Papua province and conceded one glaring exception: "Papua was, and is, the last Lost World."

In a digitized developing world, there are political dissidents who blog, security goons with cheap suits and pricey cell phones, Web-equipped hovels. PNG has none of those. That is rare at a time when even Ho Chi Minh City - named for the father of Vietnamese communism - throbs like a music video for globalization.

It is in some ways comforting to find a place with fewer advertisements for Nokia than for Ox & Palm corned beef in a can. A sign at the airport in the coastal town of Wewak declares: "Airlink is not responsible for any day-old chickens carried as general cargo on any Airlink flight."

PNG does face woefully real challenges. It has an HIV/AIDS problem and a wispy infrastructure. One way to combat its problems, some say, is to entice the world to visit - while preserving the very seclusion that would attract visitors in the first place.

PNG received about 18,000 tourists last year, up 15 percent from 2004, thanks to a state tourism-promotion push. Still, that is less than a 10th of the traffic that goes to Tahiti. To change that, PNG is starting with a seemingly simple plan: Help its citizens grasp what tourism really means.

"Last year we went to all 20 provinces to explain, for instance, that you can't just put a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere and expect people to come," said William Bando, manager of corporate services at the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority.

"We told people that it must be accessible by road or by air or by sea. If there is no access, then don't go into the tourism business."

One morning, Chicago Tribune photographer Pete Souza and I visited Sero Cove to see the waves that Abel, the surfer, hopes will lure surfer-tourists to PNG. Sero Cove, a half-hour drive from Port Moresby, sits at the untouched tail of a long, sandy road, a lone house perched on the shore.

The surf was breaking hundreds of yards out in the radiant blue Coral Sea. We buzzed out in a dinghy, as the wind whipped across an endless sky. The coastline was empty. No hotels or sunbathers or any of the other usual beach clutter. There also was no safety gear in sight. The boat rolled and pitched on the waves. The place felt blissfully untouched.

The water was rough and it was an unforgiving day, but Abel and about a half-dozen friends struggled to their feet and glided with arms outstretched.

They hope more surfers will join them. Last year, Abel said, about 1,200 surfers worldwide came to PNG. An added marketing push, he argues, could catch the eye of travelers who have tired of conventional destinations.

One of the goals, according to the Surfing Association's Web site, is to "promote the expansion of (the) surf-tourism infrastructure in a manner that is environmentally and culturally sensitive."

"Surfing could be worth millions of dollars to this country. ... We are the Saudi Arabia of the South Pacific," Abel added, referring to the nation's rich timber and mineral reserves, "but so far, what have we made from it?"

For now, PNG seems to be in no danger of losing its mesmerizing rawness.

In the back of a pickup truck a few days later, I glanced at my travel companions and realized I was the only one not carrying a machete or a long bow.



History: The eastern half of the island of New Guinea - second largest in the world - was divided between Germany (north) and the U.K. (south) in 1885. The latter area was transferred to Australia in 1902, which occupied the northern portion during World War I and continued to administer the combined areas until independence in 1975. A nine-year secessionist revolt on the island of Bougainville ended in 1997 after claiming some 20,000 lives.

Natural hazards: Active volcanism; situated along the Pacific "Ring of Fire"; the country is subject to frequent and sometimes severe earthquakes; mud slides; tsunamis

Capital: Port Moresby

Population: 5.6 million

Median age: 21.2 years

Life expectancy at birth: 65.8 years

Ethnic groups: Melanesian, Papuan, Negrito, Micronesian, Polynesian

Natural resources: Gold, copper, silver, natural gas, timber, oil, fisheries

Industries: Copra crushing; palm oil processing; plywood production; wood-chip production; mining of gold, silver and copper; crude oil production; petroleum refining; construction; tourism

Airports: 582 (2006)

Literacy: 64.6 percent

Internet users: 170,000 (2005)

Unemployment rate: Up to 80 percent in urban areas (2005)

Source: CIA World Fact Book





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