Saturday, 13 April 2013

Everybody needs good neighbours

I think for many Australians, Papua New Guinea is a bit like most of the neighbours we have in our street.

We know they're there, we acknowledge them from time to time when we see them, but we don't really know much about them.
Welcome to PNG!

Historically, Australia as a country has always had close ties with PNG.   After all, it was an Australian colony before its independence in 1975 and there has been a history of co-operation and aid between the two.

But, compared to our other neighbours, like New Zealand, very few Australians have actually been to PNG (it probably doesn't help that a tourist or business visa is required).   And if they do go it's usually for work rather than a holiday.

Port Moresby, PNG's capital

I first started coming to PNG for work a year ago.  Firstly, I was surprised to learn it was only a three-hour flight away from Brisbane.   I had assumed it was "way up there somewhere", not "just right there".

I also realised I had a lot of other misconceptions about what I would see when I got off the plane in Port Moresby.  Like most countries, PNG usually only hits the headlines when there is some sort of trouble or political turmoil.

How much do you really know about PNG?

Having been a few times now, I'm often asked what it is like.  And that's proven a difficult one to answer.

It's hard to put labels on a place like PNG.  Just when you think you've got things figured out, you're surprised with something completely contrary.  And having only visited Port Moresby, I've only witnessed a fraction of what the country holds.

But here are a few things I've learnt so far.

PNG has a strong cultural heritage

"Only in PNG" moments
Locals and expats alike jokingly talk about things happening in "PNG time", which usually means it will happen eventually, but you're just not sure when.

That meeting you've arrived for at 9am may not actually happen until 10am or 11am or the next day or even next week.   People may turn up or not.  You never really know.  You could get frustrated with it, or you can just go with the flow.

Here internet access is slow and expensive, power fluctuations can plunge you into momentary darkness, and phones lines can suddenly go dead for weeks.

As a visitor to Port Moresby it's easy to spend your entire time just being driven between secure, gated compounds; from your hotel to a business or office or shop or restaurant   At first it's quite surreal and makes you feel a little ill at ease, but thankfully I've yet to actually witness anything untoward.

Port Moresby, a harbour city
Growing aspirations
PNG is a developing country, but that doesn't mean it is "backward".  If anything, it seems to be quite an aspirational country.

Like many other places in the world, the people value good education, employment, industry, infrastructure, security and government - possibly more than developed nations and probably because they don't have easy access to it yet.

There's a growing educated middle class craving decent government and infrastructure, and contemporary, high-tech lifestyles.  As a result there is a growing number of shops, night clubs, coffee shops, gyms, private schools and all the rest.   The relatively new multi-storey shopping centre in Port Moresby resembles those you would see in any Brisbane or Sydney suburb.  Called Vision City, it seems to be heralding the arrival of the city's future.

It's a hive of activity
There's no doubt PNG has a way to go in terms of development, but it is moving in the right direction... and fast.

Multinational companies are here because of the natural resources, which in turn has brought massive investment, jobs, construction, training and other benefits which have the potential to radically reshape the country's future.

Port Moresby seems more connected to Asia and neighbouring South Pacific countries than Australia is.  And while it seems very proud of its national identify and cultural heritage, it also has a surprisingly multi-dimensional feel to it as different people from across PNG and the world converge.

One of the local success stories of recent years is the mobile phone company Digicel.  Apart from being on almost every shop and billboard in Port Moresby, more importantly it has won the hearts of locals by actually offering affordable mobile phones and good coverage across the country for the first time.  It's a highly-professional operation and seems to have set the benchmark for other local companies to follow.

Watch out!  PNG is on the move

PNG's tourism industry seems to be in its infancy, though there is apparently growing interest in Kokoda Trail treks, PNG wildlife, and diving hotspots.  It doesn't help that flights to PNG and good hotel rooms in Port Moresby are quite pricy because of demand from resource companies.

So it might be a while before PNG becomes the next "must see destination", but watch out as this country is changing fast.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent read. You're right - PNG does get portrayed as a place where there are muggers and looters. Don't drive at night, never wind down your window for people at intersections, troubles with who is PM (Michael Somare or not).

    For these reasons (and they may or may not be a generalisation, especially as my thoughts on PNG have largely been formed based on the media) I haven't considered it as a holiday destination. We've been to countries like Cuba, Russia, Mexico and Egypt which have their own images of personal security issues and corruption, but PNG has also seemed a bit flakey with its own systems of government.

    Matt your piece has given a bit more perspective and hopefully our northern neighbour will become a location that Australians want to visit. The day that PNG has tourism ads on Australian television will be a watershed day indeed.