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Tourism and Community Consultation in PNG: The Black Cat Track

29 March 2017   |   Analysis   |   By Alcinda Trawen

2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. In this article, Alcinda Trawen writes on the problematic aspects of developing major tourist projects in PNG, using the example of the Black Cat Track to illustrate these issues. 

Australian tourists walk the Kokoda Track
Flickr: AJ, Milla, Del & Sean
Australian tourists walk the Kokoda Track

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    The Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority (PNGTPA) has been attempting to develop potentially iconic products for the tourism sector. These products are located in rural communities throughout the country, and consultation occurred with these village communities to create the product plans. The scope of the plans covered a wide range of tourism related activities, aimed at providing a sustainable balance between tourism development, the environment, and preservation of culture through meaningful community participation. The concepts of conservation, economic viability and community participation are the foundations of this project. The aim of the development of these products is to provide employment and a viable source of income to the population living within the vicinity of these iconic products.

    The potential tourist attractions had to be accessible, marketable, have a unique selling feature, and have provincial/local government support. Some of the potentially iconic products that PNGTPA created include the Kokoda Trek, the Mt Wilhelm Trek, Tigak Sea Kayaking, Boluminski Cycling, Tari Basin Development, Sepik River Community-based Tourism, and the Black Cat Trek.

    However, there have been significant issues with community consultation which has halted the success of these projects. One significant example of where this issue has been prominent is the Black Cat Track. This track is a World War Two trail that runs between Salamaua and Wau in the Morobe Province, passing through nine communities. The trail was originally used by gold prospectors, and it saw heavy fighting during World War Two. Because of this, it is full of history, and littered with war relics set amidst tropical vegetation. It can be completed in a five-day hike.

    Unfortunately, the track has mostly received negative attention in the Australian media, due to the circumstances surrounding an attack on Australian trekkers and local porters in September 2013. Prior to this tragic incident, the track was one of the first Product Plans to be created. In light of this, the community consultation processes which initially occurred to establish the project could be reviewed. This would create an opportunity to learn from these lesson of the past, and could resume the process and reopen the track.

    CONSULTATION PROCESS

    The Black Cat Track was, and still is, used by local villagers to move through the area. In mid-2007, the idea to develop this track was proposed, but the track was not managed specifically for tourism at that stage. PNGTPA had no in-house expertise and hence used an expatriate consultant, who had previously worked in the Pacific in the area of community-based tourism development. After three initial consultation meetings with local and international stakeholders and experts, the Black Cat Trek Plan was created in October 2007.

    The plan called for clear, coordinated management with the many villages involved, along with the local, provincial and national level government agencies, tour operators, and other key stakeholders. Whilst the management model has not been evaluated in great detail, it was assumed the fledgling association formed would be the mechanism for local empowerment in management of the track with key stakeholder involvement.

    In an example of a partnership facilitated by the PNGTPA, a United Kingdom volunteer organisation called Trekforce sent volunteers to spend three months working on community projects in the area. They undertook a range of activities, including teaching in schools, and building guesthouse and pit toilets. The communities also agreed to work with the local tourism bureau and local government, who were the intermediaries.

    PUBLIC PARTICIPATION APPROACHES

    The tools and techniques used to involve the community were mostly formal, predominantly official meetings. Considering the informal nature of village communities, more informal approaches could have been used to consult with communities, such as traditional meetings and meals with village communities. Nevertheless, after the initial meetings with key stakeholders, the plan was formalised, along with a tourism awareness campaign led by PNGTPA and the local tourism bureau, with support from the local government. The plan was announced from one end of the track to the other, through public forums in the nine village communities. There were collective benefits provided to encourage participation. PNGTPA assisted with furnishing guesthouses, installing radio communication, and providing training in the different village communities. The plan stated that once it was adopted, there needed to be a wider stakeholder liaison process that went beyong the Board of Management of the Association. Hence, much more should have been done to enable participation.

    THE DARK SIDE OF COMMUNITY PLANNING

    Unfortunately, there is a ‘dark side of community planning’. Strategies to overcome community issues must vary from place to place, as different places will experience the same planning dilemmas in different ways. Consultation is risky because of the time, resources and commitment that can be lost, as well as the risk of not being able to achieve tangible results.

    The creators of the Black Cat Plan had already realised there could be backlash from some communities who are adjacent to the track. They may potentially become disaffected, owing to a perceived lack of benefit from tourists using the track. Consultation on this could have been improved in the implementation stages. Additionally, the project dealt with mostly men, and there was limited equality and collaboration in terms of representation of other groups in the community, especially women.  This is a common pitfall – most community planning theories assume that the targeted community are willing to take part in the participatory process. PNGTPA went into this having already decided that this would be a good tourism product, and wanted buy-in from the communities, rather than considering their positions beforehand.

    LESSONS LEARNED

    The key lesson to be learned from the Black Cat Track is that the area of community consultation is crucial. Tourism planning has to be about appropriate engagement and sensitivity towards the people in the community. While most community consultation in PNG is still rigid and formal, there is an opportunity for a more vibrant and fair approach to working with communities. The consultation process, participation approaches, and the darker side of planning, should all be considered when undertaking tourism projects of this nature. The limitations and implications of community involvement will be explored in Part Two of this series on tourism.