Papua’s got a brand new bag

As the country nears 40 years of independence, Papua New Guinea hits its stride, merging improved tourism infrastructure with diverse topography and ancient cultures.

When approaching your 40th birthday, there are a few token paths you might consider. Buy a sports car. Take a holiday. Adopt Jennifer Aniston’s workout regimen.

As Papua New Guinea nears its 40th anniversary of independence from nearby Australia, on 16 September 2015, the country is looking to tourism. Two new international cruise lines, Carnival Australia and Silversea, started making port at the Pacific nation in October 2013 and 2014 respectively. An ongoing programme, due for completion in 2015, is improving airstrip infrastructure across the country. And hotel expansion in the capital, Port Moresby, will raise its room count from 600 to 6,000 by 2015, just in time for the regional sporting event the Pacific Games.

There is a method to this multiplicity. In the past decade, foreign oil, gas and forestry corporations have arrived en masse to mine Papua New Guinea’s immense natural resources and export the profit. In turn, the government began to offer corporate incentives for domestic investment and development in the tourism sector, doubling tax deductions for costs related to training tourism staff and providing significant depreciation benefits for investments in tourist facilities. Despite these developments, Papua New Guinea retains an aura of uncharted territory, with a decidedly nascent tourism infrastructure. News coverage of tribal disputes in the Highlands and crime in Port Moresby give prospective international travellers pause, as do outdated punchlines about cannibalism. Papua New Guinea’s Tourism Promotion Authority estimates that merely 160,000 travellers visit Papua New Guinea each year, while neighbouring Fiji receives more than 600,000 visitors annually.

The few that do venture to Papua New Guinea, however, encounter some of the most diverse cultures and topography on the planet. Landscapes on the world’s second-largest island, of which Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half, span steamy jungles, craggy mountains, tropical fjords and white-sand beaches. There are more than 600 tribes speaking 800 languages, with cultural practices varying both by region and by village.

In the East Sepik Province, dense jungle and centuries-old villages surround the snaking 1,125km Sepik River, which serves as both the region’s principle mode of transportation and a source of inspiration for tribal art. Thanks to American tour operators, such as TRAVCOA and Absolute Travel, and the locally owned, Wewak-based Sepik Adventure Tours, travellers can now safely navigate its winding, crocodile-ridden waters. Guides steer motorised canoes deep into the region, pausing in remote villages to visit welcoming local families and lead art buying expeditions (bring waterproof packaging).

The Sepik is also a boon for wildlife. At rustic riverfront accommodations like Ambunti Lodge, knowledgeable guides escort early-morning birding expeditions to spot indigenous hornbills, Papuan harriers, Victoria crown pigeons and various birds of paradise in the leafy jungle overhang.

Around 965km to the northeast on the tropical Gazelle Peninsula of Papua New Guinea’s New Britain Island, the steamy Sepik seems worlds away. Breezy waterfront resorts and sleek live-aboard dive vessels host travelling scuba enthusiasts and sunburnt Australians on holiday. Located in a volcanic caldera, the peninsula has 30 year-round scuba sites containing the highest diversity of fish and coral in the world. On the other side of the island’s iconic Tavurvur volcano, which levelled large swatches of coastal city Rabaul in 1994, adventurous travellers and locals dip as much as they dare into the near-boiling waters of geothermal hot springs, digging toes into ash-black sand.

Tourism infrastructure on New Britain Island, like the rest of Papua New Guinea, is a work-in-progress, but the region is becoming increasingly accessible. In July 2013, national airline Air Niugini launched its first commercial service linking the Australian city of Cairns with Rabaul. Leading international operators such as Epic Tomato and Asia Transpacific Journeys have arrived as well, arranging dive excursions and access to events like July’s National Mask Festival, an annual five-day celebration of tribal masks, heritage and performances from across the country. Papua New Guinea is predominantly Christian, but many communities combine their faith with tribal traditions. The route to Vanimo, a coastal city in northwestern Papua New Guinea, is not as direct. Approximately 45km from the Indonesian border, Vanimo is accessed either via air transfer from Jakarta or thrice weekly domestic flights from Port Moresby. Despite, or perhaps because of its far-flung locale, Vanimo is the stuff of surf legend. After a starring role in the 2011 award-winning documentary Splinters, Vanimo became a bucket list destination for wave riders. Even during peak season, which falls between September and March, Vanimo’s continuous, near-perfect breaks remain pleasantly uncrowded due to Papua New Guinea’s strict surf tourism regulations. Nearly 25 years ago, the national Surf Association instilled restrictions limiting the number of surf lodges and clubs that can be built.

Specialists like California’s World Surfaris organise customised trips to help travellers navigate these sustainable waves. The popular Vanimo Surf Lodge accommodates only 10 guests, so Papua New Guinea-bound surfers need to plan and book several months in advance. On the ancient shores of a country just 40 years in the making, it hardly seems too much to ask.