Australian heritage icons drive PNG tourism

Letters, Normal

THE Kokoda Track has made its mark in recent years as PNG’s premier tourist destination injecting tens of millions into the local economy.
However, there are strong resentments among the customary landowners that a significant trickling-down effect of some of this wealth to benefit people at the grassroots level still leave much to be desired.
A majority of the trekkers who traverse the Kokoda Track annually are Australian pilgrims retracing the steps of their relatives and heroes who sacrificed their lives while defending their homeland from the potential threat of an invading enemy.
The track has a special place and meaning within the Australian national psyche, supposedly influenced by the Australian media and political speechwriters.
Furthermore, a new construction of the track’s history has been assembled to mould and shape the contemporary image of the track in order to benefit the lucrative trekking venture.
It is believed that Australian-based trekking companies play a pivotal role in this particular aspect when they package and market the Kokoda Track product to would-be Australian clients.
In fact, they are harnessing the strength of history and putting it to their advantage.
The fact that an exploding number of Australian tourists have been visiting the track since 2005 has little to do with PNG’s tourism promotion efforts in Australia; but more to do with the Kokoda campaign itself being perceived as a strategic victory for Australia by its patriotic citizens. 
Consequently, no other WWII battles fought on PNG soil matched the importance of the Kokoda campaign since it was regarded as the battle that saved Australia.
During his visit to Kokoda in 1992, former Australian PM Paul Keating kissed the ground and declared the place as “sacred”.
Since March last year, a joint understanding between PNG and Australia has been in force to protect the track from destructive industrial-scale resource exploitation projects; and instead, implement the delivery of AusAID and GoPNG-funded development incentives to landowning communities in return for their conservation commitment.
As such, it would be misleading for Papua New Guineans to believe that all other WWII battle sites in PNG are able to match Kokoda on their face value.
It is important to understand that Australians hold Kokoda dear to their hearts because they believe it was the site of a defining battle, a battle which saved their country from a possible invasion, a battle which defines their national identity.
Thus, Kokoda holds enormous heritage value to Australians.
However, in my opinion, the story behind the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, considered to be Australia’s biggest maritime disaster, seems to be gathering momentum presently. 
This piece of history also has the potential to match Kokoda’s current standing if it is able to garner political support and recognition as well as the national consciousness to make an impact.
If this is achieved, then perhaps the track used by the Lark Force located in the jungles of East New Britain province could vie for the same attention and glory currently enjoyed by Kokoda Track.
Hundreds of Australian soldiers (who later became POWs) who served in the Lark Force plus civilians who boarded the Montevideo Maru in Rabaul perished when the ship was mistakenly torpedoed and sunk off the Philippines coast by an American submarine.
The history behind the loss of lives aboard the Montevideo Maru has potential for another PNG-based pilgrimage tourism product.-Robert Bino Canberra