By MALUM NALU
THE image of Southern Highlands has taken a battering since the 2017 election and into 2018.
Violence was rife, culminating in the burning down of a Link PNG Dash 8 aircraft last June, as well as various government buildings and infrastructure.
Images of the burning aircraft and heavily-armed men were flashed around the world in seconds, making headlines, and portraying an image of anarchy.
Sad, as it is only a minority that is causing all these problems, in one of the most-spectacular and beautiful places in Papua New Guinea and the world.
As our helicopter flies past the great Mt Giluwe, the country’s second highest mountain last Friday, I look down to the mountains, rivers and waterfalls.
I am filled with awe at the panorama before my eyes.
I am travelling to Mendi with Tourism Promotion Authority chief executive officer Jerry Agus and board secretary Colin Taimbari to launch a major tourism drive in Southern Highlands.
In Mendi, Agus urges the people of Southern Highlands to tell their “positive stories” to PNG and the rest of the world.
The TPA is backed up by the Southern Highlands’ government and administration in this major image rebuilding exercise.
Provincial administrator Joseph Cajetan concurs with Agus.
The first step of this journey is a two-day tourism training workshop last week attended by more than 50 guesthouse operators, tourism product owners and others.
This may culminate in the revival of the Southern Highlands’ provincial show later this year.
TPA officers, in the days before the workshop, also visited all districts in Southern Highlands to make a stocktake of its tourism potential.
“In the media, you will only see Southern Highlands mentioned for tribal fighting, road blocks and people being killed,” Agus tells a large crowd at Momei Oval.
“These are all negative stories.
“Nowadays, with internet and Facebook, whatever little incident in Kutubu or Upper Mendi is transmitted to the world in 30 seconds.
“Many times tourists don’t want to come here because of this negative image perception.
“Even in our own country, Papua New Guinea, Southern Highlands is regarded as a ‘dangerous place’.
“When someone mentions Southern Highlands, everyone makes a u-turn, saying Mendi is a ‘dangerous place’ and encouraging others not to visit.
“There are so many good people in Southern Highlands, however, because of one or two negative stories, the perception is that everyone here are bad people.”
Agus says the launching of the tourism programme in Southern Highlands also heralds the beginning of “positive stories” of the province.
“We must tell everyone that Mendi and Southern Highlands are not full of bad people,” he adds.
“I can tell you that 99.9 per cent of people are good people, however, it is only one or two bad people who tarnish the image and reputation of everybody.
“We must now start talking about reviving the provincial show, bringing in more tourists, putting out the positive stories about Mendi and Southern Highlands.”
Cajetan says Southern Highlands had so much potential in tourism, arts and culture
He says the government and administration are fully behind reviving the provincial show.
“This province is special and is unique,” Cajetan adds.
“It borders seven provinces and runs from the Highlands to the coast.
“We have different cultures and languages.
“We have so many tourism products that we can showcase.
“Our province has so much potential in tourism.”
Local guesthouse operator, Warren Temokang, who has worked together with the TPA in organising this event, says the image of Southern Highlands must change for the better.
“We have had a bad image since after the elections,” he says.
“We are trying to recreate our province and move on with the rest of Papua New Guinea.
“This bad images, however, are now in the past.
“We want to go into new things.
“Tourism seems to be one of the answers to our problems here.
“In tourism, we see that everyone can take part, from the young to the old.
“At the end of the day, tourists come into the province, put in money for the good of the economy of the province.”
Temokang commends TPA officer for conducting the workshop, visiting tourism attractions and collecting data.
“To top it all, we have over 50 people from all over the province, who have marketable products, attend the workshop,” he says.
“It was extremely good with participants learning a lot of things from the officers.
“I also want to thank Tourism Arts and Culture Minister Emil Tammur and TPA CEO Jerry Agus for giving this opportunity to the people of Southern Highlands.”
A new dawn is looming on the horizon for Southern Highlands.