The land that interstates forgot
Papua New Guinea: Untouched, untamed, untrammeled
PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (CNN) -- The tropical wilderness in Papua New Guinea is as abundant as televisions, telephone lines and tourists are few.
With more than 90 percent of its territory covered by tropical rainforest and woodland, the South Pacific nation offers a lush wild frontier for the adventure traveler.
But mass tourism hasn't hit Papua New Guinea, where everyday life moves at its own pace. People, politics and traditions here live on as if it were another century.
"It's a really incredible opportunity ... for people to see a culture that has been relatively unadulterated by the outside world," tourist Dee Mosbacher said.
'Living National Geographic'
Located just north of Australia, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. For most of the 20th century, PNG was governed by Australia; the nation didn't gain its independence until 1975. Its 3.5 million to 5 million people are divided into 800 separate societies with distinctly different languages.
The land area of PNG is slightly larger than California, but there are fewer than 500 miles of paved highway and no rail lines.
"When someone arrives in the capital of Port Moresby, the next thing they've got to do is get on an airplane," said Bob Bates of Trans Niugini Tours.
In a 1995 count, there were only 42,000 televisions and 44,000 telephone lines in the Southeast Asian country. Cell phones? Zero.
"It's kind of a living National Geographic. It's difficult to imagine I think for many Westerners that this lifestyle still exists today," said Andrew Lockwood, president of the Pacific Islands Institute, which leads tours throughout the region.
In 2000, only about 7,000 United States citizens visited Papua New Guinea.
"What we have is a small niche market tourism enterprise, and hotels and resorts with either the cultural side of things in the Highlands and the diving side on the coastal area," said Dick Knight, who manages the Loloata Island Resort and is vice president of the PNG Divers Association.
Tourism is an undervalued PNG natural resource compared to gold, copper, timber, coffee and tea, Bates believes.
"It's a very small export earner for the country. But it could be different because of what we have to offer," he said.
Safety a concern
One of the reasons for the small number of tourists may be the crime problem, which is serious enough that the U.S. State Department has issued a safety guide for visitors.
"Violent crime is a serious threat in many areas of Papua New Guinea," it says, advising visitors to participate in organized tours rather than going it on their own.
True stories about cannibalism and an unstable government also have scared some tourists away.
"Cannibalism was finished 30 years ago. Tribal warfares certainly still go on, but they mainly fight over land, women and pigs. And of course, the Westerners and the tourists are not part of their problems, so they don't come into the equation," Bates said.
Media blamed for crime image
Anderson Agiru is governor of the Southern Highlands Province, which is famous for the Huli Wigmen who live in the Tari district. He wants to encourage tourism, and blamed the media for placing too much emphasis on crime-infested cities.
"When you come here you can see for yourself that there is peace here," he said.
Travelers still need to take precautions, though, especially women visiting this male-dominated, conservative society.
"Being excessively affectionate in public is frowned upon," said Vilia Lawrence, executive coordinator of the Papua New Guinea Divers Association. "You're not encouraged to wear short shorts or short skirts or, you know, just clothes that are particularly skimpy."
Despite such concerns, tourist Claire Moore was struck by how friendly people are in Papua New Guinea.
"We drive by in these big buses and these people are walking along carrying hundreds of pounds, it looks like, and they just smile and wave at us. And the beautiful bright smiles of the children, it just fills me with joy to see that," she said.
In sharp contrast to the lifestyles of the indigenous people, the accommodations for tourists in this part of the world are luxurious.
For example, the Ambua Lodge, one of two that Bates manages in the rugged PNG terrain, is a haven in the Highlands, with a string of exotic huts looking out over the lush landscape. Closer to Port Moresby is the Loloata Island Resort, a draw for divers that costs about $220 a night for a double room.
Getting to Papua New Guinea won't come cheap.
A quick check of fares available online shows a round trip flight to Port Moresby costs $2,969 from New York, $2,085 from Atlanta, Georgia and about $1,700 from Los Angeles, California.
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