The Kokoda Track Authority began issuing trek permits for those who wanted to trek across the track in 2001. Prior to this only a handful of diehard adventurers used to trek across it probably not more than 50 per year. Now its over 3700 per year.
This rapid increase in has created an urgent need for the fledgling Kokoda Track Authority to address some emerging issues which will impact on the sustainability of the new eco-trekking industry.
With more than 3700 trekkers in 2006 it is important that the Board of the PNG Kokoda Track Authority review their operations to ensure the historical and environmental integrity of the track is not compromised; that village communities receive shared benefits from the industry; and that the safety of trekkers is ensured.
This article will address some of the issues that should be addressed by the Board to ensure the medium and long term viability of the track as an eco-trekking destination is not compromised.
The KTA has the potential of being a pioneering national model for the development of a sustainable eco-tourism industry in PNG, as they have an income stream independent of government and aid agency funding and are representative of:
Clan leaders and landowners/clan leaders from along the track;
Local and provincial government;
the National tourism body; and
To fully realize their potential as Board members it will be necessary for them to receive proper training in regard to their corporate obligations according to relevant PNG laws and regulations. They need to be aware of their moral obligations in regard to their own people by ensuring benefits are equally shared amongst clans along the track. A code of conduct should be developed to ensure the Board retains the respect and trust of clan leaders and landowners. This code should be included in the legislation applicable to the Kokoda Track (Special Purpose) Authority.
A reputable PNG accounting firm should be engaged to:
develop the necessary procedures for the effective operation of the KTA;
draft a code of conduct for Board Members;
train Board Members and executive staff in the executions of their duties; and
draft legislation for incorporation into the appropriate Act of Parliament.
Perform a management audit each year
Council of Clan Leaders
Some concerns from people along the track are that the Board of the KTA is not representative of their clans or their views. They believe Members of the Board spend too much time in Port Moresby and not enough time on the trek.
The establishment of a Council of Clan Leaders as an advisory/feedback body should be explored. The first step would be to register the names of all the clans along the track and to identify the respective leaders.
The Board should meet with this body twice yearly to brief them on their plans and activities and to seek their feedback on issues in regard to campsites, environment, village protocols, educational/health developments and village cooperatives, etc.
Trek Operator Registration
Trek operators should be registered by the KTA. As a suggestion the registration should include a requirement that registered trek operators:
pay their guides/porters/carriers a minimum daily rate as determined by the Authority;
pay campsite owners a minimum fee for trekkers and guides/porters/carriers;
only allow guides/porters/carriers to carry a maximum backpack weight;
provide guides/porters/carriers with individual sleeping bags and mats;
provide return airfares to either Port Moresby or Kokoda for guides/porters/carriers at the completion of their trek;
ensure the group leader is qualified in First Aid;
ensure each group has a VHF radio and a satellite phone for safety purposes;
establish emergency evacuation procedures which indemnify the KTA from the cost of the operation; and
ensure each operator has an appropriate public liability insurance policy which indemnifies the KTA from any potential claim by a trekker suffering a permanent injury or disability.
All current trek operators should be consulted as part of the process in formulating a registration system.
In the longer term trek permits should only be issued to registered trek operators or to individuals who agree to abide by the conditions established by the KTA in regard to the engagement of local carriers, the payment of campsite fees and safety.
The trek permit system needs to be further developed.
Most trek operators schedule their treks well in advance and trekkers make a long term commitment (annual leave, family arrangements, etc) in response to these schedules. Trek operators have to commit to airline tickets, hotel bookings, campsite bookings and detailed logistic planning for their treks.
The KTA should require trek operators to submit trek itineraries with their applications for trek permits. The KTA should then liaise with trek operators and landowners where double bookings for campsites are apparent. The KTA could liaise with guesthouse/campsite owners to move groups to nearby sites to alleviate any potential problems.
Increasing numbers of trekkers has led to a proliferation of guesthouses along the track and to some disputes over land ownership of established sites.
I recommend that the Board initiate a project to identify the customary owners of the land along the track so that trek operators know who they have to pay. These landowners could then be issued with identification that acknowledges their ownership. This will assist trek operators in ensuring the proper people receive the campsite fees and will avoid the obvious embarrassment that occurs when two or three people claim to be landowners and demand payment.
Training of Campsite Owners
The Board should consider a campsite training program for landowners. This would involve campsite development, location of male/female screened ablution blocks, male/female toilets, water points, construction of sheltered areas for trekkers and carriers, hygienic requirements of toilets and cooking areas, etc.
Awareness patrols by Board members are a good idea and should be continued. However individual Board members should accompany different trek operators along the track. The trek operators could be asked to cover their expenses. This would allow Board members to discuss issues with trek operators, trekkers, carriers and landowners along the way.
An important role for the KTA is the resolution of campsite disputes.
Lake Myola is a good example. This is a good campsite but has been closed for the past 5 years because of a land-ownership dispute between Kagi and Naduri villages.
Adventure Kokoda, has abided by the closure of the campsite, however on a visit to the guesthouse last month it was noted that some companies have been using the campsite without disruption over the past 12 months and longer. This is not satisfactory.
It is imperative for the KTA to take a leadership role in the resolution of such disputes.
Campsite Booking System
A booking system needs to be developed to ensure campsites are available for trek operators who book treks in advance. There are increasing instances where trekkers arrive at campsites without notice. If the site is already occupied by a group they have to prepare a new temporary site for the night. This leads to unnecessary clearing and pollution of the track as they are not able to establish proper toilet/ablution facilities at such short notice.
The Board should examine the need to have trek operators/trekkers submitting a trek itinerary with their application for trek permits.
The condition of toilets along the track is the most negative of the responses we get from trekkers. An example of the comments includes:
They were terrible after gagging a couple of times, you tend to get used to it quite quickly.
The location, construction and treating of toilets needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Some of the toilets are located too close to waterways and this has the potential to cause pollution.
Landowners of campsites are now receiving a substantial income with the increasing numbers of trekkers. Trekkers expect a basic standard of shelter for them and their carriers at each site. This should include sheltered areas for:
meal preparation and cooking (with tables built from bush materials);
drying areas (with a fire) trekkers for trekkers (four logs in a square with a fire in the centre);
accommodation areas for carriers
Each sheltered area for trekkers and carriers should have sufficient firewood for the night.
Many trekkers are now commenting adversely on the unnecessary clearing of the track.
Trekkers want to walk the track as it was in 1945 and would like to see it remain in its natural condition.
Emergency Evacuation System
The increasing number of people requiring emergency evacuation is a concern.
It is imperative that the KTA implement a coordinated system for emergency evacuation. Trek operators/trekkers should be required to agree to the conditions and procedures established by the KTA as part of the process of obtaining a Trek Permit.
The following suggestions are offered for consideration:
Trek operators/trekkers be required to lodge a bond which will cover the cost of an emergency evacuation by helicopter. These bonds should be held in a trust account and only used for emergency evacuation.
If the operator/trekker has a need to evacuate one of their group then KTA can draw on the fund to pay for the helicopter. It is then up to the trek operator to liaise with the trekker to lodge a claim for the travel insurance to refund the money.
If individual trekkers who do not go through a registered trek operator complete the trek and do not require evacuation then the bond is refunded to them on completion of the trek.
The need for trek leaders to carry a large amount of cash is a concern and should be addressed.
Consideration should be given to encourage villages to establish cooperatives with their own bank accounts. This would allow trek operators to lodge funds with the KTA for deposit into their respective accounts prior to each trek.
Such a system would also allow the KTA the opportunity to check that trek operators and individual trekkers are paying the full amount for their campsite fees. Or issue each landowner with an official, auditable KTA Receipt Book, recording trekkers, carriers and receipts.
Increasing numbers of trekkers are suffering from Giardia after their trek. I believe this is most likely caused by contaminated water and village food. This is a recent development and has only occurred since toilets have been close to watercourses. It may also be attributable to poor hygiene in the preparation of village food.
Disposal of Rubbish
The increase in trekker numbers has led to an increasing problem of rubbish disposal along the track. This will create environmental problems if systems are not developed to encourage trek operators and trekkers to carry their rubbish out and have it brought back to Port Moresby for disposal. For example it takes aluminium cans 500 years to decompose, and plastic bottles indefinitely.
Government/Aid Agency Assistance
It would be unreasonable to expect the Board of the KTA to develop an effective operational system for the track without assistance.
A specialist consultant with expertise in Melanesian culture should be engaged to develop a proper management/administrative structure for the effective operation of the KTA. This would include roles and responsibilities, accounting and budgeting, office equipment requirements, operating procedures and the development of regulations to govern the operation of the KTA, landowners/clan leaders and trek operators.
The management/administrative staff should be funded by PNG Tourism and/or an appropriate aid agency for a period of three years by which time the organisation should be sustainable from trek fees and other commercial initiatives.
There are three issues that are outside the purview of the board but they need to be addressed with PNG Tourism as trekker numbers increase in future years: Air Niugini overbooking, increasing levels of hotel occupancy and slow visitor visa processing.
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