Tour operator withdraws from overgrown and ‘dangerous’ Kokoda Trail

Charlie Lynn was preparing to lead his 100th hike on the Kokoda Trail this Anzac Day weekend. It was meant to be a special event, commemorating the 80th anniversary of Australia’s WWII campaign in Papua New Guinea.

But Mr Lynn pulled out of the trek when he arrived in Port Moresby after finding the Kokoda track was not up to par.

He said there was no camping or toilets set up, the runway had not been cleared making it unsafe for visitors, and there was no helicopter to rescue available nearby.

“I feel cheated,” he told AAP from the PNG capital. “During the COVID break, there was a total collapse of management.”

The Vietnam veteran and former Liberal MP for NSW has spent the next 30 years at the southern tip of PNG leading treks with his company, Adventure Kokoda.

He was one of the first to walk the trail in 1992, with Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating following suit later that year and embracing the ground where more than 600 Australian soldiers gave their lives to stop the invaders of Imperial Japan in 1942.

The Australian Government has been closely involved in the management and preservation of the Kokoda Track since 2008 when a joint agreement with the PNG Government was signed.

In the agreement, the two governments aimed to provide a safe and well-managed Kokoda Trail where the quality of life for landowners in the area and the tourism potential of the site would be enhanced.

But Mr Lynn said that had not been achieved in the past decade.

“Since Australia took over, the number of hikers has dropped by 46%,” he said.

“There is no understanding or appreciation of what I call ‘pilgrimage tourism’ and no understanding of the welfare needs of traditional resource custodians.”

Locals cheated promised fees

Andrew C. Abel, chair of the PNG Tourism Technical Working Group, said one of the main issues was the mistreatment of traditional custodians.

He said the custodians are the owners of the Kokoda Track land, yet they receive virtually no compensation from the thousands of tourists who roam the site every year.

This was largely due to non-compliant tour operators, Abel said, not paying the proper taxes or other costs.

“In my opinion, it’s criminal,” he told AAP. “The resource custodians who own this resource have been totally ripped off.”

Mr Abel said that last week traditional guardians blocked the track to hikers in an attempt to speak out against the unfair conditions.

They eventually reopened the site, but Mr Abel said it was a clear warning signal.

“If we allow it to be mined, it will collapse to a point where traditional resource guardians could potentially shut it down forever,” he said.

Both Mr Abel and Mr Lynn said the custodians needed to reclaim the property from the Kokoda track in order to revive it.

“It should be run like a tourism business… through a company owned by the traditional owners,” Mr Lynn said.

“If it doesn’t change, it will continue to decline. It will never reach its potential as a world-class wartime tourist pilgrimage.

AAP has contacted the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Papua New Guinea Travel Promotion Authority and the Kokoda Track Authority for comment.