Australia’s newest neighbour, Bougainville, voted for independence from PNG – but no holiday yet

Australia is about to get a new neighbor in the Pacific, but experts recommend caution if you’re planning an island vacation there.

Bougainville voted for independence for Papua New Guinea in a 2019 referendum, kicking off a process that will begin in 2023 and which citizens hope will lead to full independence by 2027.

The referendum result left local and international observers touting a positive future for Bougainville, driven in part by hopes that it will be self-sufficient in its own valuable natural resources – including its tourism potential.

The optimism following the referendum may have prompted daredevils and budget backpackers to sign on the lush island as an alternative to Bali or Fiji – but it’s wise to wait, or at least do some very careful planning.

Australia is about to get a new neighbor in the Pacific, but experts recommend caution if you’re planning an island vacation to beautiful Bougainville

The referendum result had local and international observers praising a positive future for Bougainville, driven in part by hopes that it will be self-sufficient through its own valuable natural resources – including its tourism potential.

The referendum result had local and international observers praising a positive future for Bougainville, driven in part by hopes that it will be self-sufficient through its own valuable natural resources – including its tourism potential.

While Bougainville is incredibly beautiful, with pristine forests, rivers, volcanoes and 685 kilometers of pristine coastline, the embryonic tourism industry shut down during the pandemic

While Bougainville is incredibly beautiful, with pristine forests, rivers, volcanoes and 685 kilometers of pristine coastline, the embryonic tourism industry shut down during the pandemic

“There are limited tour operators in Bougainville, working primarily with World War II veterans and their relatives,” said Dr Thiago Cintra-Oppermann, a Bougainville expert at the Australian National University.

“Bougainville is a stunningly beautiful place, with incredible and diverse landscapes and hospitable people, but the infrastructure is still very limited compared to Fiji and Bali.”

Among the main attractions are the WWII wreckage and historical tours. More than 60,000 Americans were based in Bougainville during World War II, and Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto died there in a plane crash in the jungle.

Bertie Ahern, the chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission, said today that 176,928 people – about 98 percent of voters – had supported independence in a referendum.

Experts say the result of the landslide referendum in 2019 gave a misleading impression that Bougainville was on the brink of becoming an independent nation

Experts say the result of the landslide referendum in 2019 gave a misleading impression that Bougainville was on the brink of becoming an independent nation

PNG and Bougainville are known for their picturesque locations

PNG and Bougainville are known for their picturesque locations

Green Island, also known as Nissan Island, just north of the northern Bouganville Island of Buka, is one of the many beautiful scenic attractions in the region

Green Island, also known as Nissan Island, just north of the northern Bouganville Island of Buka, is one of the many beautiful scenic attractions in the region

It ends a decades-long peace process and a long recovery from a brutal civil war between Bougainville rebels, Papua New Guinean security forces and foreign mercenaries that ended in 1998 and killed up to 20,000 people. That was 10 percent of the population at the time.

dr. Anthony Regan, a PNG expert at the Australian National University, says the response to the referendum was “understandable but premature.”

“It remains the most likely candidate for a new country, but it won’t be easy to get there.”

He says the PNG government has agreed to give Bougainville more responsibility for its affairs than any other PNG province — but it’s still a long way from becoming an independent state.

What is likely is a gradual move toward greater autonomy for Bougainville, but said the timetable to become a full-fledged nation by 2027 is “highly uncertain.”

“The PNG Prime Minister has not explicitly said no, but he has expressed concerns about the precedent effect of independence for Bougainville,” said Dr. Regan.

The fear is that other resource-rich provinces will seek to break away from PNG and weaken the nation economically and culturally.

While Bougainville is incredibly beautiful, with pristine forests, rivers, volcanoes and 685 kilometers of pristine coastline, the embryonic tourism industry – targeting Australians, Americans and Japanese – is keeping its mouth shut during the pandemic.

The island was recently hit by the Delta tribe, which was put on lockdown in early November after 10 Covid-19 deaths and 170 new infections.

‘Ecotourism is a potential growth area, but it has come to a standstill for the past two years,’ says Dr Cintra-Oppermann.

As an emerging country, Bougainville has a lot to do with the development of health services and tourism infrastructure.

Aside from Covid, malaria – which is endemic – is an ongoing problem.

Plus, it still has many factors that keep its native PNG off the beaten track when it comes to tourism — especially a dangerous reputation for personal safety.

As an emerging country, Bougainville has a lot to do with the development of health services and tourism infrastructure

As an emerging country, Bougainville has a lot to do with the development of health services and tourism infrastructure

Traditional dancers greet arrivals via Air Niugini flight in Buka

Traditional dancers greet arrivals via Air Niugini flight in Buka

The Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama, who is also a successful businessman and a popular figure

The Bougainville President Ishmael Toroama, who is also a successful businessman and a popular figure

Much of this is due to crime and violence among the local population (especially domestic violence and violence against women) and corruption.

Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index ranks PNG 142nd out of 180 countries.

Smart Traveler government website contains several warnings consistent with PNG’s reputation.

“The risk of violent crime and assault in PNG is high. Criminals often use bush knives (machetes) and guns. Always be alert to your surroundings. Don’t go out after dark,” the website warns.

It also points out ‘criminal activity’ in tourist resorts and advises travelers to lock all doors and windows and be aware of ‘private security’.

Election times are considered dangerous periods in PNG. The nation has a general election in July 2022.

Meaningful steps toward Bougainville’s independence won’t begin until a new PNG government is in place.

Bougainville is probably on a par with PNG in terms of safety.

The smaller island of Buka and north of the main island would be relatively safe, although local guides are recommended.

TripAdvisor has had no reviews of accommodation in Bougainville since 2017 — and the most well-known missing basics like reliable electricity, limited food options, lack of drinking and hot water, and no internet.

Some even noted troubling security concerns.

An expat alleged that he attacked the owner of a boarding house in Buka and his “accomplices” with wooden blocks after he refused to pay a car rental bill that had doubled when he returned the car.

“For a very long time, small-scale adventure tourism and for those with money will be the only viable tourism industry because the cost of getting there and moving in Bougainville is very high,” said Mr Regan.

‘There is almost no tourist-level accommodation, except for small guest houses that are not very well maintained.’

While the rivers and beaches look beautiful, Bougainville is known for the saltwater crocodiles in the main river systems.

That means the same kind of ‘crocodile safe’ caution needs to be exercised as with Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory.

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