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

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Australia is on the verge of getting a new Pacific neighbour, but experts advise caution if you’re planning an island holiday there.

Bougainville voted for independence from Papua New Guinea in a referendum landslide in 2019, starting a process that will begin in 2023 which its citizens hope will lead to full independence by 2027.

The referendum result had locals and international observers touting a positive future for Bougainville, partly powered by hopes it will be self-supporting through its own valuable natural resources – including its tourism potential.

The optimism after the referendum may have daredevil thrillseekers and budget backpackers pencilling in the lush island as an alternative to Bali or Fiji – but you’d be wise to wait, or at least do some very careful planning.

Australia is on the verge of getting a new Pacific neighbour, but experts advise caution if you're planning an island holiday to beautiful Bougainville

Australia is on the verge of getting a new Pacific neighbour, but experts advise caution if you’re planning an island holiday to beautiful Bougainville

The referendum result had locals and international observers touting a positive future for Bougainville, partly powered by hopes it will be self-supporting through its own valuable natural resources - including its tourism potential

The referendum result had locals and international observers touting a positive future for Bougainville, partly powered by hopes it will be self-supporting through its own valuable natural resources – including its tourism potential

While Bougainville is incredibly beautiful, with untouched forests, rivers, volcanoes and 685 kilometres of pristine coastline, the embryonic tourism industry shut up shop during the pandemic

While Bougainville is incredibly beautiful, with untouched forests, rivers, volcanoes and 685 kilometres of pristine coastline, the embryonic tourism industry shut up shop during the pandemic

‘There are limited tour operators in Bougainville, primarily working with World War II veterans and their relatives,’ said Dr Thiago Cintra-Oppermann, an expert on Bougainville from the Australian National University.

‘Bougainville is a stunningly beautiful place, with incredible and diverse landscapes, and welcoming people, but its infrastructure is still very limited compared to Fiji and Bali.’ 

One of the main attractions is World War II wreckage and historical tours. Over 60,000 Americans were based on Bougainville during WWII and the Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto died in a jungle plane crash there. 

Bertie Ahern, the Chairman of the Bougainville Referendum Commission, declared today that 176,928 people – around 98 per cent of voters – had backed independence in a referendum.

Experts say the landslide referendum result in 2019 gave a misleading impression Bougainville was about to become an independent nation

Experts say the landslide referendum result in 2019 gave a misleading impression Bougainville was about to become an independent nation

PNG and Bougainville are known for picturesque locations

PNG and Bougainville are known for picturesque locations

Green Island aka Nissan Island just north of the northern Bouganville island of Buka is one of the region's many stunning scenic attractions

Green Island aka Nissan Island just north of the northern Bouganville island of Buka is one of the region’s many stunning scenic attractions 

It concludes a decades-long peace process and a long recovery from a brutal civil war between Bougainville rebels, Papua New Guinea security forces and foreign mercenaries that ended in 1998 and left up to 20,000 people dead. At the time, this was 10 per cent of the population. 

Dr Anthony Regan, an expert on PNG at the Australian National University says reaction to the referendum was ‘understandable but premature’. 

‘It remains the most likely candidate for a new country but it’s not going to be easy to achieve.’

He says the PNG government agreed to giving Bougainville more responsibility for its affairs than any other PNG province – but at present its a long way short of becoming an independent state.

What is likely is a gradual move towards more autonomy for Bougainville but said the timetable of becoming a fully-fledged nation in its own right by 2027 is ‘very uncertain’.

‘The PNG prime minister hasn’t explicitly said no, but he has expressed reservations about the precedent effect of independence for Bougainville,’ said Dr Regan.

The fear is that other resource-rich provinces want to break away from PNG, weakening the nation economically and culturally. 

While Bougainville is incredibly beautiful, with untouched forests, rivers, volcanoes and 685 kilometres of pristine coastline, the embryonic tourism industry – caterinjg to Australians, Americans and Japanese – shut up shop during the pandemic. 

The island was recently hit by the Delta strain, being put into lockdown after 10 Covid-19 deaths at the start of November and 170 new infections.

‘Ecotourism is a possible area of growth, but for the past two years this has been on a pause,’ said Dr Cintra-Oppermann. 

As an emerging nation Bougainville has much to do in developing health services and tourism infrastructure.

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

Plus, it still has many factors that keep its parent nation PNG off the beaten track when it comes to tourism – especially a perilous reputation for personal safety.

As an emerging nation Bougainville has much to do in developing health services and tourism infrastructure

As an emerging nation Bougainville has much to do in developing health services and tourism infrastructure

Traditional dancers greet arrivals via an Air Niugini flight at Buka

Traditional dancers greet arrivals via an Air Niugini flight at 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 between locals (especially domestic violence and violence towards women) and corruption.

Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perception Index ranked PNG 142nd from 180 countries. 

Government website smart traveller carries several warnings consistent with PNG’s reputation.

‘Risk of violent crime and sexual assault in PNG is high. Criminals often use ‘bush knives’ (machetes) and guns. Always be alert to your surroundings. Avoid going out after dark,’ the website warns.

It also notes ‘criminal activity’ at tourist resorts and suggests travellers lock all doors and windows and consider ‘private security’.

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

Meaningful steps towards Bougainville’s independence will not begin until a new PNG government is in place. 

Bougainville is probably on par for safety with PNG.

The smaller island Buka and north of the main island are said to be relatively safe – although local guides are recommended.  

TripAdvisor features no reviews of Bougainville accommodation since 2017 – and most noted missing basics such as reliable electricity, limited food options, lack of drinking water and hot water, and no internet.

Some even noted disturbing safety issues. 

One expat claimed to have been attacked the owner of a Buka guest house and his ‘henchmen’ with wooden blocks after refusing to pay a car hire bill that was doubled when he returned the car.

‘For a very long time the only viable tourist industry will be small scale adventure tourism and for people with money, because costs of getting there and moving around Bougainville are very high,’ said Mr Regan.

‘There’s almost no tourist level accommodation of any kind, beyond small guest houses that are not very maintained.’ 

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

That means the same kind of ‘croc-safe’ caution needs to be shown as with north Queensland and the Northern Territory. 



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