Guests at Papua New Guinea's Karawari Lodge are privy to spectacular views of the Sepik River and beyond. // © 2014 Ian Swain II
Feature image (above): Ian Swain II, marketing manager for Philadelphia-based Swain Destinations, with villagers in Papua New Guinea // © 2014 Ian Swain II
Earlier this year, Ian Swain II made his first trip to the island nation of Papua New Guinea. Swain, marketing manager for the Philadelphia-based tour wholesaler Swain Destinations, shared highlights of his visit with TravelAge West as well as sales advice for travel agents and insights on what type of traveler might be a good fit to visit the country.
What experiences stood out during your visit to Papua New Guinea?
Sitting on the deck at Karawari Lodge, which is on the Sepik River, as far as you could see there was the lushest and greenest rainforest. You would see lines of smoke from different villages over the tops of the trees. And I have never seen a sunset or a night sky as beautiful as those at Karawari Lodge. Those were probably my favorite moments.
And then we spent each day visiting the local villages up and down the river, learning about their culture and how they live, and having a chance to sample the local food and just learn so much about the area.
Another thing that really stood out is the lack of cell phone service or data available. Once you pass the initial shock of no Facebook or Instagram or emails, you’re just at peace with yourself the entire time you’re there.
Can you tell me a little more about the village experiences? That sounds terrific.
I went to one village where about 95 percent of the tribe had never seen a white man before. I was the first one, and I felt like a celebrity as they followed me [while] walking around. It was this weird mix of pensiveness and excitement.
Everywhere I went in Papua New Guinea, people were so friendly. People would run up to me while I was taking pictures, and they were laughing and smiling. And I’d show them the pictures on my camera; I felt very fortunate to be able to do that, to have that experience.
Did you visit more than one village?
Throughout the course of a day, we often went to a few different villages, and each one would showcase a different aspect of that tribe. For example, one village I went to along the Sepik River went through the processes of catching fish. They wore traditional garb and also demonstrated a dance they perform when warriors come back from battle. We were able to communicate through a guide who would take us around (and who was always a local), so the people in the villages were able to tell us about their culture, how they cook [and about] their dwellings. We even watched for about an hour as a group of 20 men built a house out of massive trees weighing tons — just by using brute force.
Did you spend most of your time in villages along the Sepik River?
I also spent time in the highlands where you learn about spiritual prayers and dancing. You get a chance to talk with witch doctors as well and hear about how they would heal people or use nature to their advantage. You get to discuss how they perceive value. It’s certainly very spiritual there. There’s also a wonderful opportunity to see how they live as a family unit and the different crops and farming.
What sort of traveler would be a good fit for Papua New Guinea?
You certainly want to be somebody who loves adventure. You cannot be afraid of bugs; you will be around bugs. And you also have to have an open mind.
A lot of times when people travel, especially in our line of work [as a tour operator], everything has to go perfectly and smoothly. Papua New Guinea is still a developing country in terms of travel and tourism, so you have to be able to adapt — not for safety. It’s perfectly safe, and the locals are friendly. But just for things like transfers, connections or touring adjustments in the schedule.
Also, there are hundreds of thousands of languages in just this one small country. Each tribe has its own language that they have developed, so you may travel just 15 minutes and the language has changed.
So, the sort of traveler who is best suited to the country is somebody who is adventurous, has an open mind, easily adapts to changes and is looking for something off the beaten path.
That sounds like a very adventurous type of traveler.
You can cater the experience, of course, to be a bit more relaxed. I went to the highlands lodges and the jungle lodges, but there are others in different areas that are more ready for a more relaxed traveler. I was looking for an insane adventure, trying to put myself out of my comfort zone.
What advice would you offer to travel agents who want to sell the destination?
Agents can certainly check out the sample [Papua New Guinea] itineraries on our site and in our system, and they can give us a call. We would be happy to talk them through the details. I’m definitely not the only one at Swain who’s been to Papua New Guinea, so there are several of us that can discuss the destination in detail. We partner with a company there called Trans Niugini Tours, and we’ve worked with them for 24 years without ever having any problems. With our product knowledge and partnerships, we can really help agents arrange the trip with commissionable product.
Can you also help agents customize a visit for their clients?
We can definitely customize things, but with Papua New Guinea, a lot of the internal flights aren’t every day, especially to some of the lodges. So things can be customized within reason based on when the smaller prop planes can get to the smaller places. Typically, we like to do a rotation of a couple nights in one lodge, followed by a couple of nights in another. We can customize, but that often means other things will have to be adjusted.
Do you have any final insights to offer our readers?
I think the time to go to Papua New Guinea is within the next three years. It will always be a great place to go, but it is developing. I’m excited that I was able to get there as it is still finding its identity in the world as far as travel is concerned. It’s one of those places where — if you feel overwhelmed the first day you are there — please push through because you will have an incredible experience.