PAL finds potential in exotic Papua New Guinea
Several men dashed toward the other side of the street to keep pace with a pickpocket who had just come from a market at Mile 6 of Port Moresby.
Inside a van, former rugby players-turned-guards took note of the commotion in case the disturbance goes out of hand.
This is a frequent scenario in the center of Papua New Guinea, which The Guardian tagged “a country suffering spiraling violence.”
Tales of the “raskol gangs (street gangs’)” exploits are many: At night, they carry bats, stones, machetes to stop even a moving vehicle rushing to a safe, heavily guarded home.
Against this backdrop, Philippine Airlines (PAL) touched down on Port Moresby’s Jackson Airport on Dec. 18, seemingly unfazed by the reputation of the 137th-ranked country (out of 140) in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s livability index.
PAL officials, one of whom is a former ambassador to Papua New Guinea, know all too well the problems besetting the resource-rich country, which has nevertheless attracted Filipino workers.
Former envoy Shirley Vicario, who now leads the communications team of the flag carrier, says Port Moresby’s come-on is the high salary offered to Filipinos.
“A manager can get 10,000 kinas (approximately P150,000) a month here, which is the lowest a company can offer,” Vicario says.
Ian, not his real name, worked for two years and a half in Papua New Guinea and is currently waiting for his former employer to draw out a new contract.
Attracted by the money, Ian says he doesn’t have any second thoughts about going back to the country where he almost killed residents when his car rammed into their home while trying to escape club-wielding men.
“The problem with Papua New Guinea is that the population here is divided into two: The very rich and the very poor. But the country is really beautiful. A big [liquefied natural gas] production facility is about to open. Some Filipinos have also been telling me that they never got sick because of the fresh air,” says Vicario, who was envoy to Papua New Guinea for about four years.
Indeed, the 30,000 Filipinos residing in the country already serve as a captured market for PAL, which will service the Port Moresby route thrice a week using the 156-seater Airbus 320.
During the inaugural flight ceremonies held on Dec. 18 at Naia Terminal 2, PAL president and chief operating officer Jaime Bautista said: “The last decade had seen a rise in the number of Filipino industry experts in the fields of agriculture and mining traveling to and from Papua New Guinea. This is due to the private sector partnerships that have been forged through the years. With the thriving business environment in Port Moresby, Philippine Airlines’ return is indeed timely.”
In fact, taipan Lucio Tan, chair and chief executive of PAL, forged business dealings in Papua New Guinea as early as the 1970s.
Tan’s Kenmore Group of Companies is one of the largest and most established businesses in the country with diverse operations in agriculture, finance, transport and property.
PAL senior vice president for commercial group David Lim says the flag carrier was not a stranger to Port Moresby.
“The operations stopped in 1986 because of the change in government between President Ferdinand Marcos and President Corazon Aquino. There was also a change in the management of the airline. And the thrust then was to rationalize the routes,” Lim says.
PAL operated in Jackson Airport between 1977 and 1986.
Several years later, talks began again between the two countries for air rights.
“It is common knowledge that business development initiatives had been in full swing between Papua New Guinea and the Philippines,” Bautista said in his speech.
It was no easy feat since PAL had to contend with Air Niugini, which has a monopoly over several routes from Port Moresby, including the Philippines.
In a briefing last Dec. 18, National Airports Corp. chief Sylvester Kenatsi said, “We have ambitious aims of growth and we support competition. It is important to stimulate the market and create new opportunities.”
High crime rate
Lim says the air rights will “hopefully allow Filipinos and Papuans to discover each others’ cultures, tradition and history.”
Department of Tourism head of route development David Balane adds that the new route will increase opportunities for Filipino workers while opening Philippine ports to the underserved market of Papua New Guinea.
He says there was a 14.41-percent increase in the number of Papuan visitors in 2015 despite the limited flight access, and “by 2016, we expect 8,000 to 10,000 visitors from the country because of PAL’s move to open the new route.”
Lim says “the new route will hopefully promote a healthy exchange, not just of tourism and commerce, but dreams of peaceful coexistence.”
But why would Filipino tourists go to Papua New Guinea?
The high crime rate, as pictured by the media, could surely deter the Filipino millennial—the most adventurous of the lot and who has partly spurred PAL’s income the previous years—from coming over.
PAL senior vice president for airline operations Ismael Augusto Gozon recognizes this problem, a chink in the flag carrier’s tourism strategy.
The flag carrier is optimistic, however, that it can be overcome.
“The idea of flying to a new route is always exploratory and developmental,” Gozon says. In fact, PAL even decided to buy the air right allotted to Cebu Pacific.
He says the 30,000 OFWs are easily PAL’s customers and “there is also a big market of Papuans who want to come to the Philippines.”
The Manila-Port Moresby route of PAL starts at $720 for the economy class and $2,132 for the business class, while the Port Moresby-Manila route starts at PGK1,768 for economy class and PGK8,678 for business class.
On tourism, Gozon says “we can’t do it alone… For us to maximize this area, we want to work with the government—how they can help us give a better understanding of how we can explore travel.”
Vicario says it in a more diplomatic way, “Papua New Guinea is a little shy for us to come over.”
Filipino workers and other expats living in the country say, however, that they are testament to the real beauty of Papua New Guinea.
Several Filipinos have lived in Papua New Guinea for more than three decades, some even raising families there and making the country their “home.”
“It’s just a matter of adapting. We’ve had similar crimes in the Philippines,” says Ian.
Yoni and Alex, two former rugby players, excitedly showed Port Moresby to PAL delegates the day after the inaugural flight. With bright eyes, the two heavily guarded the Filipino visitors made up of PAL and DOT officials, local media and a celebrity, while also sprucing the tour with anecdotes of Papuan life and how they love their betel nuts.
For security reasons, the tour was cut short and the van had to go back to the hotel before dusk settled.
But Yoni says, “there is more to Papua New Guinea than meets the eye. Sometimes, the stories are overblown.”
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