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Tough road ahead for possible new Pacific nation

As an emerging nation, Bougainville has much to do in developing health services.

Aside from Covid-19, malaria, which is endemic, is also an ongoing issue.

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

One of the main attractions is nearby war wreckage and historical tours from the battles in the Pacific.

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More than 60,000 Americans were based on Bougainville during the 1940s.

The end of a different conflict five decades on propelled a peace process and a long recovery from the brutal civil war that ended in 1998 and left up to 20,000 people dead.

At the time, that number was 10 per cent of the Bougainville population.

It has many factors that keep its parent nation, PNG, off the beaten track when it comes to tourism, but none more so than a perilous reputation for personal safety.

Much of this is due to crime and violence between locals – especially domestic violence and that towards women – and corruption.

The PNG government website smart traveller warnings consistent with the island’s reputation.

Tough road ahead for possible new Pacific nation
Bougainville voters get behind an independence movement from PNG in the 2019 referendum. Picture: AFP

Dr Anthony Regan, a researcher on PNG at ANU, says the huge tourism market would be overwhelmed any time soon.

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

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

He also believed 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 said.

The PNG government agreed to give Bougainville Island greater responsibility for its affairs than any other province in the country, but at present, Dr Regan says, it remains a “long way short” of becoming an independent state.

What is likely is a gradual move towards even more autonomy for the region, but he said the timetable of becoming a fully-fledged nation in its own right by 2027 is “very uncertain”.

The PNG prime minister has not explicitly said no but has expressed reservations about the precedent effect of independence for Bougainville, Dr Regan added.

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

Meaningful steps towards Bougainville’s independence would not begin until at least a new PNG government is in place.
In order for a smooth road to independence, authorities in Bougainville have been urging communities to surrender their guns.

Bougainville police Commissioner, Francis Tokura, has said there was no need for people to still be holding on to weapons at this time of peace.

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