Community-focussed tour operator Indigenous Kokoda Adventures (IKA) had just opened their doors to tourists on Papua New Guinea’s famous Kokoda Track, when COVID-19 put the travel industry on hold.
But rather than stop at this obstacle, the company quickly pivoted to work with local coffee farmers, with proceeds helping local children to attend post primary school. And that’s just the start of much bigger plans – including a coffee mill employing local people who call the Track home.
While IKA may be a new player on the Kokoda Track, they’re committed to doing things better, even if it’s harder. “Cutting corners and appearing to be an ethical ecotourism operator just for good optics is easy and quicker but we know that to truly take care of the Track and the people, communities and culture, takes time and much work.”
Deborah Campagnaro, North American representative for IKA, and Jesse Leta, Founder of IKA, share their experience, their advice for ethical tourists and ecotourism operators, and their excitement to finally welcome more adventurers to the Track.
What single sentence describes your approach to ecotourism or sustainability?
Indigenous Kokoda Adventures (IKA) is a community focused tour operator with heart and soul and a far-reaching vision to improve the lives of the people along the Kokoda Track.
What makes your business unique?
IKA is the first wholly Indigenous, locally owned, led and operated tour operator on the Kokoda Track. We know the local struggle because we are local. Our guides and porters live in the communities along the Track and know the harsh reality of life. Jesse Leta, IKA’s founder, who is also originally from the Kokoda Track, knows the struggle of the people and how difficult it is to climb out from under the current situation. Other owners do not come from the Track and most do not live in Papua New Guinea.
What success story are you most proud of so far?
Well, we are really proud that we are here! When all the other operators in the arena are bigger than you are and have been around for a while, it is a bit overwhelming (and intimidating) when you are starting out to think you can play in the same place as the big guys. But, we have kept our focus on what we are trying to accomplish and have never wavered from that vision.
We are also proud that during the pandemic when the Track was closed to tourism, we did a quick pivot and are now working with local coffee farmers from the region of Kokoda and are selling IKA branded coffee to support our foundation. A portion of the proceeds from each sale goes to the IKA Foundation which in turn provides assistance by way of scholarship for the children of the Track when they attend post primary school away from home.
What has been the most challenging part of being an ethical ecotourism operator?
The most challenging part of being an ethical ecotourism operator is doing what it takes to get it right. Cutting corners and appearing to be an ethical ecotourism operator just for good optics is easy and quicker but we know that to truly take care of the Track and the people, communities and culture, takes time and much work.
Tourism often comes under the spotlight as negatively impacting people and places. Why do you believe that ecotourism can be a positive force for good?
Ecotourism can definitely be a positive force for good! Showing people what you are doing and leading people through your story while on a tour, in this case the Kokoda Track, gives everyone the opportunity to see for themselves how important it is to support local communities and also how critical it is to maintain the pristine-ness of the Track. This is where our porters and guides live, the Track is their home.
Our guests see exactly what their money is helping to create – safe, healthy communities that support the next generation. Tour operators need to be diligent about conveying this message so travellers learn and see with their own eyes and can then educate their own circle of friends and family who travel.
Looking at a website and reading words on a screen does not carry the same impact as actually being there and getting to know your porters and getting to meet their families during a stop. This experience creates an emotional bond and a lasting impression which is what we want. We want our guests to care and talk to other people about their experience. Ideally, they return home changed and begin a new way of thinking about tourism and what it should look like to them and we hope this new awareness will carry over to their next trip.
What advice would you give to other tourism operators who wish to operate more ethically?
I would say have a really good look at what your tours can offer to the local community and start with that. Use family-owned restaurants, don’t encourage plastic bags use (maybe offer your guests a branded bag they can use for their purchases), anything that will keep the people and the communities safe and growing without destroying or negatively impacting where your tours operate.
Take each interaction with your guests as an opportunity to have a conversation about how valuable our natural resources are as well as critical it is to preserve the cultures and communities they are travelling through and help them understand why we need to become more ethical in our thinking and travelling.
How can people looking for ecotourism experiences identify operators that are truly committed to ecotourism?
Research research research. Look online, ask questions, look for independent reviews, ask your travel agent for a list of ecotours that actually put their money where their mouth is.
There is always the option of having a direct conversation with the tour operator prior to booking as well. Ask them to explain what they are doing to support eco-tourism. How are they helping the environment? Supporting the local communities? Preserving the living environment of the local animals and creatures that share the land? Read the comments on their social media posts. It’s very hard to hide on the internet and if someone is faking it, it won’t take long for people to find out.
What can travellers and guests do to help support a better tourism industry?
I would say slowing down would be a very good start. Stay in one place longer, don’t rush to get to the next place, get to know the people, the place before leaving. Having a few quiet conversations with the owner of your B&B or the restaurant where you are eating will provide a much better experience for both of you.
Do some research before you go. Where does the owner of your tour operator live? Not the person operating the tour but the owner. If they don’t live locally it’s possible the money you are paying for the trip won’t be staying in the country. Look for local businesses to support.
Notice how privilege and power work when you travel and particularly before you even go anywhere. Be conscious of how the privilege that is allowing you to travel to another country allows you to go places and do things that perhaps local people aren’t allowed to nor will they ever be allowed to.
What’s next for you?
Well… since you asked … we have a really big vision! It involves coffee and a mill and it would be called the Indigenous Kokoda Coffee Initiative. We are planning, very long term, to establish a coffee mill in the village of Kokoda that would be a dedicated facility for the coffee farmers in the region to bring their beans. We would roast and package the beans and ship them out from this location. Kokoda village is accessible by air and land which means better in and out access for raw material and finished product. Of course, this is very long term and would involve a partnership of some kind.
We are also looking into establishing a fish farm or two in certain key villages along the Track to provide employment, a sustainable food source as well as a perfect stopping point for trekkers where they can enjoy a meal cooked the PNG way for dinner.
What are you looking forward to?
We are really looking forward to welcoming trekkers to the Kokoda Track! We had basically just opened our doors and had arranged a couple of treks for the summer of 2020 when the pandemic hit and of course everything was put on hold… and we are still in a holding pattern. It will be gratifying to be able to show our guests our Kokoda Track and tell our story, the PNG story.
At Terra Incognita, we’re proud to feature IKA’s Kokoda Track trek and Off The Beaten Path journey. To learn more about IKA and their approach to tourism, you can also visit their website and check out the IKA Foundation. To learn more about IKA coffee, simply email firstname.lastname@example.org.