The reef at Tawali Resort is one of the main attractions.
The reef at Tawali Resort is one of the main attractions.

ISLAND HOSTAGES: Luxury resort held at gunpoint

ARMED gunmen held 20 tourists hostage before robbing them during a raid at a luxury resort in Papua New Guinea last week.

About 20 foreign tourists from North America, Asia and Europe were involved in the attack at the Tawali Resort, in the southeast corner of mainland PNG.

"Sixteen armed men with high-powered rifles came by boat and took all the guests as hostages," said a former staff member at Tawali Resort, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to the press.

"They took their wallets, phones, all their things, the cash in the till and anything else they could carry and went off in their boats. Luckily no one was harmed.

"It's not the first time this has happened. There was another raid six months ago and another one a few years before that. They are able to get away with it."

The resort is set on an isolated peninsula in Milne Bay Province and is famous for its diving. The closest airport is in Alotau, an hour's drive from the resort on a bumpy gravel road, and the last part of the journey must be completed by boat.

 

The reef at the Tawali Resort is famous for its diving.
The reef at the Tawali Resort is famous for its diving.

Its house reef is home to sharks, octopuses, sea horses, mandarin fish and hundreds of other marine species. There are 49 more gazetted dive sites within boating distance of the resort encompassing giant manta ray cleaning stations, plane wrecks from World War II and kilometres of pristine coral.

A receptionist at Tawali confirmed the resort was still open but could not comment on the raid.

But late last week, PNG Tourism Minister Emil Tammur confirmed the robbery and called for urgent government intervention to ensure the security of tourists in the country.

"These tourists had a great time capturing magical moments on their cameras and having great personal experiences of the beauty of PNG only to be robbed on the last leg of their journey," Mr Tammur told the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier in Port Moresby.

"They have now all returned traumatised and with very bad memories of PNG. Is this the type of country we want to promote to the rest of the world?"

Tawali Dive Resort Papua New Guinea. Picture: Booking.com
Tawali Dive Resort Papua New Guinea. Picture: Booking.com

NO-GO ZONES

Mr Tammur also highlighted unrest in the highlands of PNG where the US Department of State has placed two provinces on its highest international security alert of Level 4, advising its citizens not to travel there.

"This is the highest level and it is the same travel alert for countries such as North Korea, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and Syria, despite no single tourist or foreigner having been hurt or killed in Hela," he said.

Despite its reputation, tourists are regarded as special guests in PNG and rarely targeted by criminals.

The last tourist death in PNG was in 2013 when Australian Robert Purdy was killed during a home invasion in the highland city of Mt Hagen.

Tourists are more likely to come unstuck in the Philippines or Thailand - both popular destinations among Australians - respectively ranked the 11th and 19th most dangerous countries to visit, according to the World Economic Forum's latest Tourism Competitiveness Report.

 

PNG Tourism Minister Emil Tammur. Picture: Supplied
PNG Tourism Minister Emil Tammur. Picture: Supplied

But in PNG, where violence is often tribal in nature and tends to involve a large number of perpetrators, there exists an image of widespread anarchy that is anathema to tourism.

In Hela, where tribal conflict caused by the displacement of thousands of people by a magnitude-7.5 earthquake in February, Ambua Lodge, the only accommodation property that caters specifically for foreigner tourists in the province, has temporarily closed its doors.

The US State Department has also issued a Level 4 warning for Southern Highlands Province in June after 200 anti-government protesters torched an Air Niugini passenger aircraft on the runway at Mendi Airport, two court buildings and the provincial governor's residence in Mendi township.

Australia and the UK have not changed their travel advice for Hela and Southern Province from Level 3 - the second-highest alert - since the earthquake, advising their citizens to "think seriously" about their need to travel to the areas.

CARJACKINGS ON THE RISE

Travel advice for the rest of the county has not changed, with the US, UK and Australia advising its citizens to exercise only a "high level" of caution.

But expats in the capital Port Moresby are reporting a small spike in crime despite a massive beef-up in security as world leaders prepare to descend on the city for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' summit in November.

"Always remember to lock your doors when you drive," Italian expat Angelo Polimeno, the CEO of an insurance company in Port Moresby, wrote on the PNG Expats Facebook page. "At the intersection of Spring Garden and Wards roads, when the cars stop to turn, there are a few young criminals who come and check if your door is unlocked to get in and snatch what they find."

Filipino schoolteacher Jerald Jim added: "The same thing happened to us at 4 Mile Roundabout."

An Australian executive living in Port Moresby for 25 years, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it could reflect poorly on the executive's employer, said the security situation in the city was "hard" to describe.

"In the 1990s, it was far more common to target and rob expats as they had the stuff people wanted, but now it's middle-class New Guineans that are targeted. As a result, carjackings are way up," the executive said. "I'm going to a function tonight and have engaged a security firm for pick-up and drop-off. After a few wines, I won't be as vigilant, so figure better to be safe than sorry."

LAW AND ORDER

Australia is providing most of the training and equipment for PNG security forces for the upcoming APEC Summit in PNG in November, including fleets of new police cars, motorcycles, a new station and four jet skis at a cost to the Australian taxpayer of more than $100 million.

When Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin visited Port Moresby in June, he told an ABC reporter the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary was "well advanced in their preparations" and he was "very confident" APEC would go "successful".

PNG Chief Secretary Isaac Lupari concurred, saying not a single crime had been reported by any of the 1500 foreign delegates that had already attended lead-up meetings to APEC in Port Moresby.

But on Friday night, residents in the inner-city heard gunfire, allegedly attributed to police.

"Frig! Massive gunshots. 2 Mile. Stay away!" posted an expat on Facebook.

"Stay in your house please stay safe," replied another.

Added a third: "I live next to the settlement. The guards tell me the police were looking for someone and the shots were a warning to the people living in the area. But they drove off straight afterwards."

The PNG's police force came under scrutiny last month when sickening footage emerged of two officers beating and kicking a naked 15-year-old boy who had allegedly attempted to rob a woman.

Outgoing foreign minister Julie Bishop said at the time Australia remained committed to providing support to PNG and would not judge its police force on one incident.

The two police officers involved were suspended and the matter was referred to the Internal Affairs Unit for investigation.



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