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March 28, 2019

Lap-laps, Pandanus Mats and Bilums: Rainforest souvenirs


One in every ten jobs globally is related to tourism and travel. But while wanderlust shows no sign of abating, travellers are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental impact their holidays have.

More than a third of people are likely to book ecotourism holidays, and this type of travel is especially popular with younger people1. A recent report predicts particularly high yearly growth from the ecotourism sector2. But when the voices of local people are ignored, “Green Travel” can cause more harm than good.  

A place as beautiful as Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea would be high on anyone’s dream destinations list.

Papua New Guinea coastline

Cruise ships, mostly from nearby Australia, dock weekly at Alotau, full of tourists keen to see the beautiful coastline for themselves. They are also often desperate to take home a piece of Papua New Guinea and a trip to the market in Alotau is a must before getting back on the boat.

Cool Earth’s partners in Sololo are hoping to cash in on the growing number of ecotourists in Papua New Guinea.

Ecotourism is a leading way for developing countries to generate revenue by preserving their rainforests. Money spent directly in the local economy helps put a monetary value on forest preservation. Local people, along with the government, can see the importance of keeping the forest intact. Ecotourism can also boost demand for local handicrafts.”3

Ruthy and Memory from Sololo decided to take some wares to Alotau last month and tried selling grass skirts and woven mats to the visiting tourists. The stall cost $18 to rent for the day, it was a joint stall with Egwalau Tours, a women-owned company.

Like many in their community, Ruthy and Memory are skilled with their hands and can whip up a woven mat from pandanus leaves in no time at all. The materials for the mats can be sustainably sourced right on their doorsteps and making them helps pass on cultural traditions through the generations. It’s also yet another reason to protect their forest.

Pandanus Leaf Mat

Necklace made in Sololo

The mats went down a storm but the grass skirts sold poorly because of Australia’s strict plant import laws.

The two women are keen to return – this time with a wider range of products to sell. They have asked Cool Earth’s Project Manager Gellie Akui for help going forward. In particular, they want to learn more about marketing, and how they can save the money they make.  

Next time, they will take necklaces, bilums (a string bag made painstakingly by hand) and lap-laps (a traditional waistcloth worn in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific) – all of which are perfectly ok for Australian tourists to take home.

It’s a project that we’re excited to see develop. Not only could it become a valuable income stream for the women in the Sololo partnerships, it’s an effective way to keep skills and crafts alive.

  1. Global Data, (2017), “Top trends in Sustainable Tourism: An analysis of the key trends in sustainable tourism and business opportunities they create for the travel and tourism industry.”

  2. Orbis Research, (2018), “Global Ecotourism Market Growth (Status and Outlook)” 2018-2023

  3. MongaBay, (2012), “Ecotourism.”

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