I’m not sure quite what I was expecting when I arrived at the National Mask Festival in Papua New Guinea (P.N.G.). I think I envisioned a gathering of P.N.G.’s many tribes in a big grassy field surrounded by jungle. But I soon discovered, as I was passing through the tickets-required entryway, that it’s a far more organized affair.
There was a grassy field, but it was flanked on one side by a stage and surrounded by several canopies emblazoned with the logo of the country’s cellular provider, Digicel. The festival had the air of a small state fair, with a couple dozen stalls selling food, T-shirts, and other wares in what would usually be a big empty lot.
As the tribes arrived in their colorful costumes, an emcee led them onto the field, where they proudly performed traditional dances called sing-sings while tourists eagerly documented the spectacle on their smartphones — myself included.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Was the National Mask Festival put on purely to lure tourists to the remote Melanesian island?
Were any of the sing-sings I’d witnessed earlier in other regions authentic if they had been scheduled by a local tour operator to start upon my arrival?
Did the villagers of the Kainagunan ward, who performed the traditional Baining fire dance ritual (see my video below), risk third-degree burns just because some foreigners shelled out money to see them?
The answers, I learned, were complex.
Papua New Guinea isn’t exactly a wildly popular destination for tourists — especially American ones. In fact, Ally Stoltz of the nation’s Tourism Promotion Authority told me that roughly 7,000 Americans visit P.N.G. — a country in the southwestern Pacific about the size of California — each year. “Many places receive only a handful of visitors a month, making ‘tourist traps’ nearly impossible to find in P.N.G.,” she said.
To be sure, the island nation is still in the early stages of developing its tourism strategy — and destiny. To its credit, the P.N.G. National Cultural Commission is careful to avoid having the country explode on the mass tourism market without considering the effect such an influx could have on the idiosyncratic island’s cultural identity.
“There are those who believe that tourism is important for cultural development,” says Jacob Simet, director of the National Cultural Commission, the group that organizes the mask festival each year. “The other side of the coin is you cannot overexploit culture for the purposes of tourism,” he said. “It will kill it.”
Simet and the commission strive to keep sing-sings out of hotels and resorts through a policy dictating that tourists who want to see local traditions must journey to the village where they take place. This helps prevent these traditional displays of song and dance from feeling staged, like luaus at some Hawaiian resorts.
So why see a sing-sing at all? For me, experiencing another culture is the main reason to travel, and the prospect of witnessing a sing-sing in Papua New Guinea was a huge part of why I had journeyed there to begin with.
But since sing-sings are normally reserved for events like weddings or coming-of-age rituals, why would villagers perform them otherwise without being asked to — and without being compensated?
Think about it; it’s not as if you can travel to Israel and expect to witness a traditional wedding hora. Sing-sings are similar affairs, which means you can’t experience one without:
A) a personal invitation;
B) a special arrangement through a tour operator or public festival; or
C) a really good coincidence.
If you’re spending time and money to travel all the way to Papua New Guinea, you’re probably going to want to go with option B if you have limited time and no local contacts.
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As the five-day National Mask Festival continued, I noticed that there were many more locals in attendance than I had expected; in fact, they seemed to outnumber tourists at least 20 to 1. The performances seemed to please all spectators, native and foreign alike — though some contained elements only a local would understand. For example, one troupe, the Bitapaka Theatre Group, performed a comedy skit in the country’s principal lingua franca, Tok Pisin (commonly referred to as Pidgin), instead of dancing in traditional garb.
In one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, these kinds of festivals can be interpreted as “a mass celebration of our different cultures on one stage,” as Peter Vincent, CEO of the Tourism Promotion Authority, describes them. But, as he notes, there is a limit to how far foreigners can pull back the curtain. “We do have very unique and sacred dances and performances which are not normally performed in cultural shows.”
“Our people over time have understood and appreciated that their cultures cannot be traded in easily for cash, and they are encouraged to ensure their legends, myths, cultural and traditional values are protected at all times,” Vincent said.
Simet agrees. “Culture should be developed on its own,” he told me. “As much as possible, it should be maintained. Because once you start to lose it, it’s no good to anybody. It’s not good for tourism. It’s not good for the people who are custodians of the culture.”
Erik Trinidad may be based in Brooklyn, but he spends most of his time crisscrossing the globe in search of exotic food, high adventure, and scientific curiosities. Follow his travels on Instagram and Twitter @theglobaltrip.