Tourists Dry Up At Historic Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island, where the crew of HMS eventually landed after its mutiny, relies heavily on tourism for its survival. But the global economic recession, has tourism on the island badly.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's a tiny dot on a map. Far out in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and New Zealand sits Norfolk Island. It's a place that has beckoned visitors for its beauty and its history. Norfolk Island is where you can find many descendants of the mutineers on the HMS Bounty.

As independent producer Jake Warga discovered, in these hard times, fewer tourists are coming.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

Mr. JAKE WARGA (Independent Producer): How small is Norfolk Island? In numbers, this volcanic outcrop in the South Pacific is only 5 by 8 kilometers or about 3 by 5 miles. It's an Australian territory but over 900 miles from the continent. The only way to get here is by air, about one flight per day.

You can't get lost driving around. And though seatbelts are not required, you are required to wave at passing motorists. Usually, two fingers lifting off the top of the steering wheel, your whole hand if you recognize them.

Over the years, after whaling operations closed, the main industry on Norfolk Island became tourism.

Mr. MILES SNELLS(ph): Norfolk Island's tourism provides, I would say, 90 percent of all revenue needed to operate the island: our hospital, our schools, our roads, our welfare systems.

Mr. WARGA: Miles Snells is a Norfolk Islander, Bounty descendant, tour guide and speaker of the Legislative Assembly.

Mr. SNELLS: I've been involved in tourism now for over 40 years. This particular downturn, well, it's the worst I've ever seen.

Mr. WARGA: Because of its dependence on the bounty of visitors, Norfolk might be sort of the canary in the goldmine of global tourism as the financial storm is now hitting this tiny island in the middle of the ocean.

Mr. TERRY WATSON (General Manager, Norfolk Island Tourism Bureau): Islands could well be a perfect kind of litmus test for what is happening.

Mr. WARGA: I met with Terry Watson, the Tourism Bureau's general manager.

Mr. WATSON: The last six months have been just bloody awful, really. Just seriously ugly in terms of numbers, generally, particularly the last quarter of last year. And I've been in this game for 34 years and I've kind of seen recessions come and go. But this is really, really strange.

Mr. WARGA: From a peak of 40,000 visitors just a few years ago, they had only 29,000 last year and expecting even fewer this year. Majority of tourists come from Australia, about 30 percent come from international destinations. So what to do? Instead of just waiting out the storm, they hired a professional, a brand consultant.

Mr. MAHESHAN JERY(ph) (Brand Consultant): The brand is not just the pine trees, just the beaches, just the history, just the buildings. The brand is a sum total of everything that's here.

MR. WARGA: Maheshan Jery specializes in repositioning destinations, industry speak for please come visit. Sydney-based, he's not had a single client who hasn't been affected by the global economic crisis.

Mr. JERY: When you look at it on the map, it's a small speck in the ocean. When you come here, there's so much there in that little speck. That's the key to this destination because so much is offered in so little.

MR. WARGA: It's true. There's a lot to do here from cultural experiences like learning about island traditions, including fish fries, to activities like biking, kayaking, diving, boating, hiking, snorkeling through coral reefs. I left the destination exhausted.

Ms. RHONDA GRIFFITH(ph): The standard greeting, we say (foreign language spoken).

MR. WARGA: Norfolk Island even has their own language.

Ms. GRIFFITH: That's how are you or what way are you.

MR. WARGA: Like most residents, Rhonda Griffith wears many hats, from cultural elder to sheriff's deputy to language teacher.

Ms. GRIFFITH: The Norfolk language is a mixture of Tahitian and very old English and that, of course, comes from the mutineers on the Bounty.

MR. WARGA: Tourism revenues are not the only thing in danger on Norfolk.

Ms. GRIFFITH: Our language is very threatened and in 2008 it became - made it to the UNESCO Endangered List of Languages. And while there was much excitement about making it on this list, I find it far more exciting to think about how we're going to get ourselves off.

MR. WARGA: Language lessons are now mandatory in the schools and tourists are more than welcome to drop in and learn, too. The economy can't be all that bad. I responded to a help wanted ad in the local paper.

Mr. LINDSEY TOOLEY(ph) (Fantasy Island Resort): Welcome to Fantasy Island Resort.

MR. WARGA: Do you say that?

Mr. TOOLEY: We do. We say welcome to Fantasy Island when we meet our guests.

MR. WARGA: Lindsey Tooley runs, yes, Fantasy Island, a holiday resort in town complete with a little waterfall into the hotel pool. His ad is for a...

Mr. TOOLEY: Management couple. They're going to take over the day-to-day running of the place.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Come on over and visit us. Come on over and...

MR. WARGA: On an endnote, everyone I spoke with is optimistic that things will turn around.

Unidentified Man #2: Norfolk Island is an experience. It's a place you shouldn't miss it is one of those places you must go to before you die.

Mr. WATSON: This is a community that has evolved on a rock in the middle of the ocean. They've done it for 150 years.

Ms. GRIFFITH: (Foreign language spoken). What I said was come and visit us. You know, we'd really like to see you. We're not that far away.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Come on over and visit us. Come on over it's...

BLOCK: That story from photographer and independent producer Jake Warga. It comes to us by way of hearingvoices.com.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Coming up, the story of the Collyer brothers, real-life collectors, recluses and eccentrics told as fiction in a new novel by E.L. Doctorow. That's next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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