A SHARP increase in the number of Australians seeking to walk the Kokoda Trail in recent years has opened up the market to a herd of unethical cowboys, the industry has warned.
So concerned have some established tour operators become that last year eight companies began working with the Federal Government on a code of ethics for Australian-based trek providers, with duty of care towards their clients the No.1 priority.
A spokesman for the chairman of the recently established Kokoda Ethics Committee, Aidan Grimes, said some operators were taking as many as 100 Australians through the 96-kilometre, 8½-day trek at a time, compromising the trekkers' safety and adding to the degradation of the track.
"The problem is, nobody finds out [an operator] is doing the wrong thing until things go pear-shaped," the spokesman, Damian Milo, said. "Not all operators are carrying appropriate emergency supplies or a means of communication on the track, and they don't have procedures set in place so if something happens they are able to solve the problem without risk of further injury."
In the past week an unusually high number of medical evacuations have been made from the Kokoda Trail, including the body of 36-year-old Samantha Killen, who is believed to have suffered dehydration just a day into walking the track.
The operator Ms Killen was trekking with was unable to be reached by telephone yesterday. However the company, which began operating in 2006, says on its website that the safety of customers comes first. "We believe it is our job to ensure that you are sufficiently prepared to undertake this challenge mentally and physically," the company said.
The chief executive of the Kokoda Track Authority, Rod Hillman, said the health and safety of trekkers was the responsibility of the tour operators and not the authority, but it was nevertheless working with the industry on the new code of ethics.
But Warren Bartlett, the authority's former executive, said there needed to be an improved co-ordination system over the whole track as more Australians flock to the area, particularly with Anzac Day approaching. He said the Australian and PNG governments have signed a joint understanding over providing infrastructure and management of the track.