Meet one of Papua New Guinea's well-known tourism pioneers - Bob Bates, founder of Trans Niugini Tours

By Jonah Kei  (This article first appeared in the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority’s ‘Journeys’ magazine, Issue No. 3, Apr-Jun 2023) 

Bob Bates hails from Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia.  Though originally from the United States of America, he was born and raised in Australia.   Mr. Bates, an engineer by profession, left his country and came to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1964 at the age of 24.  Upon completing college, Mr. Bates was given a contract, by the PNG government, where he had to construct roads and bridges, build infrastructures, repair planes, and even erect mini-hydro stations, However, after completing his contract, Mr. Bates did not return to Australia; instead, he chose to remain here in PNG, and has remained here for 60 years.  

In 1976, Bob Bates founded Trans Niugini Tours in the Western Highlands township of Mount Hagen. The company started from humble beginnings, operating simple four-wheel drive adventure trips, for visiting tourists, around the PNG Highlands. Slowly Trans Niugini Tours started experiencing an influx of visitors, the company moved into more ‘mainstream’ tourism with the addition of several wilderness lodges across PNG.  In 1978 Trans Niugini Tours acquired Karawari Lodge in the lowlands of the East Sepik Province. Seven years later in 1985, the company built Ambua Lodge in the Hela Province. In 1989 Trans Niugini Tours acquired their famous 9-berth ‘floating lodge’, the Sepik Spirit.  The ship was commissioned and built in Lae City then sailed via the coast of Madang to its current home on the mighty Sepik River.  In 1991, the Malolo Plantation Lodge on the Madang North Coast was acquired and completely renovated. Bensbach Wildlife Lodge in a far corner of the Western Province was officially added to Trans Niugini’s Portfolio in 2003.  Rondon Ridge, built high in the mountains above Mount Hagen was opened in 2006 providing a luxurious introduction to Trans Niugini Tours lodges and a welcome stepping stone to civilization before departure from Mount Hagen.  Lake Murray Lodge is the latest addition to Trans Niugini Tours and was built in 2013 in the remote Western Province, on a small island in Lake Murray.

When asked if he had any future plans to expand the business portfolio, he chuckled and said he is not intending to build any more lodges.   Instead, he wanted to build a museum at his Rondon Ridge lodge and turn it into a Cultural Centre.  “I do not have any plans to expand the business. We will focus on the current seven lodges that we have and develop them to meet the demand, expectations and satisfaction of the customers,” Bates said.

Running a tourism business, just like any other business, has its challenges. Mr. Bates stated that running a tourism business is not for the fainthearted and certainly not for those who do not dare to take risks.  “To venture into the tourism industry in PNG is a very challenging and daunting task, but if you have good management skills and business acumen strategy, you can be able to grow your business from scratch to a million-kina industry,” he added.  What started as a simple four wheels drive tour of the PNG highlands, has grown into one of PNG’s largest inbound tour operators.  Now with a fleet of land vehicles, sea vessels, and even aircrafts, Mr. Bates fearless risk-taking has bore fruit in abundance. While most of the fleet is used primarily for transporting tourists to the various lodges across PNG,

Mr. Bates ensured himself a personal plane for his own adventures.  Now 84-years-old, Mr. Bates lives peacefully at his Rondon Ridge home relaxing high in the tranquility of nature.  He plans to spend the remainder of his days here in his home in Mt. Hagen. In the years to come, Bob Bates legacy will be one not easily forgotten.  In a span of 60 years (and still counting),  Mr. Bates has done so much for Papua New Guinea without most people noticing. His Wilderness Lodges, situated across some of the most remote corners of PNG, contribute greatly to all the local communities that surround his lodges. Furthermore, Mr. Bates has promoted Papua New Guinea to the world as a prospective tourist destination, by providing safe, secure, and affordable tourism services of the utmost quality.

Each of his lodges provide visitors an exceptional world-class experience, that continues to draw favorable international tourism attention to PNG.  The staff of his company, Trans Niugini Tours, consists mainly of nationals, providing employment opportunities for thousands of Papua New Guineans since 1976.  With so many years of service to Papua New Guinea, and the tourism industry, Bob Bates will be a name not easily forgotten. He will go down in PNG history as one of the nations greatest tourism pioneers, and his beautiful lodges will continue to carry on his legacy for many years.  

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