Norfolk Island – Stuck in the 1950’s

Our observation is that life on Norfolk Island is very calm and restful. It’s an easy life here with little pressure and a balmy climate. The scenery is wonderful and the whole island looks like a giant park. With all this peace and serenity, you would think that you could be back in the 1950’s.

In fact, you could think this for many reasons:

Our accommodation is quite nice, but most places on the island look like they are 1950’s style motels. There is one small 5-star resort on the island, (Gina Rinehart visited last week and left in her private jet just as we landed) but for the most part it looks like time has just passed the accommodation houses by.  The government controls the amount of tourist accommodation through regulation and because these old fashioned places won’t close, nothing new can be built.

The roads look they were last made in the 1950’s. Since then, they have just been patched.

The island has only recently gained a mobile phone service – one of the smallest cellular networks in the world. However, it’s not even 2G, let alone 4G. No data or internet connection; only voice and SMS. That is because NI Telecom is a fully owned government business and they assume that this service is all that people need. To access the Internet, you need to find one of several wifi hotspots at places around the town.

There are no streetlights on the island (except one at the crossing outside the school). It is very expensive to produce electricity, however there is not much excitement in a completely dark city area at 8.00pm.

For some reason, shops here close on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Even the banks have longer opening hours! I know that this is the start of the ‘quiet season’ but the shops are almost deserted of customers. We are not very active shoppers when we travel, unless something stand out as being unique, but there is just nothing on sales here that we would want to buy.

There are three or four swanky duty free stores in town, but they too are stuck in the 1950’s. Most of their products consist of items that no one under 80 would buy – Royal Albert dinnerware, Noritake pearls, Argyle knitwear. tea towels, tailored mens shorts and old maid’s perfumes. The most up to date shop in town is the digital camera store and their models are a couple of generations old. Who wants to buy cut crystal glassware anymore? Why duty free stores have shelf after shelf of linen (bed sheets etc) is beyond me.

There is a clear distinction here between restaurants and cafes. Cafes open in the morning and close just after lunch, while restaurants open in the evening for dinner. Tough luck if you want a late lunch, or get hungry in the afternoon.

Unless you go to a licensed restaurant or club, the only place to buy alcohol is at the government owned store. It’s only open during ‘public service hours’. There is no nightlife or activity after dark. We drove down the main street after dinner last night and the whole town was in complete darkness, except for one tiny convenience store attached to a service station.

There are over 200 properties for sale on the island, but no buyers. One of the largest (seafood) restaurants on the island was recently auctioned with not one speck of interest. They just plan to shut their doors and close down. The pizza restaurant next to our hotel has been up for sale for over two years.

Some of this is an economic problem is caused by the GFC. Elderly people, unsure how long their savings will now last, have simply stopped travelling. The high Australian dollar makes it more economical to travel to far more exciting places. The number of people in the demographic to which Norfolk Island has been attractive is declining, yet the island relies almost completely on tourism for income.

Come on you Norfolk Islanders, get out of your rut and renew your tourist offering. You can do it with your proximity to Australia, your climate and scenery – just bite the bullet, modernise and attract a greater number of more trendy and affluent young people in the same way as Lord Howe Island has done. If you don’t you’ll find it very tough – especially if flights between Australia and New Zealand become domestic flights. Who will want to go through all the international travel burden to a place that has less and less to offer.

By the way, the ship wasn’t unloaded again today. Whenever it does, I think that the entire population will be out to watch. We are off to dinner tonight at a restaurant a few kilometers away (if we can find it in the dark).

10 comments

  1. Sounds pretty grim for the future of NI. Very sad.

  2. Colin Wilson · ·

    The roads sound just like the road to Springhill.

  3. Colin Wilson · ·

    Barb, they’ll have to learn how to pay taxes like everyone else. Who do they think they are … Greeks? 🙂

  4. Thanks Bruce for the rundown… I think I’ll put Norfolk on the travel list for when I reach 80….and I’ll feel at home.
    Before you left you suspected that you would be stepping back…now you know!!!
    Sure sounds the spot for scenery and rest so it wouldn’t be all bad.
    See you on your return
    Regards
    Rob

  5. Pamela Saunders · ·

    Your photos are as ever capture the ambience of the places you visit Bruce and provide a pleasure for those of us priviledgec to see them. But what a tragedy your reflections unfold. It is hard to imagine the mind set of the community wantinf to sustain a death knell. Perhaps Gina is contemplating buying the entire Island!

    Despite the lack of night life, and ‘goods’ of any sort including food I suspect that your sojourn is relxing and provides youwith a quaint experience. Do hope you are enjoying a stress free few days and the geographic beauty of your location.

  6. Having travelled extensively around the South Pacific, and with an extensive and intimate knowledge of Norfolk Island, it is a fact that Norfolk Island is one of the most spectacular islands in the South Pacific. It has it all – history, natural beauty, World Heritage Listing, spectacular scenery, interesting Norfolk Island culture and unique language, great snorkeling in the coral reef, and over 60 unique tours and activities. Other islands do not even come close. There are also over 30 eating places at reasonable prices with great cuisine prepared by world-class chefs. The food is locally grown, fresh and organic.

    The 2G phone network is being upgraded to 3G within weeks – agreat expense for a small population of about 900 working people (others are retired or children). Accommodation houses like Cumberland Resort and Spa are more modern and luxurious than most on the mainland (www.norfolkislands.com ). Several new accommodation properties opened on Norfolk Island in the last two years including the top property The White House http://www.norfolkislandwhitehouse.com

    Accommodation property licences are easy to acquire and there is no shortage of land to build new accommodation houses.

    Many travellers come to Norfolk Island to enjoy the serenity of the place and its real beauty is that it enjoys a slower pace of life, yet is filled with things to do including first class spa, massage and treatment facilities, an ideal climate and the best & safest beaches in the world.

  7. Rael,

    I agree with you. Your accommodation at the Cumberland is very good and your hospitality is first class. The welcome we have received along with the scenery, hospitality and historical knowledge of local people has been superb. I admire your loyalty and support of your local tourism structure.

    However, having now travelled to over 55 countries around the world, we have simply concluded that we are in the wrong demographic group to fit into most of the tourism offering provided on Norfolk. I know that this is only a small community and is struggling economically but it needs to create a much more sophisticated tourist offering that attracts vibrant and younger travelers if it wants to continue to prosper.

    Our observation is simply that the shopping, quality of tours and general level of tourist infrastructure are directed to a much older age group than us (or most people who now travel to many other parts of the world). Shopkeepers tell us that the current downturn in tourism is worldwide, but on recent trips to other countries that have been hit hard by the GFC (Ireland, Iceland, Scotland, Kenya etc) tourism is flourishing. That’s because they have done a lot of work to understand what tourists with money to spend are looking for and have created ways of providing it to them.

    You are correct in saying that the restaurants on Norfolk have good quality and fresh food. However it is quite unsatisfactory for us to drive half way across the island to find that the signature dish of the restaurant for which we had a reservation (our reason for dining there) had been sold out before 7.00 pm and there were only about 12 guests in the restaurant that night. We are not used to dining in clubs where the kitchen closes at 8.00 pm or where we cannot run a tab for both drinks and food. Nor are we used to not being able to buy alcohol outside the restrictive hours of the local bond store. Most of the evening activities that we have investigated finish quite early and then we find that the most available form of entertainment after them is television.

    Most of the other tourists we have encountered are elderly, or have travelled very little. They might be happy to be patronized in the stores or on tours but younger people are not. Older people may think that it is wonderful to have a simple fish fry in a church hall, but modern travelers will demand a more atmospheric environment.

    If you are eventfully successful in attracting cruise ships to visit the island (and I really hope you are) then you had better be prepared for people with much different expectations in regards to facilities, transport, eating and shopping than those who currently travel to Norfolk.

    Thanks for a very pleasant stay and good hospitality,

    Bruce

  8. Annie Kenny · ·

    We have been taking family holidays to various places for several years. The kids have enjoyed the wildly busy New York, culturally complex S-E Asia, etc, but the one place our teen asks to go to EVERY YEAR is Norfolk Island. She seems to osmotically process the scenery, Emily Bay and geese on the Common – unusual for a teenager. Such a relief to find a quiet, friendly place to visit year after year where family values are respected and the Islanders are inclusive and welcoming. Our vote over any other place will always be Norfolk Island. Each to their own!

  9. Stu F · ·

    There is no doubt you have to adjust when you go to Norfolk. You have to adjust to the huge night sky, so many stars light the sky that you feel they might fall down upon you, coming from an Aussie city the night sky will startle you. If only there were a few more street lights to take the sparkle out of those stars. You have to adjust to the shore line, not a multi storey high rise 5 star hotel in sight, you can only see an endless sea scape. You feel as if you are at sea, ocean all around you with only wheeling sea birds flashing by. A five star hotel might even plant some coconut palms as the island is also sadly lacking those as well. Although if you walk through the 100 acre reserve you might see a very rare Norfolk Palm that only grows on this island spec in this vast ocean. While you are there watch out for those terns who annoyingly glue their eggs to the branches of the huge Norfolk Island Pines while they flash through the rain forests at incredible speeds. Why would they leave so much rain forrest on an Island like this when it could be more like the Gold Coast, another example of silly old fashion ideas. While we are talking about old things why would they leave those convict buildings undeveloped in Kingston. A multitude of condo’s and brightly lit upmarket stores could take the place of the quiet ruins of the convict past. Having a BBQ with behind these rough hewn walls on soft grass is a poor substitute to a coffee in a Starbucks who could put a franchise in the 1836 convict gaol. I wasn’t around in the 1950’s but if it was anything like the present Norfolk Island I guess I am lucky.

  10. Stuart,

    Thank you for leaving a comment on my website. I appreciate people taking the time to provide information or express an opinion.

    I assume you are a Norfolk Islander and I respect the enormous amount of pride that you, and your fellow local people, have in your home. I read your comments with interest, but I have to say that I think they are overly sarcastic and not at all relevant to the comments that I made about about my time on Norfolk Island.

    If you read all of my blog entries in context you will see that I fully acknowledged the physical beauty and history of the island, along with the friendliness that we were provided by everyone. We enjoyed these immensely when we visited. It was very pleasant to walk through the National Park and stroll along Emily Bay. it was fascinating to spend a lot of time at Kingston. Any of your suggestions that I would want to see coconut palms on the island, replicate the Gold Coast or interfere with the historical areas around Kingston are simply silly.

    My comments about Norfolk Island being stuck in the 1950’s relate instead to the level of sophistication of your tourism infrastructure. Perhaps as a young thinking person, I expected activities that would relate more to me than they do to the very much older set of tourists that Norfolk seems to attract. Norfolk may be comfortable in providing facilities and services that are mainly appropriate to people on walking frames, but as more ‘worldy’ younger people with a broader travel experience become the norm, I feel that Norfolk is under equipped to compete with other tourist destinations – especially when tourism is your major source of income. 

    For example,  I can see very little in he way of facilities that would attract my kids and my grandchildren to Norfolk. When I looked around at other tourists during my visit, there were no young families with children or middle aged couples. These are the people who have money to spend and will, in the future, form the bulk of tourists travelling the world. These are the type of people to which your tourism offering needs to appeal to. Having wonderful nature and history is one thing, but there is a need to wrap this in a more effective infrastructure and modern facilities.

    These younger people do not want to go to stores like those on Norfolk Island that have stock that is so outdated. Who wants to buy film cameras anymore and a sales offer of a free film with every camera sold is simply irrelevant. No one under the age of 70 wants to buy much of the stuff that your duty free stores still sell. 

    Younger people, nor I, do not want to stay in basic and old fashioned motel accommodation. We want to stay in modern accommodation that has a bar for an evening drink, a nice restaurant and modern facilities. This does not mean that you have to destroy the environment to create such a place. We have found superb examples of Eco friendly facilities all around the world that combine modern facilities with the environment.

    Younger tourists want easy connections to the Internet and the world. I found it much easier to connect to the Internet in Kenya than I did on Norfolk; and Kenya is very much a third world country.

    I might have found that having one street light on  the island as something of a novelty, but to find that everything was shut by 8:00 pm, and the most available form of evening entertainment for me as a tourist was to watch television is not very fulfilling. I can watch TV at home in the evening, when I am away I would like to do something that is connected to local life and culture.   I must admit that I am not a great fan of the ‘club type of environment’ but when the RSL and the Bowls Club are the main places to go out to to eat, and they close up at 8:00 pm,  it doesn’t make a holiday very interesting or exciting.

    It is also very frustrating to go to one of the nice restaurants that you have for a special occasion, only to find that by 7:00 pm they have sold out of the dish that was our prime reason for eating there. Where else in the world has a restaurant runs out of the main item on their menu at 7:00 pm? This just makes Norfolk Island look amateurish.

    I don’t normally drive on roads that are so poorly maintained that the speaker cover in the door of  my rental car falls off and the glovebox wont stay shut. 

    I could go on, but I am only repeating the things that I have already mentioned in my blog posts. Nowhere have I been offhanded about the natural beauty of Norfolk or its culture. My comments relate to those facilities that are provided for tourists like me. These are pretty much old fashioned, but also are the things that would improve Norfolk’s attractiveness to younger tourists in the future.

    Regards,

    Bruce Wilson