Photo Portfolio: The Conflict Islands

The Conflict Islands off Papua New Guinea’s south-east coast remains one of the world’s great private island groups, still held in private hands. We sent photographer Nigel Herbert to explore them with owner, Ian Gowrie-Smith.

Buying an island is so passé. What you really need is your own island chain.

So you know, you can enjoy an entire island for yourself and keep another one for the visiting riff raff.

Sarcasm aside, this is precisely what is happening in Papua New Guinea at the moment.

Serial entrepreneur Ian Gowrie-Smith has decided to sell his entire chain of islands – that’s right, not just one island but an entire coral atoll comprising some 21 islands in total.

If I was a Bond villain or Roman Abramovich, this is the island chain I would be buying.

As a journalist who has been on a number of these island visits, this one was a bit different.

Firstly, Ian (rather cheerfully) had no idea what he was doing. Whilst it is one thing to own an island, there is a big social responsibility attached to the ownership.

As Ian says, “they might be my islands, but I have a social responsibility to do something with them”.

And that means develop them. But it’s a process that must be shepherded rather than imposed. Owning these islands brings with it a cultural obligation to the local population, providing jobs and infrastructure.

With no real answer on what to do with the islands, Gowrie-Smith invited journalists from around the world to experience his islands for themselves.

With a third of the world’s tropical fish species calling these islands home, there are massive social responsibilities. Unsurprisingly, alongside the invited journalists was also a panel of experts.

The experts were there to debate the intricacies of the local customs, the ecology and the tourism potential. It was a motley collection of island brokers, marine biologists, photographers, architects, developers, Greenpeace activists and a historian.

If this all sounds a bit high-risk, it’s actually true to form. A serial entrepreneur, Gowrie-Smith has a long association with PNG.

His interests here have largely revolved around gold mining and exploration, but his real wealth came from a pharmaceutical business where Gowrie-Smith built and sold several companies in the UK, becoming the owner of the Conflict Islands group somewhere along the way.

This chain of islands is in fact a ring of islands – the mouth of a long-extinct volcano. And what a volcano – the distance between each island is a couple of kilometres, creating an enormous lagoon with a ring of islands around it.

If that doesn’t sound idyllic enough, it’s the only coral atoll in the world under private ownership that has sheltered and deep entry points. In fact, it’s deep enough to park a cruise ship in the middle of these islands.

Which is exactly what Gowrie-Smith did during our visit. He chartered the 32-room MV Oceanic Discoverer and moored it in the centre of his island chain – now that’s something Madonna and Richard Branson can’t do.

So how much will these islands cost?

More than $20 I suspect. But it will inevitably be part of a bigger deal that will allow the islands to exist and employ locals on a more regular basis – a win-win for everyone.