Dili and Chur, July 2016
Written by Barbara Haller Rupf
To say it straight away, international leisure tourism in the 'classical sense' is actually non-existent in Timor Leste today. The nearly 100,000 annual overnight stays consist of business and domestic tourism. The latter guests are mainly international expatriates who are still stationed in the country. They spend their weekends on diving spots and sporadically in mountain areas. However, the number of expatriates has been falling since 2010, and consequently the number and income of inbound travel agencies decreased.
During my stay in Dili and its surrounding areas in June 2016, I had the chance to get my own impression of the situation based on observations, trips and talks to residents. As an advisory board member of SCOPE ASIA and its expert for tourism I will insert the findings to upcoming projects in the field of tourism.
The tropical island Timor Leste has a great potential to turn tourism into an important source of income and support of the regional economy. To exploit this potential, tourism has to be developed in a sustainable way, considering the three dimensions economy, ecology, and society and build up a network of all main stakeholders, especially the local population. Several negative examples show that this is anything but easy.
On the very first morning of my stay I received an impression of the inexistence of the network between tour operators and locals. I joined a tour of a diving school which is operated by Australians and Europeans. Beside me about fourteen people joined the tour, most of them members of the US Navy. By minibus we went just a few kilometers out of town, to dive at the reef close to the beach. Beside sports equipment the diving instructors brought drinks and snacks with them as a part of our arrangement. We parked next to a street stall of a Timorese family. Unfortunately, the two groups – divers and Timorese family – remained separated during our whole stay and there was no communication between them. Although nearly twenty people were there, the locals did not make any sales with the divers and weren’t able to benefit from the situation at all.
A few days later I received the opportunity to conduct an interview with the management of the diving school and to ask them about their cooperation with locals. The school, which also rents guest rooms, employs Timorese drivers, kitchen and hotel staff and one local is working in the administration. The local employees receive English lessons and the diving school is regularly involved in beach clean-ups and awareness campaigns for the protection of the reef and the beaches. My interviewee seemed not only to be engaged for their own business, but also for the environment and the living conditions of local people. However, the talk also showed that suppliers like this diving school are barely linked with locals.
These and many other examples disclosed clear strengths and weaknesses of tourism in Timor Leste. Unique is definitely the "tourist virginity" of the island: on the one hand, the beaches and the reef, on the other hand the high mountains up to 3000 meters a.s.l. with their amazing trekking opportunities. Furthermore, there are the incredibly diverse culture and friendly people. This potential is hardly used today, only a few diving and trekking providers are based in Dili and their marketing barely consists much beyond a website and a mention in the ‘Lonely Planet’. Furthermore, there is a big lack of tourist and general infrastructure, e.g. traveling on the mostly gravel roads is very dangerous in many ways. However, the biggest demand on the operating site of tourism are human resources and their appropriate training opportunities.
At the moment, there are several governmental, privately, and NGO based institutions who offer education and training in the field of tourism and hospitality (see report of Manfred Pfiffner). However, there is a lack of management and strategic education and often the training content is not well adapted to the needs of the industry. One exception to be mentioned is ETDA (East Timor Development Agency) who offers application-oriented programs along international standards.
In Timor Leste the "last adventure" waits for experienced travelers. But there also tempt attractive investment opportunities, e.g. beach resorts, investors from all over the world to realize profits from the expanding world tourism. Predominantly interesting for Timor Leste are the near target markets Australia and East Asia, especially China. Here probably lies the greatest risk facing the young state: a master plan for spatial planning should be worked out and protected areas have to be designed and protected by law urgently. Otherwise, the best places will be taken and managed by foreign investors and a large part of the revenues from incomes and net product will drain away from Timor Leste.
To summarize, to establish tourism as an important pillar for the regional economy as well as a job provider for the rapidly growing, young population, Timor Leste needs a tourism strategy and appropriate policies which are supported by the main stakeholders. At the same time, large investment in the education system and training of professionals is needed and last but not least the tourism of the island must be strengthened and interconnected as a whole sector.
But wherefrom could the funds for tourism development come? “From today's oil revenues”, postulates Alfredo Pires, Minister for Petroleum and Mineral Resources of Timor-Leste in his ‘after oil’ policy. "We sell oil as only an engine of growth, and to invest in the non-oil sector.”
After my visit to Timor Leste I am even more motivated to bring in my personal knowledge as well as my tourism network. My goal is that Timor Leste can live of its natural wealth thanks to a holistic and sustainable development and one day tourism is an important pillar for the regional economy.
Thanks to those who enabled my stay and this report. Above all, Barbara Lietz and whose tireless engagement for Timor Leste. Likewise, hers two local employees, Januario Carvalho, Country Director SCOPE ASIA TIMOR and Dahlia Bernardo, Personal Assistant of Barbara Lietz. They assisted me with their valuable inside knowledge, organized interesting conversations, and came to meet my wishes whenever possible.
Precious were the semi-structured interviews with the following institutions and people (in order of discussions): East Timor Development Agency ETDA, Palmira Pires (CEO); Alfredo Pires, Minister of Petroleum; Dili Institute of Technology DIT, Agustinus Nohak (Dean); Don Bosco Training Centre, Manuel Pinto (principal); Eco Discovery Tours, Maria Dos Reis Noronha (Manager), Dive Timor Lorosae, Virginie Montaner (Operation Manager)
And last but not least provided the master thesis of Eleni Karametaxas valuable preliminary information for me.
About Barbara Haller Rupf: